April 23, 2019

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How the Slugging Catcher Became an Endangered Species in the Majors

How the Slugging Catcher Became an Endangered Species in the Majors
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This may simply be a down cycle; Baseball America ranked seven catchers among its top 100 prospects this season, the most since 2012. Then again, that crop from seven years ago — Travis d’Arnaud, Yasmani Grandal, Devin Mesoraco, Jesus Montero, Wilin Rosario, Gary Sanchez and Swihart — has not yielded many stars.

Neal Huntington, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager, said the rise of year-round amateur baseball could be burning out catching prospects; the relentless physical demands, he said, do not help developing hitters. If a catching prospect shows a promising bat, he added, talent evaluators may want him to change positions. (Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ new $330 million outfielder, was a catcher as an amateur.)

“The guy who may be a midrange defender but can swing the bat a little bit, we may be thinking about shifting him out from behind home plate because we want the bat to play — and we’ve become so strict on receiving analytics that we’re almost unforgiving in some cases,” Huntington said.

“So we’ve shifted the pendulum way to the defensive side because we recognize the value it brings. There’s also value in that guy who can receive and hit, but that guy who’s an exceptional receiver, he gets the benefit of the doubt every single time, and we’ve been able to quantify that. So the guys that used to kind of fade away are now hanging around longer.”

Mathis was not the only veteran catcher to receive a multiyear deal in free agency. Kurt Suzuki, 35, got a two-year, $10 million contract in November from the Washington Nationals, who did not stop there. Ten days later, they traded for Yan Gomes, an All-Star catcher for Cleveland last season.

Suzuki — who caught 141 games for Oakland in 2008, his first full season in the majors — said he was happy to share the role. The same analytics wave that identifies and values catchers’ defense also makes the job more demanding because of the volume of information to process before games.

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