I've been writing about the Rays draft prospects a lot lately. The list is coated with high school catchers. My curious side got to working and wondered how catchers drafted in the first three rounds have fared in the majors, so let's take a look.
I used the draft classes from 1998 through 2003; the last year in which a HS catcher in the top three rounds has already reached the majors. I included everyone drafted as a catcher and used FanGraphs career WAR. The list has some guys like Justin Morneau, Daric Barton, and Joey Votto who quickly moved off the position, but remember, they were drafted as backstops. If you draft Tommy Joseph at 30 and in six years he's Justin Morneau, that's a pretty fair trade.
So let's slice these 55 backstops up and answer some questions, shall we?
Collegiate or prep?
23 of our catchers were from college. The best of the bunch is Brandon Inge with a 14.3 career WAR, the worst? Dane Sardinha with -0.7. 11 of these players never recorded a major league at-bat, and 15 finished with less than 100. The average WAR of this group is 1.57.
Our high schoolers are lead by two of the best catchers in the land; Joe Mauer (22.4 WAR) and Brian McCann (16.3). In fact, the high schoolers have the three best overall players by WAR when you include Morneau. The average WAR amongst these 33? 2.29, but when you ignore Mauer that number drops to 1.65, almost identical to the collegiate group.
First round or later?
Our talent pool ranges from the first overall pick to the 104th. Let's chop these up by sets of 30 and see if there's something to the idea that first round catchers are always busts.
Top 30 picks: 7 qualified, average 3.4 WAR
31-60 picks: 19 qualified, average 1.98 WAR
61-90 picks: 20 qualified, average 2.03 WAR
91+ picks: 9 qualified, average 0.83 WAR
Top 30 catchers are awesome right? Well, until you take Mauer out, then they drop to 0.23 average WAR. Yeah, that certainly doesn't point towards success. The top 30 catchers of this class should send thank you cards to Eric Munson and Daric Barton for providing the only two top 30 receivers to make it to the majors as such. The Rays second round pick seems to be the proverbial hotbed for getting good catchers, but in reality Justin Morneau inflates that total by quite a bit. The same cannot be said for 61-90, which features a ton of pros like Inge, Laird, Votto, Saltalamacchia, Bowen, and Doumit.
Are teams getting better at evaluating catching talent?
Let's see how this works by year.
2003: 10 qualified, average 0.57 WAR
2002: 6 qualified, average 4.75 WAR
2001: 7 qualified, average 3.96 WAR
2000: 9 qualified, average -0.01 WAR
1999: 15 qualified, average 2.05 WAR
1998: 8 qualified, average 2.21 WAR
It's tough trying to read through the statistical noise, but it doesn't appear like that's the case, although the catching talent pool has seemingly gotten better top end returns with the additions of Mauer and McCann. You could argue that the fact that Morneau and McCann weren't top 10 picks indicates that teams clearly are still wondering how to decipher who's going to be a good catcher or not, much like every other position. Erik Manning used Rally's WAR numbers and found that first round catchers drafted from 1990-1999 averaged 0.8 WAR. That differs from FanGraphs a bit, but if the 30th overall pick in a weak draft contributes 0.8 WAR in his major league career, it was probably an okay pick.
The most difficult aspect of summarizations like this is the selection bias involved. These players likely deserved to be drafted within the first three rounds as catchers. They were probably the best of the best of their draft class. This is supposedly a weak crop of talent, but it is loaded with prep catchers. Even if the Rays go another route at 30, don't be surprised if they go with a high school catcher in the second round. Let's just hope they hit on the next Chris Snyder or Brian McCann instead of Steven Lerud or Gabe Johnson.
Here's the complete table of catchers evaluated, listed alphabetically.