MLB Draft 2014: The hazards of the high school catcher

Joe Mauer has been the most successful catcher out of high school in over two decades - Call to the Pen

Drafting a high school player is a gamble due to their long developmental timelines. However one position just may be riskier than them all.

One of the main factors that scouting directors take into account while evaluating a draft prospect is proximity to the big leagues. Unlike basketball and football, baseball players' developmental path often consists of more than a thousand minor league at-bats spread over a handful of years. Intuitively, high school players in the draft often have a longer developmental timeline than the collegiate athletes who are two to four years their seniors. The average age for a player's debut is right around 24.4 years old, meaning that high school draftees can take as many as six years to work through the minor leagues.

However, the developmental path is very different for each position. Pitchers are being pushed and promoted at a faster clip recently, and a wave of young shortstops is about to emerge. On the opposite side of that spectrum lie catchers. Catching is a skill position that takes years to hone. It often times takes years for catchers to mature into the position, learning the ins and outs of pitch calling and handling a staff. New research shows exactly how important defensive skills are behind the plate. Catchers like Salvador Perez are becoming more and more valuable despite Perez's 103 wRC+.

As catching evolves into a more defense oriented position, we see more prospects being moved off the position. Offensive production is no longer a substitute for defensive chops. Those offensive catchers are being transitioned to outfield or first base in order to expedite their timelines. This spring, the Diamondbacks told prospect Stryker Trahan that he would no longer be catching. Farm director Mike Bell told Arizona Central that his defense was beginning to hold his offense back.

Bryce Harper caught his entire amateur career before the Nationals drafted him as an outfielder. Wil Myers caught for two years in the minors before transitioning to outfield in order to get his bat to the majors quicker. Joey Votto, Paul Konerko, and Jayson Werth were all drafted as catchers. The Twins moved franchise player Joe Mauer out from behind the backstop this spring in order maximize his offensive value.

While all of these anecdotes make it seem rare that a high school catcher ends up behind the dish, it's easy to find data with Baseball-Reference's Draft Tool. To find how effective drafting high school catchers in the first few rounds truly has been, we'll tally up the Wins Above Replacement of players drafted as catchers over the past few decades.

We'll ignore all picks since 2010 in hopes of giving them necessary time to develop. From 2004-2009, there were nine high school catchers drafted in the first round. Those nine have produced exactly 14 wins, which isn't pitiful unless you realize that Neil Walker accounts for 11.2 of those. That very same Neil Walker hung up the tools of ignorance just a year and a half after being drafted.

The 1999-2004 class of catchers looks far more respectable, with 63.2 wins on the board spread amongst seven catchers. Subtract the nine wins from first baseman Daric Barton and that group is left with 54.1 wins produced over six true catchers. One of those six is Joe Mauer, who accounts for 44.7 of those wins.

In the second round, things look even bleaker for high school catchers. Only two catchers have amassed over ten wins since 1995, and one of those is Joey Votto. Discounting Votto, from 1995-2010, there were 27 catchers drafted, producing 42.1 wins. Even that number is skewed by Brian McCann's 23.9 rWAR. Including McCann, second round high school catchers have produced an average of 1.56 wins.  Not including McCann, that'd be 0.7 wins on average.

There has been one true catcher to provide positive WAR out of the third round in the past 20 years, and that's A.J Pierzynski.

High School Catchers In the Draft

Num Name Year Drafted Career fWAR Round Drafted
1 Brian McCann 2002 29.9 2
2 Jarrod Saltalamacchia 2003 8.0 1
3 A.J Pierzynski 1994 24.6 3
4 Derek Norris 2007 3.8 4
5 Travis d'Arnaud 2007 -0.2 1
6 Devin Mesoraco 2007 1.9 1

So if very few catchers in the majors are highly drafted high school catchers, where are they all coming from? Of the 33 catchers who have accrued 100+ plate appearances, fourteen were drafted out of college and thirteen were signed internationally. That means six were drafted out of high school.

As our focus shifts toward this year’s draft, let’s consider the candidates to be drafted in the first three rounds this year, based on rankings from Baseball Prospectus' Nick J Faleris. Alex Jackson, Chase Vallot, Jakson Reetz, KJ Harrison, JJ Schwarz, and Evan Skoug make the cut.

Only Reetz and Harrison look like good candidates to stick behind the dish, according to Faleris. From scouting reports, it can be reasoned that the main reason scouts are giving them a good shot to stick behind the plate is athleticism. "Developing a catcher’s skillset requires more athleticism from the player than any other position," said one scout.

A catcher reaching the big leagues requires a multitude of factors to go as planned. One important factor is the patience of an organization to allow a catcher to develop his defensive skills. Another is the maintenance of health and athleticism over the grind that squatting for hundreds of innings brings. That coupled with offensive development, makes finding an apt catcher who survived the developmental path extremely tough.

All of the aforementioned challenges apply to a catcher drafted out of high school, as well as the fact that they are three years behind their collegiate counterparts. This leads to the reasonable conclusion that drafting a high school athlete in the high rounds of the draft and expecting that catcher to stick to the position is an imprudent gamble. Drafting a player like Evan Skoug in hopes that his offensive prowess would play more valuable due to the fact that he is a catcher is a rash decision. The odds are against Skoug donning the tools of ignorance in a Major League game; chances are he is injured, burns out, or changes position. Herein lies the difficulty in drafting a high school catcher.

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Daniel Schoenfeld is a contributor to Beyond The Box Score.

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