Baseball is tremendously vast and multifaceted. There are innumerable ways to enjoy the game. You can root for a team in MLB, KBO, the Atlantic League, or your local middle school. You can study pitching mechanics, nineteenth century rule changes, finance, or prospects. You may prefer to evaluate players on batting average, xwOBAcon, team wins, funny GIFs, or facial hair. Maybe baseball is just the means by which you try to impress your boss, reconnect with your daughter, or remember a friend.
It doesn’t matter why, how, when, where, or with whom you appreciate baseball. All are baseball fans, and that is beautiful.
One nexus at which several subsets of fans converge is the MLB draft. It’s a graduation for college and high school fans and nigh a holiday for prospect hounds. Even casual MLB fans pay attention to who their favorite teams acquire. The historically-inclined among us will compare first overall picks of yore, which brings us to Adley Rutschman.
Rutschman is a six-foot-two, 216-pound, switch-hitting catcher from Oregon State. He’s currently slashing .427/.584/.772 with 16 home runs, and is regarded as a top-notch defensive backstop as well. Basically, he’s the perfect catching prospect. FanGraphs describes him as such:
“Excellent defensive catcher with current all-fields doubles power and tremendous feel for contact. Other than speed, could end up with all 55s and 60s.”
Given such glowing reviews around the baseball Internet, Rutschman is widely expected to be selected by the Orioles with the number one overall pick. This will put him in rare company.
The last 17 top overall draft picks include eight pitchers, six shortstops, and three outfielders. There isn’t a whole lot of positional diversity at number one. No catcher has been selected at the top since Joe Mauer, and after him the drought reaches back to 1975. Here are all the only four top overall catchers ever picked:
- Joe Mauer, 2002, 55.0 bWAR
- Danny Goodwin, 1971 and 1975, -1.7 bWAR
- Mike Ivie, 1970, 7.3 bWAR
- Steven Chilcott, 1966, no MLB experience
Honorable mention should be given to B.J. Surhoff, who was drafted as a shortstop in 1985 but immediately became a catcher in the minors and thereafter, the majors. Even including Surhoff, this is a short, unexceptional list. Mauer is a potential Hall of Famer, but the volatility of catching prospects has prevented anyone else in recent history from ascending to the top of the draft.
Since 2000, only seven catchers have been selected in the top five overall: Joey Bart (#2 in 2018), Mike Zunino (#3 in 2012), Jeff Clement (#3 in 2005), Kyle Schwarber (#4 in 2014), Tony Sanchez (#4 in 2009), Buster Posey (#5 in 2008), and Matt Wieters (#5 in 2007).
Through May 20, 2019 there have been 19,511 players in MLB history. Only 98 of them have been switch-hitters who played the majority of their games at catcher— 0.5 percent. Rutschman is almost certain to be the 99th (unless someone else beats him to it).
Of course, not all 98 of these players had significant careers. Only 61 of them played at least 100 MLB games. Just 12 accumulated 10.0 bWAR. Nine of them reached 100 home runs. Improbably, seven have been active in 2019: Wieters, Yasmani Grandal, Tucker Barnhart, Sandy León, Blake Swihart, Andrew Knapp, and Francisco Mejía.
While there are no switch-hitting catchers in the Hall of Fame, there are a few borderline candidates:
- Ted Simmons: 50.3 bWAR, 42.6 JAWS (10th overall among catchers)
- Wally Schang: 48.0 bWAR, 37.8 JAWS (17th overall among catchers)
- Jorge Posada: 42.8 bWAR, 37.7 JAWS (18th overall among catchers)
Orioles Top Picks
2019 will be just the second time the Orioles pick at the top of the draft since its inception in 1965. The first time was in 1989 when they selected right-hander Ben McDonald. He enjoyed a successful nine-year career in which he amassed 20.8 bWAR (13.7 in seven seasons with Baltimore).
Far and away, the two best first round picks in franchise history were Mike Mussina (82.8 bWAR, 20th overall pick in 1990) and Bobby Grich (71.1 bWAR, 19th overall pick in 1967). Those two might be challenged eventually by the third overall pick in 2010: Manny Machado.
The team last selected a catcher in the first round in 2007 when they snagged Wieters. The best first round “catcher” they ever drafted was Jayson Werth in 1997. However, he was traded away while still a prospect, then played the outfield exclusively during his 15-year career.
You may have noticed one common denominator throughout all these comparisons. Matt Wieters, a switch-hitting catcher selected by the Orioles with a top five pick, never quite lived up to his potential. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him the number one overall prospect prior to the 2009 season. Even though he made four All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves during his eight seasons in Baltimore, his .256/.318/.421 slash line fell short of his astronomic expectations. These days, he backs up Yadier Molina on the Cardinals.
Fair or not, Rutschman will inevitably draw Matt Wieters comparisons. He’ll also draw similarly lofty projections to those who have succeeded at the Major League level. Any player in the draft would be thrilled to have the kind of career Wieters has put together, but much more will be expected of Rutschman. For Baltimore’s sake, hopefully he’ll become the kind of star to whom all of baseball genuflects, no matter what kind of fan you are.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983