March 3, 2014
Best Catcher Defense/Catcher Arm
Scouts spend countless hours watching and evaluating players, carefully considering the appropriate grade for each tool or each pitch a player offers. Throughout the course of the season and particularly throughout the course of ranking season, grades are tossed around with near reckless abandon. This player has plus power, and that player has a below-average fastball. This player offers above-average hit projection while that player buries hitters with a potential plus-plus curveball. It's easy to talk about the quality of an individual tool, but what does it all mean in the context of other players?
In the second edition of the annual Top Tools Series, the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff debated long and hard over how individual players’ tools stack up against those of their counterparts. Drawing upon our own eyewitness accounts and opinions from scouts across the league, the team debated and compiled the following ratings. The end result is a product that captures the oft-missing context of how individual player tools compare and who has the best of each tool in baseball.
Top Catcher Defense in the Minor Leagues: Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres)
Others Considered: Jorge Alfaro (Texas Rangers), Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves), Reese McGuire (Pittsburgh Pirates), Christian Vasquez (Boston Red Sox)
All-Time Tool: Johnny Bench
How to Identify It: Scouting a catcher’s defense is a tough task that takes time. I have had the privilege of watching a lot of baseball with a former big-league backstop over the years, and he broke down the basic catching equation for me: Catch ball, block ball, throw ball. There is so much more to look at other than throwing out runners and controlling the run game. How still can the catcher keep his glove while receiving a pitch, especially when he's catching a pitcher who has a lot of movement on his pitches? A quiet glove not only helps the pitcher, but it's also a good building block for a solid framing tool down the line. The ability to block balls in the dirt is also important. Again, there is more to this than just dropping down and getting the body in position to smother the ball. Being able to control the ball once it's blocked is huge. It’s one thing to drop and block and hope for the best, but it's quite another if the player can consistently keep the ball close. This can be the difference in keeping the runners from advancing, but it's also good sign that the catcher has soft hands and good footwork.
When assessing throws, look for catchers who keep the footwork short and moving toward the target. Reaching for the ball during a transfer can make footwork long and slow down pop times. Seeing how the catcher works with the pitcher is another key to the equation. If the pitcher shakes him off regularly, or if there are a lot of mound visits, that can shed light on the relationship. The catcher needs to be prepared not only by knowing his pitchers and how they like to attack hitters, but also knowing his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Body language is another factor. The catcher is the leader on the field, and eyes are always on him. Whether things are going his way or not, maintaining positive body language buoys the entire team. Because there's so much to watch for, scouting the catcher accurately often takes more than a few looks. —Chris King
Top Catcher Arm in the Minor Leagues: Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves)
Others Considered: Jorge Alfaro (Texas Rangers), Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres), Francisco Mejia (Cleveland Indians), Stryker Trahan (Arizona Diamondbacks), Christian Vasquez (Boston Red Sox), Justin O'Conner (Tampa Bay Rays)
All-Time Tool: Ivan Rodriguez
How to Identify It: For decades, a catcher’s raw arm strength has been gauged by the time it takes for the ball to travel from the catcher to the second base bag, measured by the audible “pop” made by the mitt of the catcher and the glove of the defender covering second base on the throw down. Major-league average pop times come in at around 1.9 to 2.0 seconds. The following grading system lays out the scale in its entirety:
One can glean information about a catcher’s raw arm strength by measuring his pop time between innings or during pregame drills, though one needs in-game measurements to verify the overall proficiency of the raw strength. While the bulk of the grade will revolve around the above scale, other factors play into a scout’s final assessment. The catcher’s lower half, specifically his feet, aid in transforming him from receiver to thrower and should therefore display smooth actions throughout the process. After reception, the catcher should leap from the balls of his feet into throwing position by “replacing” his left foot with his right foot and aiming his left foot toward second base while transferring the ball from his glove to his throwing hand, maintaining balance throughout. The transfer should occur at or near the catcher’s rear (right) shoulder to encourage a short arm stroke and quick release.
Once the transfer of the ball to the throwing hand is complete, the catcher’s front shoulder should remain perpendicular to the second base bag to mitigate the effects of his body flying open and creating arm-side tail on the throw. Throws with high amounts of tail will often force the receiver into the path of the runner, a trait that is clearly undesirable for numerous reasons. If all of the above characteristics are met and some modicum of arm strength is present, the throw should appear to be on a downward plane and remain in line with the receiver at second base. In young catchers below the major-league level, raw arm strength is the desired commodity. Developmental systems can teach the proper fundamentals to allow the arm strength to play in game action. —Ethan Purser
Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.