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March 3, 2014

Top Tools

Best Catcher Defense/Catcher Arm

by Mark Anderson and BP Prospect Staff

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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.

Previous entries: Best Hit/Power | Best Speed/Makeup | Best Infield Defense/Infield Arm | Best Outfield Defense/Outfield Arm

Catcher Defense

Top Catcher Defense in the Minor Leagues: Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres)
Scouts have a hard time criticizing Hedges’ defensive abilities. Armed with a plus-plus arm, exceptional game intelligence, and a knack for all the other requirements of the position, Hedges is easily the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues and has the potential to become the best defensive catcher in baseball. Despite his youth, Hedges is already a polished receiver and blocker and manages his pitching staff well, sending his catch-and-throw potential nearly off the charts. Hedges’ defensive abilities already rate extremely well overall, and he could actually continue to improve with game experience. That’s a scary thought for his future major-league opponents.

Others Considered: Jorge Alfaro (Texas Rangers), Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves), Reese McGuire (Pittsburgh Pirates), Christian Vasquez (Boston Red Sox)
Hedges' closest competitor is Atlanta’s Christian Bethancourt, an extremely confident—arguably cocky—player with elite arm strength, quick feet that lead to quality blocking, and improving receiving skills. Bethancourt is held back by the overall inconsistency in his game and his apparent willingness to take plays off behind the plate. His potential is obvious, but there is still development to be done. Jorge Alfaro and Christian Vasquez can both boast potential plus-plus defensive profiles, but in the case of Alfaro the game still has to slow down and come to him more, while Vasquez simply needs more high-level experience to refine his game. The youngest and least experienced player on this list, Reese McGuire, has a case for inclusion that centers on his defensive projection more than his present game skills. McGuire could jump all other contenders and challenge Hedges for the top spot by this time next year.

Top Major League Catcher Defense: Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals)

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

Catcher Arm

Top Catcher Arm in the Minor Leagues: Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves)
Already complimented as one of the premier defensive catchers in the minor leagues, Bethancourt’s true calling card is his astounding arm strength. Backed by lightning-quick feet and a rapid release, Bethancourt can pump throws that rank among the best of all time. I've seen Bethancourt pop in the 1.62-1.65 range, which qualifies as an easy 80 (see table below). Bethancourt can be a little inconsistent with his effort, but when he gets after it, the results are extremely impressive.

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)
As with the top defensive catchers, the rest of this list is dominated by Alfaro, Hedges, and Vasquez. Alfaro has the strongest case to take the top spot from Bethancourt, with several scouts, including our own Jason Parks, offering obscene accounts of his arm strength. Stryker Trahan and Francisco Mejia can both flash plus-plus arms but lack the consistent footwork and release to allow the arm to play to that degree at all times. One scout who saw O'Conner—the Rays' first-round pick from 2010—in the Fall League said his arm was stronger than Bethancourt's and awarded him the only 80 grade he's ever given a catcher arm.

Top Major League Catcher Arm: Salvador Perez (Kansas City Royals)

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:

Grade

Pop Time (in seconds)

80: Elite

Sub-1.7

70: Plus-Plus

1.7-1.8

60: Plus

1.8-1.9

50: Average

1.9-2.0

40: Below Avg.

2.0-2.1

30: Well Below Avg.

2.1-2.2

20: Poor

2.2-2.3

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.

Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mark's other articles. You can contact Mark by clicking here

Related Content:  Scouting,  Minor Leagues,  Catchers,  Tools

7 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

tlheard12

I seen/heard that A.J. Jimenez has a great arm, but is the rest of the approach lacking (footwork, transfer, etc.)?

Mar 03, 2014 04:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Mark Anderson
BP staff

Jimenez's arm is very good. I saw him quite a bit last year as he was still coming back from TJ surgery and gave it a future 6. I could see a scenario where he exceeds that projection at full strength, but not by enough that he's suddenly in the coversation with guys like Betancourt, Alfaro, and Hedges.

Mar 03, 2014 05:17 AM
 
deejaysurreal

Love this stuff guys. I could eat this all day and never get sick of it.

Mar 03, 2014 07:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Rounding3rd

deejaysurreal,
I'm with you! Would love to see a deeper dive into catcher skills!

Mar 05, 2014 17:58 PM
rating: 0
 
jonjacoby

I always remember Benito Santiago with the best MLB catcher's arm of my lifetime. The way he would gun down runners not from the squat but basically from his knees.

Now with the increased focus on pitch-framing, I wonder if scouts have adjusted how they scout catchers. It has to be hard to scout a catcher's framing ability while sitting behind the plate rather than from a head-on perspective.

Mar 03, 2014 08:47 AM
rating: 0
 
canada

What were Pudge's peak pop times roughly? (nice alliteration)

Mar 03, 2014 10:02 AM
rating: 0
 
BuddyHolly

I heard Johnny Bench say that if he was on the same team as Jerry Grote, he would have to play 3B and Grote would be the catcher.

Mar 03, 2014 18:33 PM
rating: 0
 
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