Why baseball might be approaching a renaissance at the catching position

LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- A windy Monday night down the Jersey Shore didn’t provide much excitement.

But venturing beyond the boardwalks to FirstEnergy Park, autograph hounds formed a pack along the third-base line, clamoring to get a glimpse at what could be baseball’s next superstar.

This past June, the Baltimore Orioles made Adley Rutschman the first catcher drafted No. 1 overall since the Minnesota Twins selected Hall of Fame hopeful Joe Mauer in 2001.

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Rutschman arrived to the New Jersey beach town wearing his fourth different uniform since the year began. He’s meant to spearhead a rebuild for an organization that will likely finish last in its division for the third consecutive season.

“It's been interesting to say the least,” the Golden Spikes winner said. “You just embrace the new challenges that come with each level and take it in stride and just enjoy every opportunity.”

In addition to being the Orioles’ future cornerstone, Rutschman is also the leader of the deepest group of catching prospects in the better part of a decade. The next wave of catchers, armed with new technology and a keen sense the job’s importance could be leading to a renaissance at the most demanding position on the field.

The Atlanta Braves drafted Baylor catcher Shea Langeliers No. 9 overall this June. Joey Bart called pitches behind the plate at Georgia Tech before being picked No. 2 by the San Francisco Giants last year.

Jake Rogers has stuck with the Detroit Tigers since June 30 and the Dodgers have kept Will Smith in Los Angeles since July 26. When rosters expanded on Sept. 1, the Oakland Athletics promoted Sean Murphy, who already has three homers in six major league games.

The Dodgers’ Keibert Ruiz, Texas Rangers’ Sam Huff, Arizona Diamondbacks’ Daulton Varsho and San Diego Padres’ Luis Campusano also belong on that list of top-of-the-line catchers in the minors.

“I think it's a little better only because it had gotten so bad for so long,” a pro scout said of the current state of the catcher position at the prospect level. “I think now clubs are concentrating on it. They understand that it's a major position to try and fill, and you're better off developing it than getting an older guy, and trying to teach him how to receive.”

There have been 653 position players to post a positive WAR in the past 10 years. Only 68 were catchers, the lowest of any position on the field.

Kyle Schwarber and Wil Myers were top 20 prospects as catchers, but didn’t stick at the position. Schwarber and Myers have produced a combined 13.8 WAR at other positions. They’re proof that if a player can hit, a team can find a place for them.

Catcher first, hitter second

But what does it take for a prospect to stick behind the plate?

“If you want to be a catcher that sticks, you got to do things by doing extra work, you got to do little things that a lot of players kind of don't,” Huff said. “That's why those guys [like Yadier Molina and Buster Posey] play for so long, they do everything they can to be prepared for what they do during the season … they've been through it so many times that it's just another day.”

Langeliers was 6 when Molina debuted in 2004. He watched the Cardinals compete for the playoffs for most of his adolescence. He saw the Giants win three World Series with Posey behind the plate. He understood the common denominator and decided it was the right path to follow.

“Those teams are in the running to win it all every year, it kind of makes you realize that catching is pretty important,” the 21-year-old from Keller, Texas said. “And when it comes to catching, the catcher's first job is taking care of the pitching staff, and it's not hitting. It's kind of something that I felt like I was built to do, and kind of took it from there.”

Langeliers earned a collegiate Gold Glove in 2018. He was considered an exceptional defender going into the draft and hit well enough to go in the top 10 and earn a $3.99 million bonus from the Braves.

Rutschman and Bart were well known for their bats. Rutschman, a switch hitter, was a .356 career hitter with a 1.033 lifetime OPS at Oregon State. Bart showed off booming power that’s quickly translated to 29 minor league homers in his first 130 professional games.

For hitters of this quality, anything they did behind the plate was icing on the cake. But both are also considered plus defenders with arms to match.

Rogers has the defensive skill set — considered among the best over his four years in the minors— to stay on the roster with the last-place Tigers, but he’s hitting .102 and struggling for playing time.

After dealing with a torn meniscus in his left knee, Murphy seems to have struck the ideal balance at the right time for a team in the postseason chase. He finished batting .308 with 17 extra-base hits and 30 RBIs in 31 games for Triple-A Las Vegas. So far he has five hits in 14 at-bats (.357) in Oakland.

“For me, he's a future everyday catcher and he's going to be a mainstay in that lineup for a long time to come,” one scout familiar with the A’s system said, explaining that Murphy’s defense has never been a question and that his bat has come a long way. “I think, long-term he's going to be a very solid every day major league producer who communicates very well with the pitching staff, and does a lot of things right. For me, he's a no-brainer.”

Murphy, a fourth-rounder out of Wichita State, has also been praised for his communication with the pitching staff.

Besides the better overall talent in the professional game, catchers face a new challenge after the draft that wasn’t a major concern as an amatuer.

Modern technology and game-calling for catchers

As the players stepped forward into the professional realm, the information and responsibilities followed suit.

Some catchers, like Bart, had experience calling pitches before they reach the professional ranks. Rutschman and Langeliers didn’t call their own games in college. But they worked extensively with their pitching coaches to pour over scouting reports while trying to remember some of their conference rivals’ tendencies from past games.

“You get into the game and the scouting report on this guy says he likes the ball inside, but then you're throwing him away, away, away and he's driving the ball to the right side,” Langeliers said. “It's game to game. The hitters know what their scouting report is, and if you're going to attack his weakness, then why isn't he looking for his weakness?”

Huff was drafted in the seventh round out of high school in Phoenix in 2016. He called his own games in high school, but the task was much simpler than what he’s had to do since the Rangers began to allow him to call his own games with Single-A Hickory last year.

“It was pretty easy,” Huff explained. “If you had a guy that threw pretty hard as a high school pitcher, pretty obvious, you throw fastballs until they start hitting the fastballs.”

Rutschman said that he doesn’t think he’ll ever “arrive at his destination” when it comes to learning how to call pitches. That learning curve exists even as modern technology makes information easier to digest.

For catchers, heat maps that show where and when a specific hitter might do their most damage are a favorite tool. They’re a boost to the catcher’s situational awareness, but they also put a lot of homework in front of the player.

“Knowing that information, it takes the game to the next level,” Langeliers said. “It's crazy because when you think about it from a catching standpoint, you have all the information on the hitters and then, you're like, jeez, well, the other team has all this information on me. It's a battle on both sides. It's crazy how much this information affects the game.”

Beyond the understanding of scouting reports, which become expanded by this new-age data, catchers have agreed that the hardest part of game-calling is adjusting the information on the fly. Much like what Langeliers described in college, hitters will buck trends quickly when their weaknesses are attacked.

In order to anticipate or start to consider a hitter’s adjustment, a catcher needs to keep open lines of communication with the pitching staff and coaches.

“I don't struggle to remember the information about the hitters, I'm pretty good about that,” Langeliers said. “It's noticing if they're trying to do something different. ... It comes down to it, you remember the information before the game, and then you have to remember what the hitter did earlier in the game, and then adjust from there.”

Spin rate and efficiency data help each catcher gain a better understanding of his pitching staff. Orioles right-handed pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez, the club’s first-rounder in 2018, was impressed by Rutschman his first time the pair worked together for Single-A Delmarva in August.

“It was almost as if we were working together the whole season,” Rodriguez said. “His pitch calling was great, and I didn't shake him once ... That's kind of hard to do, especially with two guys that are just starting to throw to each other.”

Delmarva pitching coach Justin Ramsey also noticed something special right away when Rutschman worked well with five different pitchers whom he’d never seen in his first game with the Shorebirds. Rutschman was also behind the plate for a combined no-hitter with Class A Short Season Aberdeen weeks before his promotion.

“His ability to go apply and call the game based on the reports we have and what our attack plans are -- it was really good to see,” Ramsey said. “It's understanding what our priorities are, and just going out there. Him applying those, simply he's done a good job of that.”

Huff mixes the old with the new when it comes to technology. He studies heat maps and other such advanced analytics the same as his counterparts, but he makes sure to write things down in a notebook before he really got the hang of it.

“I wanted to make sure I understood it. It took me about like, maybe a month or two before I maybe figured out what I need to do,” he said. “I want to understand things more than other players do. ... Getting into a routine where I'd see it every day, and then I got used to it.”

All things considered, catching is very much special teams in football. The current prospect group seems to be able to hit enough, which will always keep a player employed in the big leagues.

But those that will stick behind the plate will be able to understand the game better than most, quickly grasping an overwhelming amount of information while evolving within the game.

This current crop of catching prospects certainly seems up to the task.

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