Catchers ’22: The Changing Catcher Prospect Landscape

© Staff Photo by Richard Pollitt via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As I was thinking of a title for this piece, it struck me how many puns and turns of phrase related to catching exist in the American lexicon. “Catch as catch can” and some version of “catching catch-all” flitted through my mind, as did “Catchers on the Rise,” an overwrought hat tip to the literary canon. Ultimately, though, a nod to Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic Catch-22 seemed the most fitting. Not just because of the basic facts – conveniently, it’s 2022 and I’m writing about catchers – but also because there’s something paradoxically funny about of one of the greatest catching classes in recent memory coming of age at a time when the role of the catcher seems to be on the brink of fundamental change.

If you look at our Top Prospect Lists over the years, it’s hard not to notice the recent influx of catchers. Not only that, but many of the catchers who’ve made the cut have found their way into the top tier of our overall Top 100, representing some of the brightest future stars in their respective organizations. This year’s list includes 12 catchers (I’m including Tyler Soderstrom, though we project him as a first baseman long-term); six of those rank within our top 30, and three fall within the top 10. Those marks are all the best of any prior year’s pre-season report going back to 2017:

As the above visual makes clear, the general quality of the catching prospects currently in the minors is exceptional. Indeed, if everything breaks right, the 2022 class could eventually rival some of the storied eras of catcher production of the past several decades, including the famously star-studded cohorts of 1977 and 2012. In 1977, major league catchers combined for a 98 wRC+ and 79.1 WAR; in 2012, those figures were 95 and 78.9 respectively. Hall of famers Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, and Ted Simmons were all active in 1977, along with other top-performing non-inductees like Gene Tenace, Steve Yeager and Thurman Munson, just to name a few. 2012 was also stacked, with Buster Posey and Carlos Santana both having graduated to major-league play within the preceding few years, and Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, Miguel Montero, Matt Wieters, Brian McCann, and Russell Martin all turning in good-to-great performances; Joe Mauer chipped in as well, though he also DH’ed and played some first base. While it can be challenging to compare catchers across eras given the changes to the position and the shape of players’ production — and while most of the 2022 class has yet to debut — it’s clear that the catchers who are coming up nowadays are of a different ilk than those who preceded them.

The days of the 1977 catching profile are long gone, with the lumbering brick-house backstops largely phased out in favor of greater athleticism. Major league catchers these days aren’t just “athletic for a catcher,” they’re straight-up athletic. In 2021, J.T. Realmuto stole 13 bases, which matches the number of swipes Yeager posted over his entire 15-year career. This is evident at the minor league level, too, with the numbers put up by current catching prospects show a noticeable increase in speed, even when compared to the more recent 2012 catchers. In addition to Posey and Santana, the 2012 cohort included Jason Castro, Hank Conger, and Jesus Montero. In their combined minor league careers, those five averaged .0362 steals per game as prospects. In contrast, the five highest-ranked catchers on our 2022 Top 100 (Adley Rutschman, Francisco Álvarez, Gabriel Moreno, Henry Davis, and MJ Melendez) have more than doubled that steal rate (.0672 steals per game) so far in their minor league careers. Compared to that 2012 cohort, this year’s crop of catching prospects has also improved at the plate, posting a combined MiLB wRC+ of 148, up from 2012’s 132.6, this at a time when catcher offense at the major league level has plateaued: big league catchers hit .228/.304/.391 last season, good for just an 89 wRC+.

Perhaps more interesting is that this wave of backstops is cresting at a unique moment in the history of the sport, coinciding with an unprecedented frenzy of changes to the rulebook and advancements in technology aimed at refining precision and improving the pace of play. Given how old baseball is, and how entrenched it can be in its own mythology, it’s no surprise that adjustments to the core elements of the sport (base size, mound distance, etc.) are more often met with raised eyebrows rather than an open-armed welcome. But there’s one change that has particularly significant implications for the future of the catcher position, one poised to have a noticeable impact on development moving forward: the Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) system.

After debuting at Low-A in 2021, the much-discussed ABS system is getting the call-up to Triple-A this season. The system has been met with unsurprising skepticism at the lower level, as well as in the independent Atlantic League, where it has been in use since 2019. It’s also been tinkered with during its ongoing development, with the measurements of the strike zones adjusted based on feedback and other research. The Associated Press reported before the start of last season that the zone would be a dynamic two-dimensional rectangle at the front of the plate, spanning vertically from 28% of a given player’s height up to 56%, based on measurements taken before their first game. In a piece last fall for The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur elaborated that the zone had been expanded horizontally to include pitches that were technically not over the plate at all, presumably to better match what has traditionally been considered “The Zone.”

What does this mean for catchers? Well, the most obvious implication is that framing will be an obsolete skillset. Lindbergh and Arthur’s The Ringer piece includes a video of a pitch that was deemed a strike by the ABS system, but would never pass the eye test without robotic intervention. In an interview for the piece, the pitcher who tossed that questionable K was quoted as saying, “Human umps call that all the time, but typically only if that’s the spot the pitcher was going for and the catcher received it well.” With the pressure of selling borderline pitches to the umpire alleviated, a catcher’s framing skills are rendered moot. In fact, you can follow a slippery slope that eventually leads to a world where catchers aren’t even squatting behind home plate unless there are runners on base, because what’s the point? If the location of the ball is made an objective fact, why subject a guy’s knees to unneeded stress? I’m of course exaggerating here. We’re not on the brink of a catching landscape that completely does away with all of the physically taxing elements unique to the role. But with the adoption of the ABS, the receiving component of a catcher’s profile will become less central to their overall grade as a player. At a moment when teams have prioritized good framing skills over offense at the big league level, the introduction of the ABS system is likely to signal a fundamental shift in what constitutes a desirable catcher profile.

How will those changes affect this class of catching prospects? The teams whose home ballparks will be equipped with the ABS system in 2022 include the Triple-A affiliates for the Rockies, White Sox, Padres, A’s, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Giants, Angels, Astros, and Mariners. That means two of our Top 100 catchers are likely to play a significant portion of the 2022 season with it in place: San Diego’s Luis Campusano and Houston’s Korey Lee (Soderstrom, Patrick Bailey, and Diego Cartaya could conceivably do so as well, pending promotion). Receiving is among both catchers least touted tools. In Campusano’s case, his efforts at framing, especially low in the zone, have come at the cost of some of his quickness in transferring the ball to his throwing hand and have hindered his ball-blocking ability. His offensive track record in the minors is well above the average major league production from catchers in 2021, so removing the blemish of his framing skills (or lack thereof) from the equation allows for a bump in his overall value. Lee, meanwhile, boasts a plus arm behind the dish, which props up the rest of his defense-first profile. If he can rest on those laurels without concerning himself with improving his framing, he can apply a more concentrated focus to his less-impressive bat-to-ball skills and power production, perhaps allowing him to better round out his overall profile.

As always, this year’s class will inevitably dwindle as some players’ development timelines stall and others shift to different positions on the diamond. But in the meantime: That’s some catching class, that catching class of ’22.

Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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4 months ago

It still takes me a bit to comprehend seeing Simmons’ name lumped in with Bench, Carter and Fisk.

Doug Lampertmember
4 months ago
Reply to  LightenUpFG

Flipping over to Hall of Stats, I see that his measure has Bench, Carter, Fisk as numbers 1, 2, and 3 ever among primary catchers.

Simmons is number 11, he’s not as good as the other three, but he deserves to be in the Hall.

4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

Exactly, he had rough timing being almost an exact contemporary as Bench, and both were a bit younger than Carter and Fisk. Throw Munson into the mix as a catcher in the biggest market and that position had a ton of talent in the 70’s. Kind of like 3B where Schmidt and Brett overshadow players like Nettles.