Rafael Marchan Powers Up

Ask 10 professional hitters what they’re trying to do at the plate, and you might get 10 answers. They might be trying to hit a line drive to center every time, or put the ball in the air, or stay back on offspeed pitches, or take what the pitcher gives them. Ask what they want to do, however, and if they’re honest, they’ll tell you they want to hit a home run.

How could you not want to hit a home run? The feeling of absolutely obliterating the ball must be magical. Want to take your time around the bases? It’s all up to you! Your teammates will all congratulate you. There are no fielders to interfere with it. It’s the perfect combination — the best contact you’ll ever make, and plenty of time to enjoy it.

Of course, most trips to the plate don’t end in a home run. For Rafael Marchan, in fact, none of his trips to the plate in a professional game had ever ended with that feeling of elation before 2020. That didn’t stop him from standing out as a prospect, because he checked a lot of other boxes: he’s a catcher with a plus throwing arm, and he has excellent contact skills. It’s a Wilson Ramos starter kit, essentially, and that was enough to make Marchan the Phillies’ 10th-best prospect heading into 2020.

Marchan didn’t look likely to break his string of homer-less professional plate appearances in 2020. He played in A- and Hi-A ball in 2019 and acquitted himself well enough even without the homers; his .271/.347/.339 batting line for the Lakewood BlueClaws was good enough for an unconventional 105 wRC+. That isn’t the kind of line that clamors for a big league call-up, and with no minor league season, it was shaping up to be a year of sitting quietly on the sidelines, not getting any better at hitting or any closer to the big leagues.

There was one thing working in Marchan’s favor: his age. A 2015 signee, Marchan was eligible for the Rule 5 draft after last season, and he would be again this year. The Phillies probably didn’t want to take the chance that someone would snap him up, and they at least wanted to get a look at him in camp before having to make a decision one way or the other. It was a no-brainer to add him to the 60-man player pool, even if we still thought his ETA was 2022.

While Marchan was in camp, impressing coaches with his defense and continuing to make contact against advanced pitching, the Phillies got funky at the major league level. On the August 31 trade deadline, they added David Phelps while activating Ranger Suárez and Jay Bruce from the Injured List. That meant they needed both 40-man roster space and active roster space, and Deivy Grullón got caught in the crosshairs.

Grullón was on the Phillies roster for Rule 5 considerations himself, but was stuck in between roles; he’d come up as a glove-first backstop, but the glove didn’t hold up at higher levels, and while his bat improved, it wasn’t enough to carry him. He looked like a fringy backup or a solid third catcher, which is exactly how the Phillies were using him, but they needed 40-man spots. They were going to lose him in the offseason, anyway: if they protected Marchan in the Rule 5 draft, that would in all likelihood mean releasing Grullón to make the roster work.

It probably wouldn’t matter much for Marchan, but that made him the third catcher on the Phillies’ depth chart this year. With only a month remaining in the season, he wouldn’t likely be needed in the bigs, and in most years, teams can always find a spare third catcher lying around rather than use a 21-year-old who has never played above A-ball if they need a spot start.

Of course, it’s not most years. When J.T. Realmuto injured his hip on September 12, the team added Marchan to the active roster. It was no big deal, from a 40-man perspective; they were going to add him this offseason anyway, so why not do it now? He’d serve as Andrew Knapp’s backup while Realmuto rested — it might only be a matter of days, but Marchan would probably need to catch at least one game, due to a double-header scheduled for September 14.

He went a solid 1-3 in one game of that double-header, and Realmuto didn’t recover quickly, which meant another start, on September 18 against the Blue Jays. And in that game, Marchan did the unthinkable: he hit his first professional home run. It was no cheapie, either; a 364-foot, 99.6 mph blast to right off of an A.J. Cole cutter.

Home runs don’t impress us as baseball fans the way they used to. They’re everywhere in the major leagues, so commonplace as to be boring. Eric Sogard, who looks like a substitute teacher, has a double-digit home run season. Jorge Polanco cranked out 22 last year. Home runs aren’t special anymore.

But c’mon — this is something else. FanGraphs carries minor league data back to 2006. Here’s a list of the players with the most minor league at-bats in that timeframe without a home run:

Most MiLB PA without a HR (’06-’19)
Name Plate Appearances Home Runs
Kyle Hudson 2728 0
Norris Hopper 1561 0
Joey Gathright 1141 0
Rafael Marchan 846 0
Ryan Theriot 312 0
Tony Giarratano 295 0
Tim Laker 206 0
Pablo Ozuna 203 0
Michael Barrett 170 0
Yefrey Ramírez 170 0

This list is a bit misleading. For one thing, two of the top four players had extensive pre-2006 minor league careers. In fact, both Gathright and Hopper hit homers before 2006 (Theriot, Ozuna, and Barrett did too, but they’re below Marchan on the list so we’ll leave them out of it). Gathright hit exactly one home run in his minor league career, and exactly one in his major league career. Close to what we’re looking for! But no cigar.

Hopper displayed a jaw-dropping lack of power; in a whopping 4,761 minor league plate appearances, he managed exactly three home runs. He also hit only a single major league home run, but it too was after he’d already gone yard in the minors.

If we’re looking for someone to top Marchan’s feat, then, Kyle Hudson is our best shot. Hudson, like Hopper, combined minor league longevity with absolutely no thump. He was drafted in 2008, then spent four years in the Orioles’ system before getting a shot in the big leagues in 2011. Like Gathright and Hopper, he was a speedy outfielder with questionable pop; he hit one home run in his last season at the University of Illinois, where he was a two-sport star who totaled 999 receiving yards over three seasons of football.

In his brief shot in the major leagues, however, Hudson didn’t exactly power up. He hit a desultory .143/.143/.143 in 29 September plate appearances, then left the Orioles organization in the offseason. He bounced around through five organizations before hanging up his spikes for good in 2015, with no professional home runs to his name.

So there you have it: as far back as I can scrape data, Rafael Marchan is the champion of hitting his first professional homer after a long, fruitless minor league stint. But that’s unsatisfying, even if he’s leaps and bounds beyond any other active minor leaguer when it comes to homer-less plate appearances. That’s because of a simple fact: having the longest streak of never doing something ends as soon as you do that thing.

Take John Gant. One of my favorite weird baseball statistics was that Gant was, briefly, the major leaguer who had the most plate appearances without reaching base. Then he reached base (on a home run, naturally). Now he doesn’t hold that record anymore. If your record involves never doing something, it’s hard to make it stick. Eventually, you’ll do it.

In that vein, I decided to dig a little deeper and look for players who had little power but not actually no power. Here’s a list of players with no more than three homers at the minor league level since 2006:

Low Power MiLB’ers (’06-’19)
Name Plate Appearances Home Runs HR Rate
Guilder Rodriguez 3120 2 0.06%
Kyle Hudson 2728 0 0.00%
Engelb Vielma 2358 2 0.08%
Terrance Gore 2334 1 0.04%
Adam Frazier 1670 3 0.18%
Norris Hopper 1561 0 0.00%
Jordan Weems 1180 3 0.25%
Joey Gathright 1141 0 0.00%
Jose Ruíz 1005 1 0.10%
Mel Stocker 1005 2 0.20%
Wilkin Ruan 977 3 0.31%
Rafael Marchan 846 0 0.00%

This is hardly a list of household names, unless you count Gore and Frazier. Ruíz and Weems both converted to pitching, so bereft of pop were they. The players in front of Machan on this list have combined for 35 major league homers, and Frazier has hit 33 of them. He has the vast majority of the major league plate appearances this group has accrued as well; this skillset simply doesn’t seem to get much of a chance in the majors.

That, of course, is mostly meaningless. Marchan is in the major leagues. He’s Philadelphia’s best catching prospect, and if Realmuto leaves this offseason, he might just be their best catcher, period. He’ll get more chances at the major league level, and the batted ball data, scarce as it is, already looks good.

He has a barrel! His hard-hit rate is 50%. The sample size is “go away, this isn’t a real sample,” but we’re not talking about Billy Hamilton here; Marchan’s maximum exit velocity, in six chances, is 99.6 mph, nearly equal to Hamilton’s maximum in 257 batted balls the past two years.

Rafael Marchan is a historical oddity; a near-powerless minor leaguer who still looks like he has a bright future in the major leagues. He’s also, though, a creation of this strange year. Players like Marchan develop slowly. He’s both a catcher and a switch hitter. If there were a minor league season, he might have shown up and shown the pop he’s now showing, hit a handful of home runs and found his way off of this strange list.

That might still happen. If Realmuto returns, Marchan will be back in the minors next year. He might be back in the minors even if Realmuto leaves; he’s a 21-year-old who has never played above A-ball before this year. He’s only here because of a string of unlikely circumstances. The team could drop him in Double-A and sign a veteran to hold down the position to give Marchan another year of seasoning.

I’m rooting for the exact opposite, though. I want him to stick in the majors and hit well enough that his minor league career becomes absurd. I want him to be Hamilton in the minors — although, not actually Billy Hamilton, because he somehow hit 13 homers in 2,272 plate appearances — and a normal hitter in the majors. Marchan isn’t a footnote of history just yet, but he could be, and that’s one piece of 2020 history I’d be happy to remember.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

If you’re looking for the absurd, maybe you should bet on Adam Frazier winning a batting title.

3 years ago
Reply to  Danny

If Frazier can go 17-for-17 over the rest of the season, he’ll finish with a .279 batting average and keep his Baseball Rummy streak going at four seasons.

3 years ago
Reply to  tz