What Do You Do With a First-Round Catcher?

Blake Mitchell

One of my favorite picks in the first round of this year’s draft was the 14th overall selection, when Virginia catcher Kyle Teel fell into Boston’s lap and the Red Sox gobbled him right up, thank you very much. The New Jersey native has backstopped the Cavaliers to two trips to Omaha in three seasons of college ball. He’s a winner, he’s a grinder, and WEEI callers are going to fall in love with this kid within about 30 minutes of his big league debut. “This is the leadahship the Sawx have needed since Pedroia, Murph!” and so on.

All that would be perilous enough to national mental hygiene on its own, but Teel is also really good. He’s going to stick behind the plate. He’s also going to hit — maybe not 20-homer power, but a ton of doubles and line drives that rattle around in the nooks and crannies of Fenway Park’s unique outfield. I’m surprised he fell into the teens, but great work by Boston for stopping the slide when he got to them.

Teel was one of three catchers taken in the first round on Sunday. A pair of high schoolers, Blake Mitchell and Ralphy Velazquez, went eighth to Kansas City and 23rd to Cleveland, respectively. (Teel to the Royals as heir presumptive to Salvador Perez was a popular prediction in the days before the draft, but it was not to be.) Both Mitchell and Velazquez (20th and 45th on the pre-draft Board) are bat-first prospects. Neither is a lock to stay behind the plate, but both can hit the ball a long way when they make contact.

Teel represents a realistic best-case scenario for a modern catcher. The physical and defensive demands have forced this generation of Mike Piazzas, Javy Lopezes, and Todd Hundleys to the corners. Today’s catchers are nimble and athletic. The offensive value they provide is generally not of the middle-of-the-order variety. At the break, 34 catchers have at least 150 big league plate appearances this season. Of those, one (Sean Murphy) is hitting .300, and apart from Murphy, only Francisco Alvarez is slugging .500. The upside for Mitchell and Velazquez is that they could break that paradigm, providing All-Star first baseman power at the sport’s most demanding defensive position. Unfortunately, this is not a high-percentage proposition.

Since 2001, MLB teams have spent 68 first-round picks on catchers, including supplemental picks before the start of the second round. That makes the three first-round catchers from this class an average haul. College catchers tend to be a pretty safe bet in the first round. I took the 68 catchers chosen in the first round and evaluated them on three career hurdles: First, did they make the majors? Second, among draftees who made the big leagues, did they accumulate at least 10 WAR in their careers at any position? (Surely the Cubs cared not at all that Kyle Schwarber moved to the outfield almost immediately after reaching the big leagues.) Third, did they stick at catcher?

To answer the third question, I intended to define “stuck at catcher” as “played a majority of his career big league games at the position.” Unfortunately, Joe Mauer came in at 49.6%. But the man made six All-Star teams and won an MVP behind the plate, for God’s sake; surely he counts as sticking at catcher. So I established “the Mauer Line,” or 49% of career games played at catcher. And Mauer’s a hard case anyway; of the other 67 first-round catchers, only Matt Thaiss made the majors and has played between 30–50% of his career games behind the plate.

The Fates of First-Round Catchers
Majors No
College: 27 8
HS: 16 17
>10 WAR <10 WAR
College 8 19
HS 3 13
Mauer Line Yes No
College 19 8
HS 12 4
Since 2001

Already you can see the difference in career outcome between high school and college catchers, and the difference is more stark the higher in the draft a catcher goes. In order for a catcher to go in the top 15 picks, as Teel did, he has to be incredibly polished. That usually means he’ll be quick to reach the majors.

It’s probably not a coincidence that of the 17 college catchers drafted in the top 15 picks since 2001, 15 came from Power Five conferences. The two exceptions are Tony Sanchez, the no. 4 pick out of Boston College in 2004, a year before BC joined the ACC, and Max Pentecost, a Kennesaw State catcher who has one of my favorite names in baseball history and deeply problematic shoulder issues.

Two of those top-15 college catchers are Teel and 2022 Mets first-rounder Kevin Parada, both of whom haven’t had a chance to make the majors yet. Six of the other 15 have had 10-win careers. That doesn’t include Adley Rutschman, who’s at 7.5 WAR through 199 career games; I’d bet my bottom dollar he gets to 10 sooner or later. There’s also 2021’s top pick, Henry Davis, who’s been in the majors a month, and Patrick Bailey, who’s a 1.9 WAR player through his first 40 major league games. I’m also still holding out hope for Shea Langeliers.

Some other top-15 college catchers: Schwarber, Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, Jason Castro, Mike Zunino, and Yasmani Grandal. The floor for this type of player, in short, is rather high.

So what’s the downside?

You all know the following already, but it bears repeating. A position player prospect has to do one of two things in order to become a major league contributor: Hit or play defense. Guys who do both become All-Stars. Guys who do one really well can have 10-year careers. Guys who do neither go pro in something other than sports.

Prospects who play up-the-middle positions have a lot of room for error. If they slow down as they put on weight in their early 20s, they can move down the defensive spectrum if they can still hit. If the bat doesn’t come, they can still contribute with the glove. This is why, if I were running a team, I would literally (almost) never draft high school first basemen: If the kid doesn’t absolutely mash, he’s not a useful player anymore.

Catching prospects move down the defensive spectrum, too. The active leader in career WAR among catchers drafted in the first-round is Josh Donaldson, who has spent all of 71 1/3 career innings wearing the tools of ignorance. Right behind him is Bryce Harper, who doesn’t appear on my list of 68 because the Nationals never even bothered with the pretense that they were going to let him catch. Joey Votto was a catcher; so were Jayson Werth, Raúl Ibañez, and Justin Morneau.

A shortstop who can’t hack it at short can move to second or third base, or center field, and still become a valuable two-way player. But most catching prospects don’t have the foot speed to play another up-the-middle position; players like Craig Biggio and Donaldson, who was a dynamic third baseman in his youth, are rare. For most catching prospects, a move to somewhere out in front of the plate means a move to left field at best. More commonly, it means first base or DH, where the offensive standards can be crushing. We’re watching top A’s prospect Tyler Soderstrom go through that pain now, as it becomes increasingly likely that he plays first base in the majors and not catcher. Maybe he’ll make that transition as well as Votto or Morneau did, but it’s a big hill to climb.

Among the few busts among top-15 college catchers are two of the few bat-first examples: Zack Collins, the 10th pick in 2016, and Jeff Clement, the no. 3 pick in 2005. These were bat-first catchers who made the majors but barely caught once there and provided little more value with the bat. Clement in particular is a famous draft miss; after the Mariners took him, the next four players off the board were Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, and Troy Tulowitzki. Andrew McCutchen was drafted four picks after that run. Oof. So while the college catcher genus is generally safe, it’s not infallible.

High school catchers, on the other hand, make Collins and Clement look like Johnny Bench. They’re about even money to make the majors at all, and there haven’t been many successes. Here are the top career WAR for first-round catchers who got over the Mauer Line:

Top First-Round Catchers Since 2001
High School College
Player WAR Player WAR
Joe Mauer 53.0 Buster Posey 57.5
Travis d’Arnaud 17.6 Yasmani Grandal 37.7
Hank Conger 6.7 Mike Zunino 18.4
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 5.1 Matt Wieters 17.4
Reese McGuire 4.1 Jason Castro 15.2
Jeff Mathis 3.7 Will Smith 14.3
Since 2001

But maybe I’m picking on the Soderstrom types. Maybe the fallback plan for first-round high school catchers — change positions, hit dingers — is actually a well-trodden path.

Again, no. The last first-round high school catcher to get over 1 WAR for his career at a different position is the eternally underrated Neil Walker, the 11th overall pick in 2004. So Mitchell and Velazquez should put off shopping for first baseman’s mitts as long as possible. When it comes to high school first-round catchers, it’s sayonara if they don’t stick behind the plate.

Trends like this are made to be broken. I remember when right-right college first basemen were a complete dead end from a draft perspective, and then Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, and Pete Alonso made a mockery of that viewpoint. And plenty of quality high school catchers have been found in later rounds. But a first-round pick, particularly, a high one, is a precious commodity — too precious, in my view, to spend on a type of player for whom so much can go wrong. Maybe Mitchell and Velazquez will be the ones to buck the trend. But it’s quite a trend to buck.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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10 months ago

I remember when the CPU would take Ben Davis in the 4th round of an entire “dump all players into a common draft pool” draft in Front Page Sports Baseball ’96. 3 rounds before Vladimir Guerrero….I guess even the devs thought he’d be a star catcher.