One of the more difficult positions to evaluate in baseball is catcher, especially from the amateur ranks. There are so many skills to try to account for when evaluating catchers just on the defensive side of the ball: receiving abilities, blocking the ball in the dirt, the ability to work with pitchers, and pitch calling. Some of those skills are difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate when dealing with amateur prospects when trying to project them as a possible big leaguer.
In today’s game, organizations are putting an emphasis of not only being able to hit but to also play good defense. The biggest emphasis comes at the catcher position, where teams are coveting quality backstops who can not only receive the ball well, but also be able to block, throw, and handle pitchers at a high level. That’s why Jeff Mathis has a 16-year career despite hitting under .200 with a wRC+ of 46 for his career.
In recent years, Major League Baseball has toyed with the idea of implementing automated strike zones. We’re likely years away from any potential impact at the game’s highest level, but the potential of balls and strikes being called by a Trackman unit instead of a human being could impact how teams scout the position from their own system. For the Diamondbacks, the players who could be most impacted positively by this are catchers with a similar skill set to Daulton Varsho. Varsho’s offensive game has never been in question since the day he was drafted, but concerns about his receiving skills and arm strength have put his long term defensive projections in doubt.
Going even further into the topic, this is what Eric Logenhagen had to say about Varsho, pitch framing, and catcher offense in general should framing become less important.
Going even further than the Diamondbacks farm system, the potential of an automated strike zone could have an impact on how teams address the position in the draft. Prospects such as the University of Arizona’s Austin Wells suddenly becomes more attractable due to the high upside bat at a premium position. In Baseball America’s most recent chat involving the draft, I asked Carlos Collazo about Wells’ chances of sticking behind the plate. Here was his response:
In the piece Collazo wrote about how changing the way balls and strikes could be called may open the door for more players to stick at the catcher position. It won’t affect Carson Kelly, who is above-average or better in all the defensive aspects of the position while carrying a league-average bat. However the changes would allow more types of players to remain behind the dish, not just players with impact bat upside like Varsho and Wells have.
On Fangraphs top prospects list for the Arizona Diamondbacks, one player they mentioned as a potential catcher conversion is Buddy Kennedy. Kennedy, who ranks 30th on the list, has been a solid hitter, but profiles as a 50/50 hit/power tool at a non-premium defensive positions such as 3B, 2B, and 1B in an utility role at best due to having an insufficient amount of athleticism and mobility to play any of those positions full time. While the team doesn’t have an elite prospect at any of those positions, they have plenty of options to fill out those positions for the next 3-4 years without having to make any additions to the roster. With that in mind, they could see if Kennedy can learn the catcher position well enough to at least be able to call pitches and control the running game as a pathway to get him to the majors.
The changes not only could affect how teams evaluate potential catching prospects, but also evaluate amateur talent at the position. If robo umps are in place, you could see teams prioritizing other tools such as arm strength or high upside bats early in the draft over the ability to catch the ball. Going to more recent examples, perhaps Shea Langeliers likely goes from 9th overall to late first round in last year’s draft. While in theory teams should draft the most talent arm or bat available and not worry about the long term defensive fit, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.
If, or I should specifically say when, Major League Baseball institutes Robo Umps, I believe the consequences of it could ultimately change the way teams evaluate the catcher position as a whole. They already tested it out in the Fall League last year, there is no timeline to when they’ll test it out at any level of the Minors during the regular season. This situation is definitely one to monitor moving forward.