Catching is a tough gig. The abuse heaped upon your body – just about every part of your body – is difficult to fathom. Knees and legs tire from the innumerable squats performed each game. The weakening of the catching hand after repeated exposure to fastball after fastball. To say nothing of the foul tips bombarding the body at a moment’s notice, deflecting off the face mask or otherwise unprotected joints and digits.
It’s a grind and it is not for the faint of heart. On top of the physical difficulty of the job, it is an increasingly demanding defensive role as the ability to frame pitches, call games, and eliminate running threats on the bases are prized by keen baseball decision makers.
It is little wonder that the offensive standard at the position is so low. It takes a certain kind of athlete to do this job and often this kind of athlete doesn’t hit so well. Or, put another way, catchers are prized for much more than their ability to create with the bat.
The offensive profile of the Major League catcher is low and only going to sink lower this season, as two very prominent catchers won’t be plying their trade behind the plate this season. Joe Mauer‘s move to first base was celebrated during the off-season and the next stage of Mauer’s career is well under way.
Cleveland hasn’t moved Carlos Santana out from behind the plate on a permanent basis but he is getting plenty of time to show what he can do at third base. The Tribe’s catcher logged more than 100 starts at first base over the last three seasons, but Cleveland thinks they can improve their play at the hot corner while getting Santana out from under the tools of ignorance.
Yesterday, the news became official that Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Stryker Trahan‘s days as a catcher are all but done. The 19-year old spent his first year as a professional behind the plate but Arizona opted to move him to the outfield. Arizona Diamondbacks farm director Mike Bell told Nick Piecoro that Trahan’s bat was ahead of his glove and it was “starting to hold him back.”
Plenty of your favorite big leaguers were drafted and developed as catchers before their offensive potential surpassed the defensive threshold for the demanding position and they made a move. A move that might work against the long-term value a player like Trahan might deliver as a catcher with a bat is obviously valuable, but a move that might make better use of the skills he does have.
Zachary Levine of Baseball Prospectus took a long look at catchers who move to new positions, grouping them by age and destination to show…they tend to hit about as well as they did before. Expecting Joe Mauer to suddenly post a .600 slugging percentage now that he is no longer squatting his days away is a little hopeful. While Mauer’s case is unique, most catcher moves seem squarely aimed as prolonging the offensive peak of a player, rather than leaving them in a position that saps their strength and adds miles to the odometer exponentially.
It is the defensive spectrum working its magic. The case of Carlos Santana is one where a catcher barely meets the defensive requirements of the position but his bat is strong enough and his athleticism sufficient to attempt a move to first, DH, and potentially third base. That a viable replacement all but fell into their lap frees the Tribe up to test the waters. Mauer’s is a move of necessity but one of the best hitters of his generation can certainly play anywhere.
Stryker Trahan hopes he can replicate the success of a players like Wil Myers and Bryce Harper, hitting machines that forced their way into the outfield to exploit their other talents and maximize the effects their offenses can have on the game.
Catching is hard. Really, really hard. Even with a lessened threat of being run over by a runaway ballplayer, it is still a taxing position unlike any other in the sport. But somebody’s got to do it. With that very mentality in mind, we might just see teams spare their better offensive prospects from the rigors of the role as offense becomes increasingly hard to find.