Evan Gattis and Other Old Rookie Catchers

Evan Gattis is the Braves’ cleanup hitter, and he has three homers in 25 plate appearances on the young season. He’s also a 26-year old rookie catcher who is relatively inexperienced behind the dish because he took four years off from baseball (a bit like Tom Wilhelmsen, who walked away for even longer).

Old rookies always raise eyebrows, though some have gone on to have fine careers, from Hall of Famer Earl Averill to Brian Daubach. But what about catchers?

I wanted to know how much precedent there is for a catcher to debut at a relatively advanced age and go on to have a solid career, so I took a look at all catchers who were rookie-eligible during their age 26 season (Gattis’s age this year). Seventeen of them went on to make the All-Star team. Here’s the list:

Player Rookie Year Age as a rookie
Babe Phelps 1934 26
Walker Cooper 1941 26
Aaron Robinson 1943 28
Roy Campanella 1948 26
Toby Atwell 1952 28
Hank Foiles 1955 26
Don Leppert 1961 29
Jeff Newman 1976 27
Ernie Whitt 1978 26
Bo Diaz 1979 26
Bob Brenly 1981 27
Ozzie Virgil 1983 26
Greg Olson 1989 28
Damian Miller 1997 27
Paul Lo Duca 1998 26
Jason Varitek 1998 26
Carlos Ruiz 2006 27

Of the seventeen who made at least one All-Star team, seven made it twice, and five were named to three or more. The greatest player on the list by far is Campanella, obviously, but he’s a unique case; his late debut was because of baseball’s color line. But several of the others had noteworthy careers, especially Phelps, Cooper, Whitt, and of course Lo Duca and Varitek.

Phelps’s late start may have partly owed to his poor glove, and partly to the caliber of his teammates. (It may have also partly owed to the lofty nickname, “Babe,” which he got due to his physical appearance; in the early 1930s, as Babe Ruth was winding down his career, Phelps may have looked even worse in comparison.)

He got his first cup of coffee in 1931 with the Senators, when he was 23, but they didn’t see much in him; then he was buried on the Cubs in 1933-34, because the Cubs had future Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett behind the dish. Finally, he arrived in Brooklyn, where the hapless Dodgers were only too happy to use him as a backup. He didn’t hit a lot of homers but he otherwise hit very well in part-time duty. But his hypochondria and fear of flying cut his career with the team short.

Walker Cooper was the brother of Mort Cooper, a Cardinal pitcher whose best years came during World War II. Mort was actually the league MVP in 1942. The two were teammates and batterymates on the Cardinals from 1940-45 (and briefly on the Giants in 1947), and both won World Series rings in 1942 and 1944.

Walker’s first cup of coffee came at 25 and he didn’t get established as a full-time catcher until age 28, but he was an eight-time All-Star and he may have been the best catcher in baseball before the emergence of Campanella and Yogi Berra. His late start may have been because the Cardinal catcher from 1937-1940 was Mickey Owen, who became infamous as a Dodger for his dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series.

Ernie Whitt was a late bloomer offensively. He was originally drafted by the Red Sox, but after failing to establish himself in the high minors, they left him unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft, and he was selected by the Blue Jays, the team that would employ him for most of the next three decades. He was the Jays’ regular catcher for the entire decade of the 1980s; he was a basically average hitter, contributing slightly above-average power and walk rates. Unfortunately, that was awfully bad timing, since they won back-to-back World Series three years after he left.

He then served as a coach in the Jays organization for much of the ’90s and 2000s. He has since regularly managed the Canadian national baseball team in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic, and is a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. (Whitt is a Michigander; 31 of the 97 inductees were born outside Canada.)

Lo Duca is a remarkable story. He toiled away in the Dodgers’ minor league ranks for years before finally establishing himself in 2001, at the age of 29. They drafted him in 1993, Mike Piazza‘s rookie year; in 1998, Piazza was swapped in a massive trade to the Marlins that brought back Charles Johnson, who was the regular Dodger catcher for the rest of the year. Then they swapped Johnson for Todd Hundley, who was the catcher in 1999 and 2000.

Lo Duca always hit — from 1993 to 2001, his minor league triple slash was .315/.395/.427 — but he was blocked by Mike Piazza for much of that time, and at a certain point, he looked like a guy in his late 20s who could hit well in the Pacific Coast League, which doesn’t say much about anyone. However, his perseverance bought him a chance, and he rode a fluky power spike in 2001 to a regular big league job for most of the next seven years.

Varitek had a serious pedigree. A teammate of Nomar Garciaparra and Jay Payton at Georgia Tech, he was the 14th overall pick in the 1994 draft, taken by the Mariners two spots after Nomar himself. Because of his college success, they sent him to Double-A, and he struggled. After two years of that, they sent him to Boston along with Derek Lowe in the infamous Heathcliff Slocumb trade. He had an iffy year of Triple-A in 1997, but still managed to established himself in the majors the next year, splitting time with Scott Hatteberg in 1998 and becoming the full-time starter in 1999, as he was for more than a decade.

Perhaps a bit like Matt Wieters, another switch-hitting catcher from Georgia Tech, Varitek took a couple of years to adjust to professional pitching, and baseball observers took a few years to adjust their expectations. But when he finally established himself, he was a very good player.

Unlike some of the others on this list, Evan Gattis is not making a late debut because he was blocked at the major league level. He’s making a late debut because he was sort of lost as a 20-year-old, and spent a few years drifting before finding himself. With Brian McCann a free agent at the end of the year, the Braves will be watching him intently this month to see whether he may be their catcher of the future. Can he be Walker Cooper, or will he be more like Greg Olson, a Braves catcher from a previous generation whose poor hitting doomed his career even before Ken Caminiti ended his 1992 season?

For now, Gattis looks like he may be able to stick in the majors. But he’s still raw, and though he has a good throwing arm his instincts behind the plate are still a work in progress. He has been able to ambush a few pitches in the early going, but he’s not going to keep up a .400 BABIP, especially not when the scouting report on him makes its way around the league. Still, he’s in the majors now, and if he can put on the mask and shinguards, there’s a good chance that there will be a job for him as a backup catcher for the next ten years. Over the coming months and years, we’ll see what his true ceiling looks like.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

19 Responses to “Evan Gattis and Other Old Rookie Catchers”

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  1. cnote66 says:

    Isn’t it common for catchers to develop slower than other positional players?

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  2. fast at last says:

    As a Braves fan, Gattis has been the ultimate divider between saber nerds who don’t want to get ahead of themselves, and fanboys who are yelling to trade Mccann. Personally I could see him becoming a V-Mart type hitter, but wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just a serviceable backup.

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    • a5ehren says:

      Yeah. Anyone who points out that a 25 year-old mashing on High-A pitching isn’t that special is branded a “hater” now, apparently.

      I’m glad Gattis is off to a good start, but I can’t imagine he’ll keep it up. Hopefully it lasts until Mac is back, though.

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    • Of course, if he can look credible behind the plate, then he could have a 10-year career even if he never learns how to hit a breaking ball. The standards for backup catchers are relatively low.

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  3. Dan says:

    Normally there are good baseball reasons for why a 26 year old is getting a first shot in the big leagues. But with Gattis, the reason is a weird off-the-wall that has little to do with baseball skills/ability. So he’s already an outlier when you try to find comparables that way.

    What would it look like if you put a guy with major league skills an a prison cell for his 18-22 year old seasons, and then let him loose on the low minors? You would expect an average hitter to do well, and a guy who ultimately becomes an above average hitter to rake at levels below AA. Well, Gattis did that. It doesn’t tell me anything about his ability to successfully hit MLB caliber pitching, but it also offers no evidence that he can’t do it.

    Most guys who can’t hit MLB pitching have given plenty of indications that they can’t do it by 26.

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    • wily mo says:

      exactly. this is what i wrote back in february in a comment on a braves blog that was going on and on about age relative to league…

      the point is – as you correctly point out in another comment, gattis has never succeeded against players his own age. but he’s never failed against players his own age, either.

      most guys who are still in AA at 26 are still there because they’ve failed to hit their way out of the minors faster than that. which is generally a bad sign for their ability. that’s not true of gattis. he’s hit like a bastard every time he’s been on the field. he just hasn’t been on the field very much yet. maybe he’s just this good? there’s very little evidence to the contrary.

      the thought experiment – and i saw someone else already do this upthread and immediately get yelled at for comparing gattis to pujols, so let me just say up front, that’s not what i’m doing.

      but, think of it this way. if albert pujols drifted ashore in miami on one of those cuban studebaker rafts at age 26, walked up the beach into a minor league stadium and started to hit, how would you know it was him? he’d tear the cover off the ball, no doubt. but he’d be really old for the league…

      the minor league age curve is a really important analytical guideline. but all rules have exceptions.

      i’m just curious how, specifically, people think pitchers are going to get gattis out. he has massive power and also doesn’t strike out very much. that’s a rare and good profile. people keep saying he won’t amount to anything, but they never go into ANY detail about why that is OTHER than the fact that he’s so old, end of line.

      on twitter the other day i saw a picture of gattis at age 14 or 15 with the USA development team. i’m not totally sure what that team is or how it’s put together, but some of the other guys in the picture (out of about 15 dudes total) were justin upton, billy butler, homer bailey and austin jackson. so there *was* a time when gattis got put into that kind of company via some sort of scouting process, back when he was the same age as everyone else.

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      • a5ehren says:

        The competition he’s been up against in the low minors is a bunch of 20 year-olds who throw 95 and can’t locate it. Few of them have good breaking balls or changeups, and fewer still have the command to put it in good locations.

        CAC had a good article yesterday showing a heatmap of the pitches Gattis has seen thus far. He’s seen a lot of fastballs over the plate because pitchers are arrogantly trying to challenge him. If you compare his map to Heyward or Freeman, you notice a distinct lack of low-and-away pitches on Gattis’s chart.

        The way they’re probably going to start getting him out is by throwing breaking balls near the corners and fastballs off the plate. It’ll be up to Gattis to adjust to that.

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        • wily mo says:

          CAC is, in fact, the braves blog i posted this comment on back in february. saw the heatmap article, too. it’s quite true that hitters coming up from the minors can tend to have a honeymoon period where they’re challenged and then a slump as they get booked and have to adjust. that’s true for literally everyone, though, and i don’t think it has much to do with what i’m talking about.

          (note that i’m not arguing that gattis’ hot first two weeks “proves” that he’s a stud, although i freely admit that i do intuitively suspect that he is. to me the situation now is more or less the same as it was in february.)

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  4. The Ted, Section 437 says:

    The thing that impresses me the most about Gattis is how quickly the ball seems to jump off his bat. I’m guardedly optimistic thus far, and for the team it’s a nice problem to have.

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  5. nsacpi says:

    The more interesting comparables are guys like Ron LeFlore and Hamilton, who for personal reasons, were away from the game for over 2 years during what are the key formative years for young prospects.

    Another similar group would be young prospects who had to delay their development while serving in the military. I’m not talking about guys like Ted Williams who was already an established major leaguer, but rather someone like Gil Hodges who played briefly in the major in 1943, then spent over two years away from the game. It would be interesting to look a list of top hitting prospects age 19 or 20 who had their development interrupted like that by military service.

    The Gil Hodges precedent obviously is a very positive one for Gattis. But there are undoubtedly others in similar situations who never made it. The key question is how much that kind of detour affected the career paths of that group compared to a similar group of prospects who did not have that kind of detour.

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  6. Nate says:

    Gattis is a beast.

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  7. ataraxia_ says:

    Lo Duca didn’t have a fluky power spike, he was a steroids guy.

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  8. atoms says:

    Re: Lo Duca

    “Fluky power spike”, indeed.

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  9. BravesFan says:

    Greg Olson was FAR from doomed by his offense. He was a fan favorite, an All-Star, and a great backstop who helped to groom the young trio of Glavine, Smoltz, and Steve Avery into 3/4 of a rotation that led us past the veteran-laden Pirates and 7 games deep against the Twins in the most exciting World Series of all-time. (You have to remember, this was pre-Piazza, when any offense you got from your catcher was a bonus, and you could handle getting none, as long as he was doing his job behind the plate.)

    Whether or not he’d have ever been able to keep his career going without picking up on the offensive side is something we’ll never know… thanks to Ken Caminiti… no friend to Braves fans…

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    • Prior to his 1992 injury, Olson hit .247/.321/.350, a .305 wOBA and 85 wRC+. In 1993, he hit .225/.304/.309 with a .284 wOBA and 67 wRC+. He was just a bad hitter, and Javy Lopez was a rookie in 1994. The pitchers may have liked him for his gamecalling skills, but Olson was just a placeholder.

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  10. Drew says:

    Yeah man, Lo Duca took time-release ‘roids, and they only worked for one season. How could you not mention that in the article?

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