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.