First Round History: Catchers

Yesterday, Erik Manning penned a really nice reminder piece about the lackluster history of first round draft picks. I have seen the traffic jumps at enough websites to know that fans are becoming really interested in their respective organization’s bonus babies, but it’s important that pieces like Erik remind us what we’re getting into. With his permission, I’m kicking off a series in which I look at this position by position, with 3 elements: 15 years of history at a given position (in a similar manner to Erik’s), then a look at current minor leaguers at that position, and finally, a look at the prospective first round draftees. We’ll see how it goes, but we begin today with the backstops.

From 1988-2002, thirty-one catchers were drafted in the first round of the June Amateur Draft. Ten draftees would never play in the Major Leagues, a group that includes six high school picks, the one junior college player, and three college guys. Another eight picks can safely be called busts, having produced between -2.4 and 0.1 WAR at the big league level. This group consists of five college players and three high school busts. This leaves 13 players that have produced 2 WAR or greater in the Majors. Here they are, ranked by their pre-2010 career WAR, according to Rally’s historical database:

Name               WAR    From
Jason Kendall      37.1    HS
Joe Mauer          33.1    HS
Jason Varitek      22.6     U
Charles Johnson    21.9     U
Paul Konerko       17.2    HS
Mike Lieberthal    15.4    HS
Dan Wilson         13.7     U
Jayson Werth       13.4    HS
Scott Hatteberg     8.5     U
Brent Mayne         4.2     U
Ramon Castro        3.0    PR
Ben Davis           3.0    HS
Mark Johnson        2.0    HS

So, we have certainly established that the “boom or bust” perception of high school draftees holds water with the catcher position, which had a higher percentage of busts, but also the better production of WAR in the Majors. You can see that three players that were drafted as catchers — Paul Konerko, Jayson Werth, Scott Hatteberg — would have varying degrees of success in the Majors at a different position. My next step was to look at their minor league performances to try and identify some common theme. This began with looking at their builds on the minor league pages at Baseball-Reference.

Builds

I see three subsets of builds that are common among the 13 players. First, we have the smallish catchers, between 6-0 and 6-1, from 170 to 190 pounds. This consisted of these five catchers: Kendall, Lieberthal, Hatteberg, Mayne, and Johnson. Then, you have the guys that are 6-2 and 6-3, with their weight usually in the 200’s: Varitek, Johnson, Konerko, Wilson, Castro. And then the odd ducks are the tall guys: Joe Mauer, Jayson Werth and Ben Davis. While there is some variance within each subset, I think these work as solid outlines.

Low-A Production

Eight of the 13 players spent time in Low-A, with University of Miami product Charles Johnson producing the best (.827 OPS) batting line, and high school draftee Mark Johnson (.624 OPS) as the worst. The other six were all between .677 and .785 in the OPS column. And those numbers, I should mention, are what the top two catchers in this study, Jason Kendall and Joe Mauer, respectively produced at the level.

High-A Production

This is definitely where you can begin to separate the men from the boys. Five players had an OPS above .780, from highest to lowest in this order: Kendall, Mauer, Paul Konerko, Mark Johnson and Jayson Werth. This group is still in the process of completing very solid big league careers. Then, you have the three that were below .720 in OPS: Ramon Castro, Ben Davis and Scott Hatteberg. Not as solid.

Double-A Production

A wide variance again, but again, it’s Kendall, Mauer, Konerko leading the way, accompanied by Mark and Charles Johnson. For what it’s worth, first round catchers seem to speak well for using MLE’s in long-term projections: the best players performed the best at High-A and above. Only Jason Varitek (.733 OPS) seems to buck the trend.

Triple-A Production

I tend not to look at these numbers much, because there is a lot of noise. But Paul Konerko dominated AAA (1.030 OPS), while guys like Davis, Liberthal and Dan Wilson really struggled. Mark Johnson and Ramon Castro have been AAA lifers, and have proven themselves as full-fledged Quad-A players. Not a lot to look at here.

Bust Production

Of course, none of the above helps us identify busts if we don’t compare it with the 58% of first round catchers that were not successful in the Majors. It would be nice if all the busts were like Scott Heard or Jim Gonzalez, guys that were bad out of the gate and never teased prospect analysts. But how do we explain guys like Jeff Mathis?

What I’ve found from a lot of these players that separates them from the ones that would reach the Majors is a significant drop in production upon the move to Double-A. Mathis was deservedly a great prospect after a .884 OPS in High-A at a young age, but when he went down to .726 the next season, more warning signs should have gone off than actually did. Same holds true for marginal prospects like Ryan Christianson, and for a bad defensive player like Jeremy Brown. Finding a way to continue improving, and slight improvements from year to year might hold more weight than the numbers themselves.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back looking at the minor league players that were once first-round catchers, and see if they are on their way to becoming busts or big league success stories.



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James
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James
6 years 8 days ago

Why is 2 WAR your cutoff? Just because there is no one between 2.0 and 0.1?

Vinny
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Vinny
6 years 7 days ago

Great to see a piece like his, and definitely of interest given the hype surrounding first round picks lately. Do you believe it affects the analysis that a number of these players are no longer playing as catchers? Catching certainly puts a strain on one’s body that could affect production, not to mention switching positions can prolong a career.

Dave
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Dave
6 years 7 days ago

Nice article, I’m enjoying this series. Aside: Why is Joe Mauer’s WAR total higher here than what’s listed on his fangraphs player card?

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