Yesterday I was going over the traffic reports on the site, and noticed something interesting about the recent top 20 prospects countdown. The top three prospects, according to traffic, were Jin-De Jhang, Wyatt Mathisen, and Tony Sanchez, all in that order. I don’t know why the only catchers in the top 20 received the most traffic. Perhaps it was because catcher has been a long-term hole in the majors. Maybe it just had something to do with the individual hype behind the three. Jhang and Mathisen both got a lot of attention as rising prospects this year, and Sanchez always has the magnifying glass on him because of how the Pirates approached the 2009 draft.
I mentioned this briefly on Twitter yesterday, and got a few responses. One person commented that they might be the top three read articles because Pirates fans want to see a solid catcher in the majors. Another asked which has the best shot at becoming a regular starting catcher. After seeing Wyatt Mathisen named to MLB.com’s 11-15 list of the top catching prospects, I decided to take a closer look at this question.
All three catchers have the chance to make the majors, and all three could be starters. When we dig a bit deeper, we see that their chances are all different, as are their upsides. So I’m not going to just draw the line at a starting catcher. I’m going to look a bit higher and see if the Pirates have a potential two-way catcher, who can excel on offense and defense.
The closest to the majors is Tony Sanchez. He’s got the defense to be a starter in the majors. The problem has been his offense. He’s struggled with a lack of power and a low average in the upper levels over the last two years. He saw a power increase after going to Indianapolis in 2012, but the average was still low. The defense will eventually put him in the majors, but the bat will decide his value. Right now I’d put him between a strong defensive backup and an average starter who is more defensive minded. The bar for offense is pretty low for catchers, but I still wouldn’t say Sanchez has the potential to be a two-way guy. He’s mostly going to make it with his defense, and his hitting just has to be average for a catcher to have value as a starter.
Mathisen and Jhang both played in the Gulf Coast League last year. Right away the biggest obstacle for each player is sticking at the position for the long-term. As catchers move up in the minor leagues, most of them shift to different positions. Their bodies either grow out of the position or they break down because of the wear and tear. Just because they’re catchers now, doesn’t make them catchers one day in the majors. If both players can stay at the position they can both develop into two-way players.
I’ve seen a lot of Jhang in the last year and a half. His hitting has always been impressive, to the point where I put him as the best pure hitting catcher in the system in the 2013 Prospect Guide. He’s also got the potential to hit for some plus power for a catcher. Defense is going to be a question for him, mostly due to his weight. I didn’t give him much of a chance of making it to the majors when I saw him in 2011, mostly due to the weight. He has since slimmed down, which has helped his agility behind the plate. Keeping in shape is going to be a challenge for his build, and is going to be key for his chances of making the majors. He’s not a guy who can play another position if he doesn’t make it as a catcher. The only alternative would be a designated hitter. He has a very strong arm, and his defense showed some promise in the GCL last year after slimming down. If he can manage the weight, he’s got the chance to be a two-way catcher.
Mathisen is also better at hitting than defense right now. He’s a good pure hitter with the potential to add some power down the line. He’s got a totally different body than Jhang. Mathisen is very athletic, to the point where he won’t have a problem finding another position if he can’t stick behind the plate. For now, his value is stronger at catcher. He has a plus arm, and his athleticism allows him to move well behind the plate. The problem is that he’s raw, having spent most of his time in high school playing shortstop. After signing with the Pirates he spent time working with Tom Prince and Milver Reyes on his receiving skills. He’s got the potential to be a good hitter, and he has a plus arm, which is a good start to being a two-way catcher. He needs to get more experience with his receiving skills, and use his athleticism to block pitches and maneuver behind the plate. He’s got further to go with his defense than with his offense, but has the tools to be a two-way player.
The Pirates don’t have a sure thing two-way catcher right now. They have three guys who could make the majors as starters. Sanchez is more of a defensive-minded catcher, and doesn’t look like he’ll hit enough to be a two-way option. Mathisen and Jhang are both good pure hitters with power potential and plus arms, but need work on their moves behind the plate and their receiving skills. Their proximity to the majors also hurts, since they’re far from guarantees to remain behind the plate as they move up and grow up. Both have the tools and potential to be two-way catchers, but right now that makes them the catching equivalent to a pitcher like Tyler Glasnow who has all of the tools and potential to be a number one starter, but is currently not a number one starter prospect.
Links and Notes
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