You’ll never hear of an organization complaining of too much catching depth. The position is one of the hardest ones to fill in baseball. It requires a special set of tools and athleticism, the body to handle the wear and tear behind the plate, the ability to know the tendencies of every pitcher you work with, and on top of all of that, the ability to hit.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have added a huge boost to their minor league catching depth over the last few years. They drafted Reese McGuire with a first round pick in 2013. They signed Jin-De Jhang to the biggest amateur contract out of Taiwan. They saw Elias Diaz break out, after giving him an aggressive push in the lower levels of the minors, and sticking with him when he struggled. And even with all of those options currently in the system, they continued to add depth by drafting Taylor Gushue in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
Gushue is an interesting catching prospect, as he’s not like most catchers who come out of college. He graduated from high school a semester early so that he could enroll at the University of Florida that spring and begin his college career a year early. He spent time behind Mike Zunino at first, before moving to the full-time position his sophomore year. The result was that he was eligible for the MLB draft a year early, but came in a bit more raw than most college catchers.
The Pirates liked the fact that Gushue was a year younger than most players out of college. They had a similar trend with first round pick Cole Tucker being a year younger than all of the high school players in the draft. In Gushue’s case, a lot of college players break out around their junior year, so the idea of getting him in the system before that point is very appealing. Under a normal timeline, the 2015 season would have been Gushue’s junior year in college, making him draft eligible in a few weeks. Instead, he’s already the starting catcher in West Virginia.
As for the abilities, the Pirates have been working since day one with Gushue on improving his game. They put a big focus in his pitch framing, which seems to be a trend with their approach to developing catchers. He has spent a lot of time working on this with his manager and a former catcher, Brian Esposito, along with Pirates’ Minor League Catching Instructor Milver Reyes. Esposito and Reyes both praised Gushue’s attitude and desire to get better in this area.
“In Spring Training we worked on it pretty much every day,” Gushue said. “It’s just one of those things you just have to work at. I know I’m not the best receiver in the world, but I sure hope I will be one day. I’m going to put in the work. That’s pretty much what it is, just repetitions, knowing your pitcher, how the ball moves while it’s in flight. Just good timing when receiving the ball. Presenting it well to the umpire. There’s a bunch of different factors that go into it, but it’s just something I’ve got to keep working on.”
Reyes said that they used a pitching machine in Spring Training every day, with Gushue practicing receiving the ball at a high velocity. This is a common approach for catchers in the system, and something that they all go through daily in Spring Training.
“We do them in short distance, that way they can get some velocity,” Reyes said of the drill. “It’s not about catching the baseball. It’s about recognizing where the ball is going to be landing.”
Gushue noted that this becomes more difficult as you move up in the game, since the higher levels start to see better stuff from the pitchers. He noted that the use of different balls at different levels also impacts the way the ball moves.
“There’s definitely a curve as you go up,” Gushue said. “As you get older, pitcher’s stuff starts moving more, so you really have to focus on receiving the ball the right way.”
Gushue showed off some good framing skills in the three games I saw him catch this year, adding a few strikes on calls that were right on the edge of either side of the plate. He did struggle throwing out runners, going 2-for-11, although that can mostly be attributed to the pitchers. He went 2-for-10 in one game, with the eight stolen bases coming off Alex McRae and Jake Burnette. McRae throws in the 88-92 MPH range, and Burnette was relying mostly on off-speed stuff, making it difficult for Gushue to get anyone. He was 0-for-8 with those two, and 2-for-2 with Junior Lopez, who throws in the mid-90s and is quicker to the plate.
“The pitcher is going to be whatever he is to the plate,” Esposito said. “If he’s not very quick, or the runner gets a good jump, you can’t make up the times for that. I think he did a better job of realizing that, and just controlling the controllables of the game.”
The Pirates put more of a focus on pitchers executing their pitches at the lower levels, rather than worrying about the running game. This makes it difficult for catchers to put up good numbers, and some try to respond by throwing harder, which usually leads to a throw that is off the mark. Gushue ran into this problem with McRae and Burnette, although settled down and fixed the problem later in the game. I talked with a scout who saw Gushue and had his pop times in the 1.97 range, so the arm isn’t an issue.
One of the things that is harder to quantify in catching, but definitely plays an important role, is how a catcher works with his pitching staff. Gushue comes across as an intelligent player who is very personable and knowledgable of the game, all while being clear spoken. All of these would translate well to his work with pitchers on the mound. He is an American catcher with plenty of Spanish-speaking pitchers on the team, which would normally present a communications challenge. However, that’s not a big challenge for him, since he can speak Spanish.
“Thankfully, one of my passions growing up was foreign language,” Gushue said. “I took about five years of Spanish in high school, and then I studied it a little bit in college too. It really helps me communicate with the guys. Having that bi-lingual kind of background, I’m not perfect, but I can get my way around. I think that’s huge. I think it helps me earn the respect of the [Latin American players] as well. They trust me more to call their pitches.”
Catchers spend so much time focusing on every aspect of their defense, whether that’s pitch framing, controlling the running game, their relationships with pitchers, and calling the games. It’s no surprise that most catchers in the lower levels struggle on offense, since so much of their time is devoted to the defensive side of the game. And in some cases, the struggles on offense can lead to struggles on defense, and vice-versa.
“The younger kids, it’s hard for them to figure it out the first year,” Reyes said on learning how to separate the offense and defense. “Obviously our job is trying to teach them how to grow in that area, and separate both. That’s how they’re going to get to the big leagues. But it’s not easy for younger kids trying to separate both.”
Gushue has a good approach at the plate, with a good ability to make contact, and some potential for gap power. His bat is currently struggling, with a .627 OPS in 109 at-bats this year. That’s not unlike other catchers who have gone through West Virginia in recent years. Elias Diaz never topped a .609 OPS in two years at the level. Reese McGuire had a .642 OPS.
Diaz and McGuire both have the chance to be strong defensive catchers with the ability to add offensive value. Gushue doesn’t have the defensive upside of either player, but his defense could be strong enough for the majors. The big challenge with any catcher spending so much focus on their defense is that they have very little time to focus on the offense. This is why it is rare for MLB teams to see a strong two-way catcher. Gushue has some offensive potential, but will need to find a way to improve that in future years, all while he’s spending so much time improving the defensive side of his game. But there’s a reason the defense comes first.
“In order for me to get to the big leagues, I need to be a great catcher,” Gushue said. “No pitcher is going to want to throw to me if I’m not a great catcher. I’m very confident in my bat. I’m not worried about it at all.”
At this point, Gushue is a project, but an interesting guy with some upside. Defensively, he’s got the potential to stick behind the plate and become an MLB catcher. He’s got some offensive potential as well. However, he isn’t as strong of a bet at becoming a solid MLB catcher as Diaz or McGuire. That’s not a concern for the Pirates, since they have the other two catching prospects, meaning that anything coming from Gushue will be a bonus.