MLB teams rarely use high draft picks on catchers. The Minnesota Twins were the last to do it — back in 2001. Taking a risk on a new catcher always risks sacrificing offense. This could change fast. College World Series champ Adley Rutschman going first overall to the Baltimore Orioles is likely the first sign.
One of the more mentally and physically taxing positions in baseball is about to serve an entirely different role, thanks to the impending arrival of the automatic strike zone.
Why the automatic strike zone is all but inevitable for MLB
Traditionally, the catcher’s role is a convoluted, poker-esque interplay between himself, the pitcher, and the umpire. The catcher’s ability to properly frame a pitch, fooling the umpire into a misread, is highly sought-after.
The other roles — calling pitches with convoluted signals, properly blocking and fielding balls, and more — are important. But great framing is what separates an elite catcher from the rest. And framing is about to become a lost art.
A series of high-profile blown calls across MLB in recent years has changed the conversation around automatic strike zones. As of 2019, reports ESPN, umpires have already given their approval to testing technology that eliminates a key aspect of their role on the field. It seemed impossible just a few years ago, but now seems inevitable.
A new direction for MLB catchers?
Once the automatic strike zone is ready for primetime in MLB, framing instantly becomes a dead art. The immense defensive value of catchers will drop drastically. The breathing room players at the position once had offensively becomes completely flipped.
A catcher like Mike Piazza, with his incredible .308 batting average according to Baseball-Reference, was an unbelievable talent in his day. This was not how catchers were supposed to hit. In the current form of the game, however, there is already a willingness to give up on some of a catcher’s defensive value for offensive improvement.
The Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras is one of the worst framers in the league, but his playing time increased nonetheless. A .272 2019 average (as seen on MLB.com) was enough for then-Cubs skipper Joe Maddon to rely heavily on Contreras. Losing some pitches on poor framing was already seen as a worthy tradeoff. Then again, Maddon lost his spot with the Cubs after 2019, in part because of long stretches of eerily quiet bats.
How Adley Rutschman could be the first of a new wave
Contreras still has high defensive value as a great blocker and a fast, accurate thrower. That’s how, in an era where new techniques have actually caused the defensive value of catchers to rise, reports ESPN, Contreras holds onto his position. But even these crucial skills could be seen as candidates to trade off for offense in an automatic strike zone future.
Rutschman’s draft sends a blaring signal to the league that teams are ready to turn catching into, essentially, a second DH. The young catcher is an average at best framer, according to FiveThirtyEight, which would normally take him out of contention for something so lofty as a first overall pick. Baltimore’s front office are taking a big bet here. They’re assuming the defensive value of the position will drop drastically very soon.
It takes years to develop a fully-formed MLB-ready player at any position. If they expect to have accurate, hard-hitting catchers to respond to the coming automatic strike zone, they need to act now. That’s reasonable — besides, any team would be blessed to have a player as close to “getting it” at a high level of play as Rutschman already is. It’s the “first overall pick” part that sticks out. MLB is very likely on the path to filling the catcher’s spot with sluggers first, defensive talents second.