The rebuilding Baltimore Orioles hope Adley Rutschman becomes the new face of the franchise. Dubbed the best MLB draft prospect since Bryce Harper by Baseball America, Rutschman was taken with the first overall pick last June, the first full-time catcher selected No. 1 since Joe Mauer in 2001. But he could also become a new archetype for his position: a catcher whose primary value is his hitting.
Rutschman told FiveThirtyEight that the story behind his bat is one of nurture as much as nature. As a young player, he taught himself to switch hit with the aid of his father, a baseball coach at George Fox University, a Division III school in Oregon. They would head to the college field with a 5-gallon bucket of balls, or he would hit into a portable net in their home’s driveway. After his freshman season at Oregon State, when he hit just .234, Rutschman rebuilt his swing to add more lift and power. As a sophomore with the Beavers, Rutschman slashed .408/.505/.628, helping the school to a College World Series title and setting a series record for hits. He was even better as a junior, batting .411 with a 1.326 OPS. MLB.com and FanGraphs project him for above-average hitting and power in the majors.
In striving to improve, Rutschman tries to embrace change. “Being OK with being uncomfortable is a huge thing I like to go by,” he told FiveThirtyEight.
Catchers and MLB teams might soon have to get very comfortable with change. Catcher is the one position on the field for which teams have still routinely traded offense for defense: It’s the rare position that has gained in defensive importance this century. But no other position is threatened with having so much defensive value stripped away. An automated strike zone, which MLB has begun to experiment with, would eliminate the value of receiving, and advances in training are already shrinking the gulf in defensive skill at the position.
Yankees catching instructor Tanner Swanson told FiveThirtyEight that an automated zone would completely change the position: “It would be almost a second DH.”
All of this means that finding bats to man the backstop might become very important. It’s a potential sea change in baseball, but Rutschman and the next wave of catchers might be well positioned for it: MLB.com’s top 10 catching prospects include five catchers projected to be better-than-average hitters.
Catchers have been among the worst hitters in baseball — and sometimes the very worst offensive performers in a given season. They’ve often competed with shortstops for the distinction of worst hitters in the game, according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which adjusts for the ballpark and the run-scoring environment in any given year. But since the 1970s, shortstops have consistently improved in offensive performance, crescendoing in recent years to what is now described as a golden age at the position. Catchers, meanwhile, continued to lag.
Teams can afford more offense at shortstop, once a defense-first position, because of the confluence of the rise in strikeouts, home runs and defensive shifts: Shortstop is one of many positions seeing fewer and fewer defensive opportunities. If defense is less important, it makes sense that clubs would seek more run-production ability from that position.
But unlike other defensive positions on the field, the position of catcher has added defensive value in recent years. Why? Over the last decade, first hobbyists then teams have quantified the hidden and powerful skill of pitch framing, a catcher’s ability to receive borderline pitches in a way that gets them called as strikes. Teams began to understand the vast difference in framing skill at the position and the number of runs that could be saved by good framers — and runs cost by poor receivers. They started to target players who possessed framing skills and even teach those who didn’t. The value in framing is thought to account for the majority of defensive value behind the plate.
But the skill faces two threats, one existential, the other more immediate.
Framing relies on the fallibility of the human eye, the home plate umpire’s perception of the strike zone. But MLB now has the technology to automate the strike zone. It has experimented with such a zone in the Arizona Fall League and had planned, before the pandemic struck, to bring it to some minor league parks in 2020. Adding an automated zone has also been discussed this year as a way to allow umpires to maintain appropriate distance from the catcher and batter if there is a season. But if MLB chose to automate the zone, catchers could lose much of their value.
“Without question, it [would] completely shift the scope of skills that are required to now play the position. It really shifts the population of who you put back there,” Swanson said. “[Catcher] then becomes more of an offensive position.”
Catchers still perform other important defensive duties, of course: They throw out runners, make pitch selections and block bad pitches. But catchers’ arms have become less relevant as the number of stolen bases drops. “The blocking piece becomes more important,” Swanson said, “[but] I don’t see the throwing piece changing unless you start playing less athletic catchers, and maybe to combat that teams start trying to run more. So it’s the cat-and-mouse game.”
One of the greatest drawbacks of the automated zone, Swanson said, is that a catcher would not even have to catch the ball unless there were runners on base or two strikes. He suggested that stealing first base might need to be an option to ensure that catchers actually try to catch pitches, particularly awkwardly located ones.
But even if MLB decides against an automated zone, there’s another challenge to the framing value of the position: Catchers are getting better at it, so the gap between the best and worst framing catchers is shrinking. Over the last decade, the standard deviation of framing runs — a measure that relies on pitch-tracking technology to determine the probability of a called strike and the associated run value for each pitch, for qualifying players — has fallen.
|Year||Standard deviation in framing runs saved|
If the floor continues to rise, teams will be forced to look elsewhere to create competitive advantage at the position.
Orioles assistant general manager Sig Mejdal said the team had considered that catchers’ defensive value could be threatened before they selected Rutschman with the No. 1 overall pick. But Rutschman has a strong arm, and the throwing component will always be a part of the position, Mejdal noted. Rutschman has received high grades for his all-around ability behind the plate and hitting at it. Rustschman graded as an average framer in a small minor league sample last summer, but some evaluators are bullish on his framing upside.
“I think how we evaluated catchers a decade ago or two decades ago, when we really didn’t appreciate pitch framing, I think we would return to those times” if the value of framing diminishes, Mejdal said. “Of course, there are less stolen bases in the game now, but I still think there is going to be significant appreciation of their defensive skills.”
That appreciation could perhaps include skills that have largely been unquantifiable to date. Mejdal said the new Orioles regime has begun to investigate the value of pitch calling. “It’s irresponsible not to,” he said.
It’s possible that pitch calling will become the new pitch framing. But as innovation changes the game, and without more value placed on specific skills behind the plate, catchers might need to take a whole new approach to their position. Catchers might soon need to turn into sluggers, just like Rutschman.