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2016 Draft Preview No. 14: Catch a Rising Star

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More draft previews, this time focusing on catchers drawn from the ranks of college baseball.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The title of this post -- the 'catch a rising star' part, specifically -- reminds me of that old 80s song, "Waiting for a Star to Fall", by Boy Meets Girl. You know the one:

Tryin' to catch your heart,

is like

Tryin' to catch a staaarrrr...

Sure you do.

And that song always reminds me of a field trip in fourth grade, when my best friend Mike Copeland and I got in trouble with Mrs. Fitzgerald, my teacher at the time (Mike was in another class; whichever other one was going to the Science Center with us that day), who also happened to have come straight from central casting as the mean old lady teacher, who authentically hated children (my mother has confirmed this fact to me; it wasn't just my impression as a nine year old, the woman was actually extremely nasty), wore cat's eye glasses on a chain around her neck, and would have smacked us with rulers had we come along even one generation earlier.

Anyway, Mike and I got in trouble for singing that song, quite loudly, sitting in the back of the bus (we were the cool kids, so long as the bus didn't have any fifth or sixth graders on it), but changing the lyrics to

Tryin' to catch your heart,

is like

Tryin' to catch a faaaarrrrt...

It was the very pinnacle of humour for nine year olds.

I don't have anything else to add to this story.

*******

We're looking today at one of the thinner demographics in this year's draft: that of collegiate catchers. College catchers, in general, are not generally the most well thought-of players; in any give year you might get one or two who belong in the first round, but almost never more than that. Often it will be fewer, even; college catchers so rarely possess the kind of flashy tools to inspire first-round grades, and the finer points of catching are exceedingly difficult to scout out in the amateur ranks, where the amount of responsibility a player is expected to take on can vary wildly, and pitch-framing is complicated by huge variations in the quality of pitchers a give catcher is catching. Catchers with huge tools (tee-hee) almost invariably are snatched up out of high school, and if a player has a true carrying tool in terms of his bat, he basically never stays behind the plate anyway. Buster Posey is an absolute outlier, to an extent that is hard to even grasp.

So, as a result, the players who remain catchers coming out of college are generally not all that toolsy, have often never been asked to call a game themselves, and may not have had an opportunity to perform with a high-velocity guy on the mound, and never been able to show off their fine framing skills because while you can frame a pitch two inches off the corner and steal a strike, college pitchers are missing by more like six or eight inches, and you aren't stealing strikes on those.

This year is no different, in terms of the demographic; if anything, this might even be a slightly thinner than usual crop. Or maybe not. It always seems fairly dire, but at least some of the guys drafted out of college with a "C" by their names will make it to the big leagues, and some will be quite successful. So let's take a look at some of the more likely candidates, shall we?

Chris Okey, C, Clemson

5'11", 195 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what so great about this guy?

All those things I said a moment ago, about college catchers seeming to somewhat fall through the cracks every draft due to their tools not really being the sort that attract teams on draft day and their contributions being of a subtle variety, apply perfectly to Chris Okey. In fact, they apply the most perfectly to Okey of all three players I'm covering here today, as each of the other two have slightly more specific, and thus more definable, skillsets.

Okey, however, is almost the college catcher prototype, a player with average tools pretty much across the board, with only his speed rating below average, but probably not a single tool I would put a 60 on, either. Even a 55 on any one tool would probably be pushing it; the arm might be a tick above average, but he isn't a catch-and-throw monster, by any means.

What might seem to be a remarkably uninspiring, uninteresting toolset at first glance, though, could also just as easily be described as 'well-rounded', as Okey (I've literally typed his name as 'okay' every single time I've come to it so far), offers an ability to contribute in all facets of the game, in the sort of subtle, solid, and oh-so important ways that all good catchers do. He's an average hitter, with solid command of the strike zone and average contact skills. He's capable of doing damage on contact, as well, though his power is more of the gap to gap doubles variety than over the fence, and likely always will be. He won't kill you with high strikeout numbers, gets on base at a solid clip, and will probably put up a .150ish ISO. Maybe a little better, even.

Behind the plate, Okey draws solid reviews for his intelligence and game-calling, and I will have to take those reports at face value and pass them on to you. I have no way of scouting the intangibles of a catcher's game, which is obviously a huge part of why scouting catchers in general is so very difficult. I can say he appears very technically sound in terms of his movements and blocking, and even with college pitchers throwing to him you rarely see him stab at a ball or catch it awkwardly. In short, in terms of the very limited things I can actually scout visually about Okey's defensive abilities, he looks solid to me. He's accurate in throwing, and quick to his feet, which helps his average arm play up. Still, it isn't a cannon, and you aren't going to see a whole lot of highlight-reel throws from Okey.

In short, Chris Okey is a solid all-around player, a solid all-around catcher, and will be very hard to get exceedingly excited about. He's exactly the sort of player teams need behind the plate, though, capable of doing everything reasonably well.

You know, a college catcher.

via Queen City Videos:

Sean Murphy, C, Wright State

6'3", 220 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Sean Murphy, unlike Chris Okey, possesses one carrying tool as a catcher, and it's the one that's probably the most obvious when you watch the game: his arm is an absolute howitzer.

The throwing grade is probably a 70; we're talking near-Yadier levels of feats of arms with Murphy. If you're looking for the one college catcher who will shut down the running game at the next level, Sean Murphy is your guy.

Beyond the arm, the rest of his receiving skills appear solid, at least in my very limited experience. He moves around well behind the plate, particularly considering his quite large frame, and blocks balls in a manner somewhat similar to a goalie using the butterfly technique. Take my impressions, again, with a grain of salt, as I haven't seen nearly enough of him to feel really confident in my assessment. Especially in his case, even moreso than the others here, due to the fact Wright State is much harder to get solid video of than major programs like Clemson and Virginia. I did luck out, though, and find a very helpful member of the school's AV club (or media club, or whatever exactly it's called), so thanks to Courtney, if she ever happens to read this. (I doubt it.)

Murphy's extra-large frame brings with it above-average functional strength, and he's capable of putting a charge into the ball when he connects. If the hit tool comes together well enough to allow him to tap fully into his power potential, this could be a 15-20 homer bat down the road.

The problem is that the if on the hit tool is a fairly big if, as Murphy is a below-average hitter overall. He has pop, certainly, but has had contact issues, particularly playing on the Cape against high-level competition, and has iffy strike zone awareness. That 15-20 homer potential will likely be closer to 10-12 home runs in practice, simply because there are holes in his offensive game pitchers can exploit.

There is also the issue of Murphy simply being very large for a catcher; you don't see 6'3" and broad shoulders behind the plate all that often. Certainly, there are catchers who make it despite being large of stature; Joe Mauer managed a solid defensive career at 6'5", and Matt Wieters has been an excellent defender at a very similar size. It's just not quite as common as a guy at 5'11" or six foot even, and the fact Murphy is just all-around big adds a bit to the concern. At 6'3" and 220 he's fine; at 6'3" and 240 I don't know how it would look.

Murphy is slow of foot now, and probably won't get any faster, considering his size and position. Down the road, he could end up a proper base-clogger, particularly if he isn't diligent about his conditioning.

The upside for Murphy is very intriguing; a plus-plus arm, solid receiving skills, and above-average power could make for an extremely productive catcher. The downside, though, if he simply doesn't develop as a hitter, is pretty low. I have a feeling he makes it to the majors almost no matter what; even if he can't hit at all, a catcher with his kind of arm strength will find himself a backup job somewhere, more likely than not. But there is definitely some concern here. He could pack on more weight, end up too big to move effectively behind the plate, and struggle to make contact at the plate. Where Chris Okey has a relatively narrow range of outcomes, as I expect his all-around solidness to translate into a solid career, without huge bust potential nor much in the way of star potential, Murphy is a much higher-variance sort of player. The defensive chops and power could make him a star; the swing and miss and potentially big body could make him a miss entirely.

There's also the concern of a broken hamate bone suffered this spring, though that's probably not a huge long-term issue. Still, the power generally takes time to return when it's a wrist injury, and so it's likely teams will not get a proper look at 100% Murphy again before the draft. It's possible he falls a bit because of that.

via Baseball America:

Matt Thaiss, C, University of Virginia

5'11", 200 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

If Chris Okey is the all-around average contributor, who makes up for his lack of huge strengths with a lack of crippling weaknesses, and Sean Murphy is the catch-and-throw beast who could be a true difference-maker on defense, then Matt Thaiss of Virginia falls into the third category of college catcher: that of the guy who sticks behind the plate in college due to an ability to not embarrass himself back there, and whose bat is so good that he contributes tons of value overall.

Thaiss's stock has risen this spring, as he's still playing behind the plate for a Virginia program that isn't in the national title picture the way it was last season, but is still solidly a top-25 team, and has been absolutely remarkable in the batter's box.

First, the bad news about Thaiss: I don't think he's a catcher long term. At least, not in a starting capacity at the big league level. He simply doesn't have the defensive chops for it. He has good hands behind the plate, at least, but the arm doesn't really hold up, and the more subtle aspects of the game just don't appear to be there. The best role for Thaiss long term, really, would be as part of an AL organisation -- or perhaps an NL team who believed the universal DH was coming soon -- where he could DH some, play some first base, and move behind the plate only on occasion, maybe to spell an aging, potential Hall of Fame defensive legend who hits from the right side and should really be getting more days off than he does.

The good news about Thaiss is this: no matter what position he ultimately ends up playing most of the time, he has the bat to make it work. It's at least average power, probably a tick or two above, but the real calling card of Thaiss's offensive game is a flat-out amazing command of the strike zone. To wit, in 222 plate appearances this spring for Virginia, Thaiss has walked 32 times, good for a 14.4% walk rate. That's pretty good, right?

In those 222 plate appearances, Matt Thaiss has struck out eight times. I promise that isn't a typo. Eight strikeouts, in 222 plate appearances, good for a 3.6% strikeout rate, and a 4:1 BB/K ratio.

Despite swinging aggressively and driving the ball consistently, Thaiss also just doesn't swing and miss much, particularly with two strikes. He shows an honest to god two strike approach, a true rarity in the game today, and the proof is in the pudding. He's been among the most difficult players in all college baseball to strike out this season, while playing in the very strong ACC, and yet has still maintained an ISO near .200.

He hits from a widespread stance and a fairly deep crouch, somewhat reminiscent of D.J. Stewart, the Florida State slugger I so loved in last year's draft, and Thaiss's overall offensive game isn't all that different from Stewart, either. Tremendous patience, moderate but solid enough power, and most likely a need for every bit of that production, because the defense is probably not going to be a positive factor.

The easy comp for Thaiss is, of course, Kyle Schwarber, the similarly defensively challenged college catcher with the stocky frame and big left-handed bat drafted two years ago by the Cubs. Thaiss doesn't have the kind of power Schwarber possesses, though, and doesn't have quite as long a track record of top-level production, either. Thus, where Schwarber went fourth overall, Thaiss is more likely a sandwich round pick or second-rounder. A team that really likes him might reach late in the first round, but I would be somewhat surprised to see him go that high. Chris Chinea, the catcher/first baseman the Cardinals drafted out of LSU last year, is also a decent comp, though Chinea is more of an all-or-nothing slugger, rather than the extreme discipline and hard contact type.

Thaiss, as much as he is currently a catcher and so belongs in this group, could also easily fit into the group of sluggers likely to end up at first base in this draft, along with guys like Zack Collins, the current catcher from Miami, Will Craig, the third baseman (but future first baseman), from Wake Forest, and Peter Alonso, the already-first baseman from Florida. Of that group, I like Thaiss a fair bit more than Alonso, but slightly less than Craig and somewhat more less than Collins.

Matt Thaiss isn't likely to catch at the big league level, or at least not full-time. However, the fact he could perhaps rotate behind the plate from time to time gives him an intriguing level of versatility (particularly if, as I said, he were drafted by a team for whom the DH is an option), and the bat very much plays anywhere.

I'm a big fan of Thaiss, and think he ends up an impact bat down the road, regardless of what position he plays. Guys who don't swing and miss, control the zone, and still manage to make tons of hard contact are a rare breed.

via 2080 Baseball:

I forgot to mention initially: I will be appearing on Michael Cerio's "From the Phans" radio program in Philadelphia on Thursday. We record in the morning; the archived stream will likely go up sometime that afternoon. Thus, if you've missed hearing my not-so-dulcet tones due to the lack of podcasts lately, you can listen to me chat about the Cardinals via this avenue. I promise to be less obnoxious than usual.