An era of dynamic catchers is upon us
By Scott Miller
Gabriel Moreno was at home in Venezuela last Dec. 23 when Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, called him.
“I thought he was calling to wish me Merry Christmas,” Moreno said this month in Anaheim, California, somewhat sheepishly, via an interpreter.
Instead, Atkins was calling to say the Blue Jays had traded the promising young catcher to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Seven months later, Moreno, 23, is playing a vital role in the Diamondbacks’ surprisingly persistent hold on first place in the National League West.
He also is one of a growing list of fresh-faced receivers leading what might be a generational change at a position that, aside from J.T. Realmuto of the Philadelphia Phillies, Salvador Pérez of the Kansas City Royals and Yadier Molina, who retired in November after 19 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, had become one-dimensional.
“Everybody was looking for catching,” said Bob Melvin, the manager of the San Diego Padres, who was a backup catcher in the majors from 1985 to 1994. “Everybody was looking for not necessarily all of the variables in catching, just maybe either a defensive guy or an offensive guy and trying to get a lot out of one faction of it.
“But now you’re seeing some guys that not only do the defensive part well, and the offensive part, but some of them run decently and some are hitting up in the order.”
Both starting catchers in Tuesday’s All-Star Game were 28-year-old first-timers: Sean Murphy of the Atlanta Braves and Jonah Heim of the Texas Rangers. Credit (or blame) the beleaguered Oakland Athletics, who traded away both emerging stars.
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Will Smith, 28; Adley Rutschman, 25, of the Baltimore Orioles; and Elias Díaz, 32, of the Colorado Rockies, will also be first-time All-Stars in Seattle. The only veteran in the bunch is Kansas City’s Pérez, 33.
Talent evaluators around the game describe the recent period as one in which catchers were told to focus entirely on pitch-framing while batting at the bottom of the order and contributing little else to their teams. It is a style exemplified by José Trevino of the New York Yankees, who was an All-Star last season.
That, however, is changing. This season, Atlanta, Arizona, Texas and the Cincinnati Reds (Tyler Stephenson, 26) are all leading their divisions at the break with the aid of catchers who are contributing both offensively and defensively. And the Orioles became serious players again in the AL East roughly the moment they recalled Rutschman last May.
“Adley Rutschman is going to be one of the best players in baseball for a long time if he’s able to stay healthy,” said Kevin Cash, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, who spent eight seasons as a backup catcher in the majors. He added of Murphy: “Stud. MVP.”
Murphy, who is batting .306 with 17 home runs, was an almost accidental acquisition by Atlanta last winter. The team was happy with its catching tandem of veteran Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras, 25, the younger brother of Willson Contreras. But when the Athletics tipped the industry that they were going to deal Murphy, Atlanta shifted gears.
“We were not planning on pursuing that position,” said Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s president of baseball operations. “It was about pursuing that specific player. Ideally for us, that would have been a player we pursued for 2024, because we were in a great position.”
But instead of waiting for Murphy’s free agency, Atlanta helped create a three-way trade with Oakland and the Milwaukee Brewers in which Contreras landed with the Brewers and Murphy with the Braves. Anthopoulos, as he often does, then moved swiftly to lock up Murphy for six years and $73 million.
“Someone that provides production on both sides of the ball,” Anthopoulos said, essentially explaining the deficiency with catching in recent years. “It’s not like every offseason there are guys like that available.”
Texas had picked Oakland’s pocket for Heim a year earlier. On Feb. 6, 2021, the A’s sent Heim, outfielder Khris Davis and minor leaguer Dane Acker to the Rangers for shortstop Elvis Andrus, catcher-first baseman Aramis García and cash.
“He was so good behind the plate,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, also a former catcher, said of Heim’s emergence last season. “The metrics showed that, but also the eye test. He’s a really good thrower, blocker. He’s an outstanding receiver. Our pitchers have all the confidence in the world in this guy.
“On the offensive side, he showed it last year early but then probably got worn down a little bit with all the catching he did. So we’re trying to keep a watchful eye on that.”
Bochy credits the Rangers’ catching coach, Bobby Wilson, with helping expedite the development of Heim, who has remained excellent behind the plate and is hitting .282 with 12 home runs.
Heim; Rutschman; Patrick Bailey, 24, of the San Francisco Giants; and Cal Raleigh, 26, of the Seattle Mariners, are all switch-hitters, which brings another helpful element into play. The Dodgers’ Smith leads all MLB catchers with an .890 on-base plus slugging percentage, just ahead of Heim (.812) and Rutschman (.786).
“Will Smith is phenomenal,” Anthopoulos said.
The crop of dynamic young catchers is emerging in an era in which no position is changing more rapidly. This year’s new rules have reignited running games after years of dormancy while also forcing catchers to call games more quickly thanks to the pitch clock. Should the automated balls and strikes system be implemented in the near future, that will take things a step further by removing the concept of pitch framing.
“I’m completely out on that,” Seattle’s Raleigh said. “I think you’re taking away a craft that people work on and can get people to the big leagues.”
But others think pitch framing has been overly emphasized in recent years at the expense of other skills.
“Pitch framing is the most overused word, ever, in the big leagues,” said Buck Martínez, now a television analyst in Toronto after 17 years as a backup catcher in the majors and a stint managing the Blue Jays in the early 2000s. “You know who frames good pitches? Guys who have good pitching staffs.”
As the game changes, so, too, does the definition of what’s needed behind the plate. That includes more overall athleticism. Arizona’s Moreno, like retired Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, is a converted middle infielder. Posada was a second baseman in his first professional season before his position change helped set the stage for a Yankees dynasty. Moreno was a shortstop when he signed professionally at 16, but the Blue Jays immediately began converting him to catcher at their academy in the Dominican Republic.
“One thing where that helped me a lot is with my ability to receive balls in the dirt, the short hops,” said Moreno, who is sharing the position with Carson Kelly after starting 45 of Arizona’s first 65 games when Kelly was out with a fractured forearm. “That was the easiest part. The hardest part is actually blocking pitches, getting used to getting hit by the ball, and the soreness.”
The sheer physicality of the position has led teams to view it as a two-man job — which is largely why some settled for platoons that didn’t go left-right, but rather defensive-leaning and offensive-leaning. Where Hall of Famer Johnny Bench caught 158, 152 and 160 games during his heaviest workload seasons, Murphy (116) ranked second in the majors to Realmuto (133) last year in games caught. Raleigh (115) was third.
“When you have a guy who can catch and hit in the top of the order, you’ve got a potential Hall of Famer when you think of the guys who can do that together,” Martínez said, while emphasizing that handling the running game was especially important with the new rules leading to such a high success rate on stolen bases.