Taking a deep dive into catching prospects in the Nationals system, I reached out to catching coordinator Michael Barrett, who has been coaching for the organization since 2013 and caught in the majors for 12 seasons.
Barrett told me of the sheer numbers he has to work with: The Nats had five catchers in short-season Single-A Auburn last year and as many as 17 catchers from low Single-A Hagerstown on down in the system.
The highest rated of the group is Israel Pineda, at No. 14 on the current MLBPipeline.com Nats top 30 prospect list. The 5-foot-11, 190-lb. prospect from Venezuela, signed in July 2016 for a reported $450,000 signing bonus.
Last season, the 20-year-old Pineda caught 101 games for Hagerstown after making solid steps up each season from rookie ball to the Doubledays. Pineda has a 60-rated arm on the 20-80 scale, and despite 102 strikeouts last season, hit seven homers with 35 RBIs for Hagerstown.
“Israel came in from the get-go ready to compete, ready to be the guy,” Barrett said. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement. When we were at spring training this year, I felt like he got back to keeping things simple, going back to his base - his setup, his legs. Just kind of going backwards to go forward. He did a good job over not overcomplicating things. He focused on receiving the baseball and doing the little things. All the advanced stuff will come over time.”
Here is a quick trip around a few levels to spotlight some of the catchers the Nats have in their system.
One catcher at Auburn that is progressing is 6-foot-4 receiver Andrew Pratt. The 2019 10th-round selection out of Lubbock Christian is 23 and caught 34 games for Auburn last year with six extra base hits.
“He is a 6-foot-4 frame guy with the ability to put the ball out of the park and does some nice things behind the plate,” Barrett said. “He made some great improvements this offseason. He came in looking great.”
Tyler Cropley played 41 games for Hagerstown, battling back from injuries during the 2019 season. The 24-year-old contributed five doubles and two homers. He was an eighth-round pick in 2018.
“You look at a guy like Tyler Cropley who may not have the playing time due to injuries but he continues to work on his game,” Barrett said. “When you see him catch there is a wow factor there.”
Taylor Gushue, 26, came over from the Pirates in a 2016 trade for second baseman Chris Bostick. He was a 2017 postseason All-Star in the Carolina League with high Single-A Potomac and played 74 games for Triple-A Fresno last season, slashing .312/.358/.517 with 19 doubles, one triple, 11 homers and 39 RBIs.
“Taylor is probably top three most sound fundamentally behind the plate,” Barrett said. “Him and Tres Barrera, the last couple years, their pitch framing metrics are high. Taylor has a little bit different style then some of our other catchers managing a game. He does a nice job behind the plate. Pitchers like to throw to him and being a switch hitter helps with some power.”
Barrett said all of his catchers arrived in West Palm Beach ready to go in February. As one would expect, his staff worked on fundamentals to begin camp before the coronavirus shutdown halted that momentum.
“I was really impressed how each and every catcher we had came into spring training ready to compete,” Barrett said. “Every single catcher looked great, physically conditioned, in shape, ready to go to work from day one. It is different level to level. Getting back to the foundation of the fundamentals of catching, receiving, blocking, throwing, footwork. Not really diving into too much detail, just being more rep based. Giving guys the opportunity to get back into catching shape.”
What is his focus for catchers? Catching? Throwing? Being the captain of the defense? Guiding pitchers?
Barrett said pitch framing is at the top of the Nats’ list in measuring how his catchers are improving from month to month during the season.
“The most important thing right now is receiving the baseball,” Barrett said. “All those catch framing metrics are so big right now. We have to be able to receive the baseball cleanly and make as many pitches as we can look like strikes or make every strike a strike. It’s difficult. It’s more difficult than people realize.
“Just because you have pitchers throwing harder than they have ever thrown before, throwing mid-90s mph and above at younger levels with not the best command. It’s not easy to catch and receive every pitch in the strike zone. Some of the numbers get skewed at times. Umpires’ strike zones are tighter than ever in the minor leagues. Catchers have a tough task where most people realize it or not.”
As other baseball teams employ, the Nationals use sophisticated data from Trackman, a $20,000 device used to track pitches and catch framing metrics. Most baseball stadiums in this day and age have the Trackman capability to see how well pitchers and catchers are working.
“We track (these statistics) in every way. We have a really solid research and development team,” Barrett said. “I keep up with it. We are able to keep up with it on true media through our own web database that we have. It all depends on where the Trackman data is. Not every stadium has Trackman data, like GCL or New York-Penn League. That’s how we keep up with the most accurate data that I use.”
Even though they only had a few weeks to work together, Barrett likes what he sees from this crop of backstops.
“I’m excited about our organization,” Barrett said. “It’s a lot of fun right now because we are building a stockpile of really good catchers.”