The St. Louis Cardinals will have the chance to draft one of the catchers projected to be picked in the first round of the draft. Why should they be wary?
There is not another draft in professional sports that yields worse results than the MLB Draft. There is a reason that (up until 2020), the draft was as long as it was (40 rounds). In other sports like the NBA and NFL, draft picks are expected to contribute almost immediately. MLB rarely works like that.
In general, only about 66% of players drafted in the first round make it to the MLB. That is a generalized sample of every player, college or high school. I want to look at a more specific group though: catchers drafted in the first round.
Looking at a sample of players from 1997 to 2016, there are some troubling trends you can find with catchers drafted just in the first round. Over that time, there was a total of 50 catchers drafted. Of those drafted, 64% of the players drafted made it to the MLB. That is not far enough away from the 66% normal rate of players drafted, so we are still on track.
Looking at the difference between drafting college or prep catchers though, 38% of prep catchers made the bigs while 68% of the college catchers made it. There is definitely a swing there.
However, catcher is by far the most difficult position to play on the baseball field. That’s why players like Jeff Mathis, who’s best full offensive season had a was a .642 OPS (average OPS of .552), can have a job in the MLB for 15+ seasons. Mathis is an above-average defensive catcher, but nowhere else on the diamond (outside of a pitcher) can a player be such an offensive sinkhole and still keep a job.
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With that in mind, close to 25% of players drafted at catcher move onto other positions. Plenty of players move around, but catcher is a hard position for players to stick at. Notable names to move away from catcher were Jason Werth, Neil Walker, and Kyle Schwarber.
As far as getting true contributions from catchers drafted in the first round, just 14% of those drafted managed a 5.0 career bWAR at the MLB level. 32% played in the league for more than five years.
By my own estimations of what a “starter” means, just 20% of catchers drafted in the first round over this sample were ever regular starters in the big leagues.
It’s not looking good for drafting a catcher. So how do we use this?
For one, I would say the Cardinals should flat out stay away from a catcher in the first round of the draft. Patrick Bailey (college) likely won’t be available at 21, but beyond that there is a chance that Tyler Soderstrom (high school), Austin Wells (college), and Dillon Dingler (college) are still available.
Any one of these four could end up being MLB All-Stars, but the odds are stacked against them.
The Cardinals have found success drafting catchers in later rounds (Yadier Molina in the 4th, Carson Kelly in the second) and there’s not much reason to break from that unless Bailey is still there at 21.
Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and Matt Wieters highlight the catchers taken in the first round over the last 23 years but beyond that, most of the rest of the catchers starting in the game today were developed from later rounds or from international picks.
The MLB draft is a crapshoot anyway, but the catcher position seems to be a position with a lot more volatility than is necessary, especially when so many starters in the league right now were not taken in the first round.
I’d like to think my math was on point in this analysis, but I do believe that the best strategy is taking chances on catchers later. There is just too much volatility at the position.