MLB Draft: Should Harper Catch

Steve O Speak

Lately much has been made about recent comments by Scott Boras, Bryce Harper’s agent, that his client shouldn’t catch in the majors. While much has been made about Boras’ comments, he might not be too far off the mark. Yes, Harper is by far the best catching prospect in this draft and could become an elite defensive catcher, with 40 HR power, which would make him a rare commodity. But there are some serious risks involved with keeping Harper behind the plate.

The first of which is the injury concern. Catching takes a lot out of a player and puts him at a serious risk for back and knee injuries. Not to mention the fact that a 95 mph ball is being hurled at you and a bat is being swung just a few feet away. There are plenty of freak injuries that happen to catchers that other positions don’t face. So no matter how you try to protect them, catchers will be injured more on average than other positions.

The next concern for catchers is the consistency of their bat. There are just a few catchers whom you would consider as good hitters in this league, and backup catchers are always offensive liabilities. Even the best offensive catchers (with the exception of Mauer) don’t put up that great of offensive numbers, they are just better by comparison. Now part of that is some of the better hitters are moved to new positions a la Harper, but the other part of that is the daily grind of catching makes it harder to be consistent offensively.

The last universal concern with keeping Harper at the catching spot is that it would slow down his progress to the majors. Harper’s bat and offensive game is nearly ready for the big leagues, and he could legitimately be up in 2 years (maybe even sooner if he doesn’t holdout until August 15th). Defensively Harper will need another year or two to learn the nuances of calling a game at the major league level. In addition, he will need to work on his receiving, throwing skills, and blocking major league quality breaking balls. For the Nationals, they will have to think long and hard about what path has more value. Because if Harper could be ready 2 years from now, and say be able to play RF, Washington would have a nice little lineup around him with Ryan Zimmerman, Nyjer Morgan, Ian Desmond, and potentially Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham as well. If Harper can step in and produce, that could be a playoff caliber lineup. If the team waits for him as a catcher, than players like Dunn and Willingham may no longer be relied upon, and there is a lot more unknown involved with the team.

While all of those are valid reasons to consider a position change, the Nationals have an even better one; they play in the National League and can’t DH Harper to keep his bat in the lineup. Even the best catchers only catch around 130 games a year and that is if they are relatively healthy. That means they are likely to get between 550-570 plate appearances (and some of those are pinch hitting opportunities), now AL catchers will DH some of their off days and get additional PA’s, but NL catchers don’t have that luxury. If Harper is a middle of the order hitter that everyone is projecting him to be, and were to play every day he would get anywhere between 675-715 plate appearances. While the 125+ PA’s might not seem like a big deal, that is roughly a month worth of PA’s and games that he could impact. Why would you willingly ‘bench’ one of your star hitters for that many chances at the plate.

If Harper shows that aptitude (in addition to the athleticism) we know he already has than why not have him in the lineup every day at one of the corner outfield spots. As great as a defensive catcher that Harper has the potential to be, I don’t know if it is worth the wait, injury risk, and loss of PA’s to keep him behind the plate. The Nationals also have further reason to make the move, since they already have one of the better hitting catchers in the minor leagues in Derek Norris. Norris is just 21 and in High A ball, but should be ready (if his defense progresses) in 2 years. While Harper is better across the board, Norris is a very good catching prospect and should allow the Nats to move Harper off the position. While Norris could move, his bat wouldn’t translate nearly as well in the outfield (nor does he have as much athletic ability).

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