As you probably know, Devin and I were out in Corvallis last weekend watching Jeff Clement and his USC Trojans take on Oregon State in the NCAA Super Regionals. I had already read all the reports about our #3 pick prior to the trip, but I was looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table with my own two eyes. Here's what I noticed:
Offensively, Clement was the best player on either team. I mean, here's a guy who hit .348/.472/.617 in a tough conference, playing behind the dish and not missing a single game all season. He finished the three-game series 5-14 with a pair of homers, and was certainly an impressive presence at the plate. What really struck me was his quick, compact swing - you usually don't see that from a young power hitter, and it let him turn on a few inside fastballs that other hitters would've missed. He has a very short front-foot stride, which helps him keep his weight back and his head steadily in place. It seems like he generates most of his power from his upper body (rather than his trunk), serving to keep his stroke quick and smooth. Bottom line, Clement's swing projects well for professional baseball, as it didn't have any glaring holes, and wasn't too long.
One thing you'll notice about Clement is that, when he swings through a ball, it's rarely because his timing was off - instead, it's just a simple matter of having the bat in the wrong place. What this tells me is that, while he may have occasional difficulty gauging the movement on some pitches, it's not about timing. He recognizes offspeed and breaking stuff just as well as he recognizes a fastball, and this is a big part of what makes him such a complete hitter at a young age. All too often you'll see a guy get promoted from AAA and struggle against big league curveballs; Clement hasn't seen pitches of that quality yet, but the curveballs he does see don't give him as much trouble as they do other hitters.
Even more, Clement doesn't swing at many balls off the plate, leading to a healthy walk rate - 44 in 230 at bats (although nine were intentional). His OBP was also boosted by a boatload of HBP's - 13 on the season, second on the USC roster - which might be a small concern, since you don't really want your catcher to experience any additional aches and pains, but that's not something I'd worry about just yet.
While Jeff Clement is probably ready to be our best hitting catcher right now, it's his defense that will keep him in the minors for a little while until some problem areas are smoothed out. He only had four passed balls on the season (as opposed to Mitch Canham, Oregon State's backstop, who gets the pitches he actually catches recorded, rather than the ones he drops), but he does have trouble blocking balls in the dirt and keeping them from bouncing or rolling too far away. He got crossed up a number of times during the series, too, which may not be totally his fault, but which added to the number of balls that weren't cleanly received and returned. On the plus side, he didn't seem to have any problems making the easy plays, he's a heads-up player who's always looking to back up a throw to a base, and he's a leader on the field, a quality you absolutely need from your starting catcher (and one which Miguel Olivo clearly lacks).
The most obvious problem with Clement's defense, though, is how he throws through to second or third base to nab a basestealer. He caught 37% of baserunners this year, and 41% in 2004, but he was victimized by a quick OSU team who successfully stole nine bases in 11 attempts. He's slower than usual to get out of the crouch into throwing position, and attempts to compensate by short-arming his throws (hastening ball release by reducing the amount of time that it's in his hand). This results in inconsistent control of the ball, meaning it's just as likely to roll to the second baseman as it is to arrive there on a line. In the first game of the series at Corvallis, Clement bounced three of his four throws, and all four of the runners were safe. On the plus side, he looked a lot better with his throws through to second base during pre-game and between-inning warmups, suggesting that he knows the proper way to do it, but that he tries to speed it up too much during gameplay.
Right now, I'd say that these problems are probably typical of any young catcher that gets selected in the draft. For that reason, I don't think we're going to see a position switch any time soon - Clement should turn out to be a Major League catcher. How good he ends up being in the field has yet to be seen, but he's already just about the complete package at the plate. My three favorite offensive comps are Mike Stanley, Chris Hoiles, and Jason Varitek - guys who put up career lines around .270/.360/.460 with some real impressive peak seasons. Jeff Clement's going to be one hell of a player, and he's not too far away. Get excited.
Note: Devin has some pictures and video clips of Clement from the series in Corvallis, so look for those to be posted sometime soon.