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Cal Raleigh is making some improvements behind the plate

This week Cal Raleigh will be representing the Mariners’ Modesto affiliate in the California League All-Star Game, including an invitation to the Home Run Derby. This is a good time, then, to take a deep dive into Seattle’s 2018 third-rounder.

Sabrina Barr

The comparisons are obvious, and will only become more remarked upon over time, so let’s get them out of the way now. There are plenty of surface similarities between Mike Zunino and Cal Raleigh. Both attended Florida state schools for college (Z at Florida, Cal at FSU). Both have fathers who have been involved with baseball at a high level for years (Z’s dad Greg is a former pro player who went on to be a scout with the Reds; Cal’s dad Todd was signed by the Red Sox and went on to be a college head coach at several high-profile programs). Both have similar retiring, aw-shucks personalities; neither have social media accounts of any kind. Zunino, of course, had a much higher prospect profile, going third overall in the 2012 draft while Cal was a third-round choice in 2018. Yet their scouting write-ups at Baseball America paint a more similar picture of each backstop than one might expect.

Zunino’s draft writeup at Baseball America notes that he “doesn’t wow scouts with tools,” giving him a 55-60 grade for his power and describing his defensive abilities as “solid-average.” He’s not as exciting as a Buster Posey, the report concludes, but his ceiling might be somewhere in the vicinity. Baseball Prospectus, writing on him barely a year later on the eve of his call-up, was similarly unexcited about Zunino’s defense, but with many more question marks raining down upon the bat. Raleigh, on the other hand, is described by BA as having “above-average raw power,” with a question about whether or not he’ll tap into it, and as an “average” receiver with an “average” arm.

Flash forward a few years from Zunino’s initial draft reports and it appears the power grade might have been a shade light, and the questions about the swing-and-miss not nearly pronounced enough. Where both publications whiffed was on Z’s defense, which has been steadily above-average during his MLB career, often propping up his overall value in times where the bat has floundered.

It turns out it’s pretty difficult to predict a catching skillset, non-God-tier division (Posey, Molina, etc.). There are so many moving parts and complexities to the defensive side of things, and then to layer in the bat on top of that can be tough. It’s not surprising that early scouting reports on Cal Raleigh, then, focus on his bat (especially considering he’s a switch-hitter; yet even more layers to explore). Even in FanGraphs’ most recent rankings of the Mariners system, the note on Raleigh is that he’s not seen as a lock to stick at catcher, before going on to a phrase that’s dreadfully familiar to Mariners fans: “He’s seen as a below average hit, above average power type at the plate.” But there’s much more to the Mariners third-rounder than just his bat, and there’s reason to believe he’s already made significant improvements since draft day. In fact, Raleigh might well turn out to be the steal of the 2018 draft class.

In college, Raleigh’s numbers were hampered his sophomore year by an injury to his left hand. He played through it, but wasn’t able to grip a bat comfortably, and his offensive numbers plummeted. As a freshman, Raleigh posted a .300/.400/.500 slash line; his sophomore year, he fell to .230/.330/.400. Raleigh rebounded his junior year, but since his injury wasn’t made public until close to draft day, his production was looked upon askance. The injury also kept Raleigh out of the Cape Cod League after his sophomore year, leaving his post-freshman year performance with the Harwich Mariners—a somewhat uninspiring .204, with two doubles, a HR, and 25 Ks in 100 ABs—to stand alone. That, plus question marks surrounding his future behind the dish, pushed Raleigh to the third round, where the Mariners pounced.

Defensively, one of the many questions marks regarding Raleigh was his arm, graded as average to slightly below due to agility concerns. Looking back at some of his college film, it’s not hard to see why:

Here’s another, less extreme example from his MLB prospect video (2018) showing a different angle with some, shall we say, cleaner footwork:

Yet the Modesto Nuts lead the California League in Caught Stealing%, with 38%, with Raleigh routinely dispatching would-be base stealers. Raleigh has posted a Cal League-best 40% CS rate this season, which is an elite number, on par with the best catchers in the game. (For comparison: Yadier Molina, the active leader in CS%, has a career 40.4% CS rate; the next closest to him is Brian McCann, at a measly 37%.) One mechanical change might explain this uptick in effectiveness: in Modesto, Cal is throwing out of a more three-quarters slot rather than the overhead angle he used in college.

It’s not a pronounced difference, but it’s significant. By dropping his arm slot slightly, Raleigh hasn’t sacrificed any accuracy; the ball is still ending up in his fielder’s glove and not center field. Nor has he lost any speed; in fact, with the overall better fluidity of his movement, he might have gained some (“catch-throw” instead of “catch-cock-throw”). This might speak to improved upper body and arm strength on a pro training regimen, or it might just be a simple mechanical adjustment. Whatever it is, it’s working.

Raleigh has always drawn praise for his ability to block the ball, which makes sense, because large human = large backboard. As a certified Big Boy, however—6’3”/225—he has invited questions about his agility behind the plate. For Seattle, though, he’s shown off some quick reflexes behind the dish, starting in Spring Training this year:

Like Mike Z, Raleigh has powerful legs that he can use to propel him out of his catcher’s crouch and get after the ball. He also shows off much more lateral quickness than one might expect given his size.

Even as one of the bigger guys doing the drill, Raleigh stood out for his explosiveness to the ball and ability to make a strong throw, even off-balance. The series of split-second decisions and reactions he makes in the above sequence, in a high-pressure situation, is impressive, as are Cal’s reflexes, enabling him to pick wayward balls quickly.

Sometimes Raleigh can try to do too much—his backpick throws to first can go wayward, which is an area he could work on improving this off-season. But he’s a very good receiver with strong but soft hands who has shown an ability to handle both hard-throwers and pitchers with tons of movement, like batterymate Logan Gilbert:

He could smooth out his motion here some, but again, Gilbert is a tricky pitcher to catch given the movement on his stuff. Here’s a slightly more subtle frame on a breaker that behaves a little better:

With his blocking and receiving skills, plus an improved arm and more agility than expected, Raleigh is already a valuable future piece, and that’s before taking into account his production at the plate. We’ll dive more into the offensive side of things at a future date, as there’s much to unpack with the switch-hitter, but the improvements Raleigh has made on his defense already are encouraging, and significantly raise the floor on Seattle’s 2018 third-rounder.