Only a few short years ago, the switch-hitting catcher was a unicorn, potentially driven to extinction by Ryan Doumit. But everything comes back in fashion and the current mania is for backstops who control not only behind the plate but also either side of it. Victor Caratini, Francisco Mejia, Henri Latrigue, Anthony Seigler, and 2019’s first overall pick Adley Rutschman have all reignited the flame for the switch-hitting backstop. The Mariners collected one of these prizes of their own in 2018’s draft when they nabbed FSU’s Cal Raleigh in the third round. Only time will tell if this new rash of catchers has more Yasmani Grandals or Matt Wieterses, but for now, let’s take a look into what Cal Raleigh brings to the many-sided table.
Note: this story is second in a series. To read a breakdown of Cal behind the dish, click here.
The companion piece to this article explores Raleigh’s college career in slightly more depth, but given the lack of available data regarding college splits, here the focus will be on what Raleigh has done since beginning his professional career. In Everett last year, despite a late start to the season, the Smoky Mountain High grad smoked the NWL to the tune of a 149 wRC+ and a .288/.367/.534 slash line. That’s tantalizingly close to what 2018’s second overall pick Joey Bart did for the Salem-Kizer Volcanoes (166 wRC+); Raleigh didn’t hit for Bart’s massive power, but was able to hang with the first-rounder, wRC-wise, thanks to his excellent plate discipline. Raleigh got a late start to his pro career as it took him and the Mariners right up until the deadline to agree on a price, limiting him to under 200 AB in 2018. So far, however, it seems like he’s picked up right where he left off.
The lack of depth in the Mariners catching system created an opportunity for the club to be aggressive with Cal, giving him an invite to major-league spring training last off-season. He appeared in only eight games but was with the major-league club all the way through March, when he was assigned to Modesto to again play in the same league as Joey Bart. Again, Raleigh has hewed relatively close to what the much more-ballyhooed prospect has done, with the gap between the two almost mirroring their performances in the NWL. (This time it’s Bart who has missed time, lagging about 150 PAs behind Raleigh due to a fractured hand). For a third-round pick, “Joey Bart Lite” is not a poor outcome at all, and there’s reason to believe Raleigh will continue to improve at the plate as he has behind the dish.
As the weather has gotten warmer in the California League, so has Raleigh’s bat. After starting the season slashing just .221/.309/.407, Cal raised his line to .237/.295/.433 in May, and then .279/.333/.475 through June. He’s done all this while keeping his K-BB ratio consistent, so while there’s been a slight uptick in his power numbers in June, he’s not selling out to hit home runs. What’s been most intriguing about Cal, though, is in a lengthier exposure to lefty pitchers (he’s already had twice the PAs against sinistra slingers he had last season), it’s becoming apparent he can genuinely hit from both sides.
Most switch-hitters have a dominant side that corresponds with their handedness. For Cal, a righty, that would be his right side. In a limited sample last year in Everett, that would seem to bear out, as Cal slashed .364/.464/.909 (!) as a righty against lefties (again, in a very limited sample) vs. .274/.348/.468 in many more plate appearances as a lefty batter. That’s still a solid enough line to sustain the argument that Raleigh should remain a switch-hitter rather than becoming a full-time right-handed batter. This year, he’s narrowed the gap even more, slashing .238/.319/.476 as a righty and a near-identical .243/.308/.426 as a lefty. Even as his slugging percentage is higher from his natural right side (even in a limited sample size, he’s knocked in two homers already, including one against top A’s pitching prospect A.J. Puk), Raleigh has still bashed eight homers as a lefty batter, thanks in part to a swing that’s lab-built for elevating and celebrating:
Modesto has been struggling to hold a one-run lead after Ljay's gem. Cal Raleigh decided to go ahead and extend the lead with this three-run moonshot off top-10 A's prospect Daulton Jefferies (warning: creative minor league camera work ahead) pic.twitter.com/mZmz7Wxlnq— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) April 14, 2019
It might not be his natural side, but make a mistake over the plate, and Cal Crush:
It’s more than just mistake-punishing, though: Raleigh can go and get the ball wherever it is and use his power to spray the ball around, and along with the loft he’s incorporated into his lefty swing, that results in a lot of line drives and balls rolling into the corner.
have a DAY, Cal Raleigh. The 2018 third-rounder continues to thrive in his aggressive assignment to High-A Modesto with this eight-pitch, go-ahead, two-run single. pic.twitter.com/ZCn9nIG8jg— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) April 10, 2019
From the right, Cal’s stance is built more for speed than power. Dating back to his collegiate days, the whip-like bat speed stands out, but the extreme rotation of his hips which causes that nice quick bat also means his hands start way deep in the box, creating a line-drive swing that doesn’t fully engage the (significant) power of his lower half. A slashy swing is fine for a shortstop or a speedy center fielder, but Cal is a certified Big Boy; he’s not beating out any hard grounders across the infield.
In his second season of pro ball, Cal has gradually shifted to a more parallel approach to the plate, with his hands held high and more forward. He’s also gradually decreasing the extreme hip rotation, some of which can still be seen here:
Cal Raleigh continues to hit--he has 10 hits in 10 games and 3 2B in his past four games. He's a good sport, too: watch him check immediately on the second baseman after he comes up hobbling. pic.twitter.com/idJ36Io6ap— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) May 26, 2019
Here, he starts his load by turning his knee inward, pivoting on his front foot as he shifts his weight to his back leg and creating torque by rotating his hips around, to the point where his numbers are almost facing the pitcher, before firing his hips and whipping the bat around. This approach can allow Cal to shoot a laser down the left-field line, but can also create a lot of foul balls and balls caught by the left side of the infield. It’s a difficult swing to get much loft on.
Recently, though, Raleigh has made a slight adjustment, keeping his hips parallel to the plate longer, which is allowing him to drop the barrel to the bat, keeping it in the zone longer and creating more loft, similar to his swing from the left side of the plate. Here he is homering last week against one of Oakland’s top pitching prospects, A.J. Puk:
Cal Raleigh HR off AJ Puk. pic.twitter.com/3v9pRhYvjO— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) June 16, 2019
And from earlier in that same series, doubling off another Stockton lefty, Will Gilbert:
Shaping oneself into a major leaguer is no small task, and attempting to master 4/5ths of home plate while you do it is some black diamond-level difficulty. Cal Raleigh has so far shown himself to be up to the challenge, however, performing ably at the plate while managing a young Modesto pitching staff from behind it. Like any millennial, Cal has a few too many jobs, but he’s here and ready to learn, and it’s exciting to think about where he’ll go next.