You can’t talk about prep hitters without the conversation ultimately getting to Dubuque, Iowa catcher Ian Moller. He’s one of the most accomplished and polished hitters in the 2021 class, and has as good a chance as anyone to stick behind the plate long term.
That said, prep catchers, by definition, are one of the most volatile demographics in the MLB Draft. There’s no way around it. As talented and as promising as Moller is, he’s fighting an uphill battle as it pertains to his draft stock. Moller will have to dispel the notions that prep catchers are a risky investment early-on in the draft. But again, the bat may be too good to let slide.
Below, I’ve made a chart listing every single prep catcher selected in the first round of any MLB Draft in the last twelve years.
Ok, so there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the first and most obvious thing that stands out from this group of players. None of them have full-time jobs at the big league level.
Tyler Stephenson is an interesting case that I think needs a little more context. Drafted five full years ago, Stephenson boasts a pretty strong slash line. But that’s in just eight games at the big league level. In fact, those are his only eight games above AA in his career. 2015 was a long time ago. The Seattle Mariners drafted Nick Neidert and Andrew Moore that year. He’s plenty interesting and promising prospect still, but it just shows how long these types of players take to develop and the speed bumps that come along with the position.
The jury is still out on Bo Naylor, Anthony Seigler and Tyler Soderstrom. Naylor has a good bat, but he may be forced out from behind the plate, potentially into a corner outfield spot where he’s been experimenting occasionally over the past two seasons. Soderstrom may be the best bat of the bunch, but he too may be forced to third base to get the bat to ascend up the system quicker.
And we all know Alex Jackson.
The point is, prep catchers that stick at the position and can hit their way into a regular big league job are rare. Yadier Molina was a 4th round pick out of high school. J.T. Realmuto was a third round pick out of high school. There’s some luck that goes into drafting this position. Scouting catching prospects, especially of the high school variety, is more challenging than most other positions.
But enough about the past. Let’s talk about Moller.
First, and I don’t think this can be understated, black catchers in baseball are disappearing, and it would be incredibly beneficial for the sport should Moller succeed and make his debut behind the plate. Charles Johnson and Russell Martin are the only two Black catchers to start at least 70 games in a single season in the last two decades. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1971 and Elrod Hendricks with the Baltimore Orioles. Moller is a fantastic story, and a guy who’s easy to root for.
I sat down with Moller to talk about his goals in leading a new black movement in baseball. It’s a huge deal, and after reading this, it would behoove you to gather more background on Moller’s story by reading the story linked above.
The kid is a leader. He draws rave reviews from his pitchers and from teammates on his ability to call a game, as well as his presence in a dugout. There’s some athleticism behind the plate, and he’s got a strong throwing arm. Moller has a really good head on his shoulders and a mature perspective unrivaled from most his age.
Let’s get into the tools, and why specifically most scouts and talent evaluators believe Moller will be a first round pick next July. It starts with the bat.
Tools (Future Value)
Moller has one of the quieter setups you’ll find at the plate. It’s a tall, upright stand with a moderately wide base and hands pre-set in a loaded position. Moller’s back elbow is tucked, allowing for a short path to the ball with natural loft that he doesn’t have to add extra mechanics to get into otherwise. It’s a moderate leg kick that Moller does a good job of getting down on time in most cases, even against some of the best velocity in the country this summer. The entire operation is composed and under control.
As a whole, Moller’s swing is built for the modern game. There’s loft, and his vertical bat angle (VBA) sits in the 32-degree range. As previously mentioned, a study done by D.K. Willardson has shown that VBA’s in the 30- to 35-degree range result in more hard contact, less infield fly balls, and a greater expected batting average (xBA).
One area Moller really impressed this summer was his approach. It seemed every showcase he would work counts deeper and deeper, spitting on good breaking balls and waiting for a fastball. He’d certainly ambush the occasional 0-0 heater, but more often than not you could tell he was playing chess with the pitcher, forcing a mistake. There’s a little bit of swing and miss in his game, but he’s swinging at the right pitches.
At the Perfect Game All-American Classic, Moller worked a full-count walk against one of the better pitchers in the country in Irv Carter. The whole exchange was very reminiscent of some of the battles Felix Hernandez and Adrian Beltre had in their hay-day. It was fun as hell. I’ve queued up the video below. The kid’s approach is pretty evident here.
All of these signs point to a strong foundation for a future big league hitter.
Now, there’s still going to be a ton of pressure on Moller’s glove, and his ability to learn catching at the big league level. Like most catchers, he won’t have as much resource time to throw into becoming an accomplished hitter. He’ll be pouring a ton of sweat equity into everything that goes with being strong behind the plate. So while the building blocks of a really good hitter are here, he faces a steeper climb to reach his ceiling than most other hitters his age. Is Moller capable of being a .270 hitter in the big leagues? Without a doubt. But he may settle in somewhere below that mark with the learning curve necessary for the position. I wouldn’t bet against him though.
Frankly, it’s hard to draw up a power hitter better than Moller, save a few inches in the height department.
All of Moller’s swing data is pretty impressive. We already talked about the VBA, and that’s a big first part of creating lift, but the accompanying metrics are just as important in impacting a baseball.
First off, Moller, in my opinion, is quite literally the best prep player in this entire class in understanding how to get fully extended, impacting the baseball out in front. His attack angles have come in anywhere between 12-degrees and as high as 27-degree this summer. The former is ideal in driving the ball with authority, while the latter is a bit of an outlier, but still, obviously, an extremely loft-centric plane of trajectory. The result is perfect for the modern game. Catch the ball out in front and put it in the air. It’s significant pull-side power and easy carry.
It’s not only that though. Moller has the strength and physical tools to really do damage. His peak hand speed at the World Wood Bat Association World Championships (WWBA) was 26 miles per hour. Most big leaguers come in somewhere between 23 and 29 MPH. He’s a quick-trigger guy with a surprising amount of explosiveness in his profile. While measurements vary, his bat speed also comes in above average in terms of big league hitters too. Point being, Moller is plenty strong enough and creates more than enough torque to impact a baseball.
The important part here will be how much of this power will he be able to get to in-game. Raw power is important, but if you can’t hit a lick, it won’t matter. I believe in Moller’s hit tool, and thus the accompanying ability to hit the ball over the fence. Given his approach and swing mechanics, I do think we’ll be talking about a guy who hits 20+ home runs per year, with his peak approaching something close to 30. This is his carrying tool.
Ultimately, this is the tool that will sink or swim Moller’s draft stock.
Playing catcher is the most demanding position on the field both physically and mentally. A ton goes into learning a pitching staff, calling a game, blocking balls in the dirt, framing pitches (possibly not necessary in due time), and holding up to the rigors of sticking behind the plate. Moller has a good body for the position (6-1, 210) and has received strong marks in his ability to receive the ball with soft hands. That said, at times this summer, there were some passed balls that shouldn’t have snuck by him. There are some fundamentals that still need cleaned up.
His pop times are good, generally coming in around the 2-second mark, though we’ll dive into that a little more when discussing his arm.
In total, he should be able to stick behind the plate, but if a big league organization wants to lean on the bat and move him up a farm system quicker, he has the athleticism to stay away from first base, likely making the move to third base.
If Moller sticks at catcher, given the learning curve, it should be expected he spend 4.5+ years developing in a farm system. There’s still a lot to learn and clean up behind the plate, so it’ll be a process. Anything less than that and I would consider him to have been rushed. Patience will be the virtue here, and if a team believes in him behind the plate, they must commit to it.
Moller has one of the better prep arms behind the plate this year. He gets plenty of velocity behind his throws, and his pop times are impressive thanks to an explosive release out of his stance and a quick release.
In drills, you’d be hard-pressed to find another catcher better in the country. That said, Moller needs to slow the game down at times as his throws have shown a tendency to sail in-game. This should all come with time, but he’s by no means a finished product with the arm.
Moller’s ability to run in the future will be really interesting to watch. On one hand, you have an explosive athlete here who should see strength and flexibility gains once properly inserted into a player development program. The body can still be optimized.
On the other, we’re talking about a catcher who should see a majority of his time squatting, and that certainly doesn’t do the knees many favors. The physical rigors behind the plate also don’t call for players to conventionally be in lean physical shape, so that’s something to consider.
Moller’s 60-yard dash times come in around 7.15 seconds, firmly in the below average category. He’s a 40-runner now, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can hold that type of speed in five or six years, depending on the trajectory his body takes. Should he move out from behind the plate, I think Moller has the athleticism to potentially encroach on fringe-average.
The entire narrative surrounding Ian Moller in the 2021 MLB Draft will be whether a team falls in love with him behind the plate. The bat is legit, and if a team selects him with the intention of moving him to third base, it may do well for his draft stock. There’s just so much uncertainty surrounding prep catchers as a whole right now.
Last year, many pundits, including myself, had Tyler Soderstrom a Top-15 lock. He’d fall all the way to no. 26 and Oakland. The Athletics, it seems, intend on moving him to third base.
Moller’s bat is more than loud enough to warrant first round value, it’s the rest of the profile that will need to be considered when next July rolls around.