Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Seattle Mariners, the worst-catching franchise in modern baseball history*, draft a college catcher from Florida. He’s got some pop to his bat, comes from a Baseball Family (don’t catchers always), and scouts love the intangibles of his leadership and game-calling behind the plate. This guy is it. He’ll be the one to save us from the abject misery of watching Mr. Potato Head Draft Version IV swing through three straight curveballs in the ninth slot of the lineup each night.
I have good news, though.
Cal Raleigh is not Mike Zunino. The position isn’t cursed. The sins of one are not automatically transferred onto the other.
Raleigh, a third round pick in the 2018 draft, was solid throughout the minors, averaging a 129 wRC+ over four seasons and a hefty .522 SLG. Managing Editor Kate Preusser framed his minor league career well in a piece from January 2021, wherein she looked at how Raleigh, relatively unheralded as he was, stacked up against MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 catchers. Essentially, she concluded the issue was this: “It’s not that Raleigh does any of these things poorly, but more that he doesn’t fit neatly in a niche: not a high-upside international signing to dream on, not a first-round college catcher, not the slickest glove, not the loudest bat (although still a very, very loud bat).”
113 mph, 444 ft— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) July 24, 2021
Cal's first homer was LAUNCHED. pic.twitter.com/cCmzlMOwLO
The former Seminole backstop made his major league debut last season, on the tails of minor league battery-mate Logan Gilbert. Raleigh’s performance over 47 games was lackluster, to say the least: A .180/.223/.309 slash line alongside the catastrophic combo of a 35.1% K-rate and 4.7 BB%. The transition to the majors can be challenging for even the most excellent of hitters, but add in managing an entirely new pitching staff and I’m inclined to give Raleigh’s debut struggles the benefit of the doubt, particularly with a small-sample uptick in performance in his final few games of the season.
“I came up last year and I was overthinking too many things, the normal things that people do,” Raleigh said in an interview this weekend. “I’ve really simplified everything and gotten into attack mode; I’m ready to go when I get to the plate. I think just that mindset of being one-on-one versus the pitcher, I’m taking that into the game.”
Congratulations to Cal Raleigh on his first MLB caught stealing. This absolute seed cuts down Garrett Hampson trying to snag a free base. pic.twitter.com/mPdtQSZPA0— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 21, 2021
This year it will be interesting to see the approach Scott Servais takes with his ragtag trio of catchers. A free wheelin’ switch-hitter in the minors, Raleigh was primarily deployed as a lefty with the Mariners given their righty-heavy backstops - 114 of his 148 plate appearances came as a lefty against righties. While it’s true that historically Raleigh’s power has been concentrated on his left side, he’s maintained a high enough level of contact on his right to maintain that switch-hitter mantle into MLB. I’d imagine Servais will deploy a similar platoon strategy to start the year, but there’s plenty of opportunity for Raleigh to play himself into a more everyday role.
We joke a lot as Mariners fans about the bar being low, the floor being nonexistent. But one of the best ways to contextualize both the abject horror of Mariners catching history and the extremely reasonable potential of Cal Raleigh is to share this: If Raleigh hits ZiPS’ measured 1.1 fWAR prediction for 2022, he will be tied for the 19th highest single-season catching record in Seattle. And if he meets Steamer’s more ambitious 1.7 fWAR? He will have tied for the 14th-best season in franchise history.