Gabriel Moreno was at home in Venezuela last December 23 when he was called by Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I thought he was calling to wish me a Merry Christmas,” Moreno said this month in Anaheim, Calif., somewhat coyly, via a translator.
Instead, Atkins was calling to say that the Blue Jays had traded the promising young catcher to the Arizona Diamondback. Seven months later, Moreno, 23, is playing a vital role in the Diamondbacks’ surprising takeover of first place in the National League West.
He’s also one of a growing list of new receivers leading what may be a generational change in a position that, apart from Philadelphia’s JT Realmuto, Kansas City’s Salvador Perez, and now-retired Yadier Molina, has become one-dimensional.
“Everyone was looking to catch up,” said San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin, who was a backup boxer in the majors from 1985 to 1994. Defensive guy or offensive guy and trying to get a lot out of one faction out of it.
“But now you see some players who not only do the defensive part well, the offensive part, but some of them run decently and some of them hit in order.”
Both starters for this week’s All-Star Game are 28-year-old first-timers: Atlanta’s Shaun Murphy and Texas’ Jonah Heim. Credit (or blame) the embattled Oakland Athletics, who replaced both rising stars.
Will Smith of the Dodgers, 28; Adley Rochman, of Baltimore, 25; Colorado player Elias Diaz, 32, will also be a first-time All-Star in Seattle. The lone veteran in the group is Kansas City native Perez, 33.
Talent assessors throughout the game describe the latter period as a period when catchers were required to focus entirely on framing the field while batting at the bottom of the standings and contributing nothing else to their teams. It’s a style exemplified by the Yankees’ Jose Trevino, who was an All-Star last season.
This, however, is changing. This season, Atlanta, Arizona, Texas and Cincinnati (Tyler Stephenson, 26) are all leading their teams at break with the help of catchers contributing offense and defense. And the Baltimore Orioles became a serious player again in the Middle East almost the moment they called up Rochman last May.
“Adley Rutschman will be one of the best players in baseball for a long time if he can stay healthy,” said Kevin Cash, manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, who spent eight seasons as a backup catcher in the major leagues. Murphy added: “Stud. MVP”
“You haven’t had a lot of players here lately considering probably the best players in our game,” Cash continued. “And I definitely think that between Roachman and Murphy, they’re getting over it.”
Murphy, who hits .306 with 17 home runs, was almost accidental acquisition by Atlanta last winter. The team was happy in conjunction with veteran Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras, 25, younger brother of Wilson Contreras. But when athletics told the industry they would take on Murphy, Atlanta changed gears.
“We weren’t planning to pursue this situation,” said Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s president of baseball operations. “It was about going after that specific player. Ideally for us, this would have been a player that we have been eyeing for 2024, because we were in great shape.”
But rather than wait for Murphy’s free agency, Atlanta helped create a three-way trade with Oakland and Milwaukee that landed Contreras with the Brewers and Murphy with the Braves. Then Anthopoulos, as he often does, moved quickly to lock up Murphy for six years and $73 million.
“Someone who delivers production on both sides of the ball,” Anthopoulos said, mainly explaining the lack of catch-up in recent years. “It’s not like every off-season you have guys like that.”
Texas had selected the Oakland enclave for Hem a year earlier. On February 6, 2021, the A’s sent Heim, outfielder Khris Davis, and junior linebacker Dane Acker to the Rangers for Elvis Andrews, captain Aramis Garcia, and money.
“He was very good behind the plate,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, also a former catcher, of Heim’s appearance last season. “The metrics showed it, but so did the eye test. He’s a really good thrower, blocker. He’s a great receiver. Our pitchers have all the confidence in the world in this guy.”
“On the offensive side, he showed that last year early on but he probably got tired a little bit with everything he did. So we’re trying to keep a close eye on that.”
Bochy credits Rangers coach Bobby Wilson with helping accelerate the development of Heim, who remained stellar behind the plate and hit . 2282 with 12 home runs.
Heim Rochman. Patrick Bailey of San Francisco, 24; and Seattle native Cal Raleigh, 26, are all switch hitters, which brings another useful element to the game. Dodgers’ Smith leads all MLB catchers with a . 890 on-base plus slugging percentage, ahead of Heim (. 812) and Rutschman (. 786).
“Will Smith is exceptional,” said Anthopoulos.
The crop of dynamic fishermen is emerging in an age where no location changes more quickly. This year’s new rules reignite running games after years of dormancy, while also forcing catchers to call games more quickly thanks to the ballpark clock. If an automated balls and strikes system is implemented in the near future, it will take things a step further by removing the concept of pitch framing.
“I’m totally into that,” said Raleigh of Seattle. “I think you take a craft that people work on that can get people into the big leagues.”
But others believe that presentation framing has been overemphasized in recent years at the expense of other skills.
“Pitching framing is the most used word ever in the major leagues,” said Buck Martinez, now a television analyst in Toronto after a 17-year stint as a backup pro in the majors and a stint managing the Blue Jays in the early 2000s. “You know who puts up good pitches? Guys who have good pitches.”
As the game changes, so does the definition of what is needed behind the board. It includes more comprehensive sports. Moreno from Arizona, like retired Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, is a conversion quarterback. Posada was the second baseman in his first professional season before a change of position helped pave the way for a Yankees dynasty. Moreno was quick when he signed professionally at age 16, but the Blue Jays immediately began turning him into a catcher for their academy in the Dominican Republic.
said Moreno, who shares the position with Carson Kelly after starting 45 of Arizona’s first 65 games when Kelly was out with a broken forearm. “That was the easiest part. The hardest part is actually blocking pitches, getting used to hitting the ball, and the pain.”
The sheer physique of the position has led teams to consider it a two-man job—which is largely why some have settled on platoons that aren’t left and right, but defensively inclined and offensively inclined. As Hall of Famer Johnny Bench caught 154, 147 and 141 games during his typical heavy workload seasons, Murphy (116) ranks second in the majors to Realmuto (133) last year in games caught. Rally (115) came in third.
“When you have a guy who can catch and hit the top of the order, you have a potential Hall of Famer when you think about the guys who can do that together,” Martinez said, emphasizing that handling the running game was especially important with the new rules that brought To a high success rate on stolen bases.
The list of dynamic catchers should continue to grow.
Although Francisco Alvarez, 21, didn’t make the Mets’ Opening Day roster, he was called in just in time for their home opener when Omar Narváez suffered a strained calf. Alvarez has hit 17 home runs since then, already a Mets record for rookie catchers, and he’s rapidly improving behind the plate. His blocking skills were quite good, especially with the devastating Kodai Senga ghost fork.
Logan Ohby, 23, of the Los Angeles Angels, was also on the run, before suffering a tear in his left shoulder on April 25. The Angels hope he can return at some point during the extended run. And Cleveland recently called up one of its top prospects, Bo Naylor, 23, while releasing veteran Mike Zunino.
“I love the fact that we have an influx of catchers who can hit and offense is part of the priority,” said Jeff Bannister, an Arizona coach and catch coach who works extensively with Moreno. “You obviously want that to be one of your strongest defensive positions on the field. But it shouldn’t be an offensive dark hole.”