(Photo via Armchair All Americans)
Georgia Tech has been no stranger to developing MLB-caliber catching prospects in their history as a program. Jason Varitek and Matt Wieters both played for the Yellow Jackets, as well as Mike Nickeas, who is now an assistant on the Georgia Tech staff. This recent success of sending quality catchers to pro ball should continue with junior backstop Joey Bart, who is not just the best available catcher for the June draft, but may be the highest catcher drafted since Joe Mauer was selected number one overall in 2011.
Most catchers in today usually have to decide if they will stick behind the plate or move off the position due to a need to focus on offense or defensive questions. However, Bart excels on both sides of the game and scouts and coaches, including Nickeas, are certain he will stick behind the plate long-term. “He’s truly a catcher,” said Nickeas in a recent phone interview about Bart. “We may have given him a first baseman’s mitt to keep his bat in the lineup in the past, but we wanted to keep developing his skillset behind the plate because that’s what he does.”
There’s no question that catching is a demanding job. Even Mauer and Buster Posey, two of the best catchers of this generation, have started to move off the position due to physical demands. Nickeas highlighted Bart’s durability and athleticism, which should give him a great chance to handle the physical rigors of catching in the majors. “It’s easier to be smaller and nimble as a catcher, but he’s blessed with great athleticism and has really worked on his flexibility,” Nickeas said. “It takes a very special player to stay behind the plate, and his athleticism is a huge asset”. Bart registers at a sturdy 6-foot-4, 225-pounds so he’s definitely on the larger side for an MLB catcher. Nickeas compared him to former Yellow Jacket Matt Wieters, a big catcher himself, and mentioned how Wieters’ athleticism has helped him stick behind the plate for nearly a decade.
Bart’s throwing arm is his best defensive trait. He threw out 40 percent of base stealers his freshman and sophomore years and gets strong reviews from recent scouting reports on his arm. But Bart will need more than just a strong arm moving forward with the emergence of new ways to measure catcher defense. According to Nickeas, Bart’s receiving and ability to frame pitches has dramatically improved this season from where he was a few years ago. “Joey’s aptitude [at framing] is very high, but it’s just like anything else,” Nickeas said of Bart’s work in that area of his defensive game. “It’s important to learn how to stick the ball first, and then learn how to manipulate a pitch to make it look like a strike. Joey can really stick a baseball now, and is also able to manipulate pitches properly which is not easy to do.”
Nickeas also speaks highly of Bart’s speed and quickness behind the plate – helping with his ability to block pitches in the dirt and pop time to second base. “He constantly surprises me with how quick he is,” Nickeas said. “He’s like a sprinter who doesn’t look like he’s moving but is really fast, and when you start timing things you realize how quick he can be behind the plate.”
Though defense may be Bart’s ticket a moving quickly through the minor leagues as a quality defensive backstop, he’s not all glove. In fact, Bart’s bat has progressed so much this spring that he would probably hear his name called in the first round of the June draft even if he didn’t play a premium position. Bart gets good reviews for his raw power, which showed up for the first time in games last season – Bart’s “offensive coming out party”, according to Nickeas. After just one home run as a freshman, Bart hit 13 last season and has 15 so far in 2018. That power improvement has led to an impressive .369/.478/.652 line this spring, with his on-base percentage currently a sitting as a one hundred-point improvement from 2017. “There were times last year where he would come out of his strikezone to try to carry the team,” Nickeas said of Bart’s approach in 2017. “He’s in a much better position this season with other hitters in the lineup where he can take a walk and let other drive him in. It shows a lot of maturity to do that, even though it’s hard with his talent and aggressive approach to take his walks.”
Bart was previously drafted by Tampa Bay out of high school in 2015, but his decision to play three years in Atlanta for the Yellow Jackets has proved fruitful – he’s currently rumored to be selected as high as the number two pick in June according to recent mock drafts from Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline. That pick is fittingly held by San Francisco, where Bart could be the eventual successor to Buster Posey behind the plate. Regardless, few in the industry see Bart lasting beyond the number five pick due to his unique, two-way talent that could provide immense value offensively and defensively, with more room to grow. “He’s just a wonderful canvas to start with that accelerates growth when you get into the skill of catching,” Nickeas said. “He has the work ethic to hammer those skills in and put in the time to develop those things, and I believe he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”