Does Luke Bailey still have a chance to be the Rays’ catcher of the future?


Oh, the Rays catching situation. There’s no denying that it’s not an ideal situation by any stretch at this point. I’ve been talking about how they have no clear-cut starter at this point, how they might consider making a trade for a catching prospect, about Oscar Hernandez, the catching prospect who dominated in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2011, and finally a whole series of posts about the catchers who will be available in the 2012 Draft (Parts 1, 2, and 3 are here, here, and here). But there’s one group of players I have completely overlooked up until now: the Rays catching prospects in the low minors. Today we’ll start by talking about Luke Bailey, the Rays’ 4th round pick in 2009 who played 2011 at Low-A Bowling Green.

Bailey was a highly-touted prospect entering the 2009 MLB Draft before bad luck, an elbow injury his senior year caused him to drop in the draft. The Rays selected Bailey in the 4th round of the draft, but signed him for supplemental first round money. Bailey was such a good prospect because he showed a nice line drive swing and raw power as a high school athlete while also showing an excellent arm (pre-injury) and nice motions behind the plate. But the question was whether Bailey could come back from his elbow injury to live up to his potential.

After signing late, Bailey made his pro debut at 2010 in the Gulf Coast League, putting up a .182/.298/.350 line with 8 doubles, 5 homers, and 14 RBI in 42 games. He struck out too much, 29.1% of his plate appearances, but he posted a nice walk rate (10.6%), and more than half of his hits were for extra bases. Defensively, a lot of Bailey’s arm strength came back as he posted a 31% CS%, although he wasn’t sure handed at all behind the plate, posting a .967 Fld% and allowing 3 passed balls. The Rays had seen enough from Bailey they aggressively promoted him to Low-A Bowling Green when he was finally at 100% in time for the 2011 season.

At Bowling Green, there was positives and negatives for Bailey. He improved his batting average to .223, but his OBP actually dropped slightly to .294. He did hit for some solid power, posting a .385 SLG (.162 ISO) thanks to 17 doubles and 7 homers, but he struck out in a horrific 32.6% of his plate appearances while walking just 6.6% of the time. At least in typical Rays fashion, Bailey stole 5 bases in 6 attempts. Defensively though, there was a lot for the Rays to be excited about. He wasn’t the best receiver in the world, posting a .987 Fld% and 9 passed balls, but he threw out a great 40% of attempted basestealers.

Bailey seems to be a big question mark going forward. But there were some good signs for him in 2011. He showed more power and he improved a lot defensively. But what about his contact rate? As it turns out, Bailey could be in line for a big improvement in 2011, in terms of average, power, and indeed contact and his walk rate. Bailey posted a 15.7% LD% compared to the league average of 14.7% according to Minor League Central, which is nice but completely inconsequential because of how much he struck out. What’s more interesting is his flyball percentage: 45.9%. Flyballs generally go for hits a lot less frequently on groundballs and obviously line drives, but despite that, Bailey still posted a .318 BAbip, with 12.3% of his flyballs to the outfield going for home runs. Bailey’s problem was that 22% of his flyballs were pop-ups on the infield. Bailey was just missing pitches and yet he still showed some of his nice power. If Bailey can get his timing just a little bit better, more of those sure-out pop-ups will turn into flyballs to the outfield and extra-base hits and home runs. Timing also was a big reason why Bailey struck out so much. According to MLC, Bailey really understood the strike zone very well in 2011. He swung at 92.3% of the pitches pitchers threw to him within the strike zone, and just 17.7% of pitches outside the strike zone compared to the league average of 88.3% and 26.1% respectively. Bailey was identifying pitches at a very high level, but he just wasn’t making contact: he made contact on just 40.9% of his swing overall and just 41.5% on pitches within the strike zone. If Bailey can just cut down on his swing a little bit and improve his timing, his great eye at the plate will help him walk at least half as often as he strikes out. Bailey has outstanding power, but if he cuts down on his swing slightly, everything will come together. He’ll be right on more pitches and hit for more power and average, and his strikeout to walk ratio will become a lot more reasonable.

On the surface, you can’t like what you’ve seen thus far from Luke Bailey in his minor league career. But there’s clearly hope Bailey to live up to his potential that prompted the Rays to draft him and give him such a large bonus. Bailey is still quite a while away from the big leagues. But he could very well live up to his potential and be the Rays’ catcher of the future.