|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
“A catcher must want to catch. He must make up his mind that it isn’t the terrible job it is painted, and that he isn’t going to say every day, ‘Why, oh why with so many other positions in baseball did I take up this one?'” – Bill Dickey
Twenty-two year-old Brett Cumberland could play other positions. He has in him the potential to hit extremely well and that can translate to a variety of positions. He may still play another position before it is all said-and-done, but it won’t be for a lack of want. Cumberland wants to be a catcher and if Hall of Famer Bill Dickey is to be believed, that’s at least half of the battle.
Cumberland grew up in Turlock, California, a city of over 70,000 east of San Francisco. He attended the 40+ acre campus of Turlock High School which has produced a trio of major leaguers – most recently Dan Reichert. Cumberland was a three-time all-conference catcher in high school as a member of the Bulldogs. After graduating from Turlock, Cumberland remained in-state to attend Cal-Berkley.
It didn’t take long for Cumberland to turn some heads. Freshmen rarely start right away – especially at catcher. That goes double for a hyper-competitive conference like the Pac-12. That didn’t stop Cumberland, who opened his collegiate career with an eleven game hit streak and three homers. On the year, he would slash .254/.405/.429 with seven homers. He showed a penchant for getting on base through other means than a hit as he walked 33 times, good for eighth in the conference, and was bit by a pitch 14 times.
As a sophomore, Cumberland showed that he had a knack for outperforming anyone’s expectations. He took home Pac-12 Player of the Year honors by slashing a robust .344/.480/.678. Included in those numbers were 10 doubles, a triple, and 16 home runs. He walked 38 times to just 40 strikeouts while adding ten more hit-by-pitch. He earned second and third team All-American recognition from a variety of sources and was named as a semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes and Johnny Bench Awards.
Cal-Berkley crossed their fingers that Cumberland would return for a junior year, but the Braves came calling. With the 76th overall selection, a pick the Braves acquired after absorbing Brian Matusz‘s contract from the Orioles, the Atlanta Braves selected Cumberland. He was the first hitter they took in a draft dominated by arms like Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, and Bryse Wilson. The Braves went well over-slot to sign Cumberland, giving him a $1.5 million bonus compared to the slot value of $839,900.
Soon after signing, Cumberland was given the assignment to join the Danville Braves. He would walk and hit an RBI double in his professional debut, but his run with Danville was anything but smooth. It took him 13 games to hit a home run, 14 games to have a multiple-hit game, and he finished the season with just 13 hits over his final 84 PA (.186). Overall, Cumberland hit .216/.317/.340 while playing in 45 games – 33 as the starting catcher. He struck out 26% of the time and belted just three home runs in 189 PA. It was good for a .312 wOBA. Defensively, he was charged with eight passed balls.
It took away a little of the luster that new draftees have on them, but Cumberland still received a good deal of prospect love – including ranking #25 on the preseason Top 50 here at Walk-Off Walk. He opened 2017 with Rome and got off to a really tough start in the South Atlantic League. Over his first 26 games (through May 19), Cumberland was hitting just .186 with seven extra-base hits, including a pair of homers. But he also possessed one of baseball’s strangest triple slashes with a .187/.430/.333 line on the heels of 19 walks and 13 HBP.
On May 20, he smacked a trio of hits, finishing a triple short of the cycle. It began a hot streak that eventually ended his time with Rome. Over 29 games that spanned slightly less than a month, Cumberland slashed .320/.434/.680 with 10 doubles and eight home runs. He even swiped his first professional base, had his first two-home run game, and set a new career-high with a 13-game hit streak. He still struck out plenty but was now hitting the ball with authority in addition to getting on base.
Atlanta typically leaves guys in Rome for a full season, but they make exceptions for players with college-level experience. After hitting his 11th home run of the year on June 18, Cumberland was promoted to Florida. Things aren’t going so well for him down there. He’s struck out in all but one of his 19 appearances. Florida State League pitchers, who actually walk more batters per nine innings than what he saw in the SALLY, aren’t giving Cumberland as many free passes (5% less). They aren’t hitting him nearly as frequently either. They are striking him out a whole lot more. Through his first 66 PA, Cumberland struck out 29 times. That comes out to a 44% strikeout rate. To put that into a bit of perspective, Chris Carter‘s career strikeout rate is 33%.
|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
And there in lies the issues with Cumberland. We know he has a good idea of the strike-zone. We also know he has the ability to deposit fly balls beyond the outfield wall. We even know that he has shown consistently that balls gravitate toward him, giving him free passes to first. What the Braves are hoping to see is – and why they were so aggressive to promote him after just 55 games at low-A – can Cumberland make enough consistent good contact? He’s not the only guy the Braves want to see that from. Braxton Davidson, Austin Riley, and Travis Demeritte all possess plus-power, but each has problems putting the bat on the ball to take advantage of that power. Cumberland is going to get on base – likely at a much better clip than his current .258 OBP through 19 games with the Fire Frogs. He can be a Three True Outcomes hitter and be successful in the majors. We don’t see them quite as frequently as we did 5-10 years ago, but guys like Joey Gallo (1.7 fWAR), Khris Davis (1.0 fWAR), and Eric Thames (1.8 fWAR) show that you can mask to some degree a bad batting average and questionable defense if you can hit for enough power.
Cumberland may not match their power, but he does something that none of them do – play catcher. The problem there is does he project to stay behind the plate? Like his new teammate, Alex Jackson, the jury is still out. He’s thrown out 23% of baserunners attempting to swipe on him this year, which is hardly going to inspire any confidence. He’s lumbering behind the plate and doesn’t look fluid in his movements. His footwork resembles a guy getting used to playing the position, not one who has played the position full-time against top-flight competition at his public high school and in the Pac-12. The good news is that Cumberland is regarded as a capable receiver who has the smarts to stay behind the plate and work with his pitcher. I haven’t heard much about his pitch framing, but to stay behind the plate, he either needs to be Tyler Flowers-great at framing or massively improve his agility behind the plate because his arm will likely never grade above-average.
Further, the slowness and lack of agility he shows behind the plate is unlikely to be fixed by a move to left field – often thought to be his fallback position.
The plus side here is that if it all comes together, Cumberland could develop into a pre-2017 Stephen Vogt-type catcher with more upside and a whole lot more strikeouts. That’s a 2-3 win catcher who, if he flashes 25-30 HR power, could be a 3-4 win catcher routinely in the discussion for an All-Star selection. The problem is getting there, but don’t get down on him. At 22 years-old, the switch-hitting catcher is a long way from being a finished product. That’s why good organizations pay minor league coaches and instructors the big bucks. To get the most out of the players the organization adds to the system.