Bryce Harper: 7 Former Catching Prospects Who Had to Change Positions

Matt BoczarContributor IIISeptember 19, 2011

Bryce Harper: 7 Former Catching Prospects Who Had to Change Positions

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    The power-hitting catcher is seemingly a dying breed in Major League Baseball.

    Players such as Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza have been replaced by players such as Brian McCann, Alex Avila and Yadier Molina.

    And somewhere along the line, a season of 40 or more home runs from the catcher position became a rare occurrence.

    In fact, out of over 200 players enshrined in the Hall of Fame, only 17 are catchers. And none have ever reached the 500 home run- or 3,000-hit mark.

    Since 1931, only 10 catchers have won the MVP award.

    This decrease in power numbers is not because the current generation of hitters has chosen to play a different position, but because the current generation of front office executives and coaches have decided to move their power hitter to a different position if he happens to be a catcher.

    For every season, such as the one witnessed by Joe Mauer in 2009, there is the chance of an injury occurring such as the one suffered by Buster Posey earlier this season.

    And teams have responded by having their above-average hitting players change positions.

    In the case of the Washington Nationals and Bryce Harper, this change may take place at the minor league level.

    For some reason teams don’t want their million dollar investments crouched behind a plate while a pitcher throws a ball as hard as he can at them, or while a base runner turns into a linebacker during a home plate collision.

    But the Nationals are not the only team to make such a switch.

    Here’s a look at Harper and six other former catching prospects who changed positions.

Dale Murphy

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    Dale Murphy played over 1,800 career major league games as an outfielder.

    In the minor leagues, he played there just once. That’s because through four seasons in the minors, Murphy caught 370 times.

    It wasn’t until 1980, his fifth season of major league action, that Murphy primarily played a position other than catcher.

    Seven All-Star appearances and over 350 home runs later, the position change looks like it paid off well.

    Murphy played parts of 15 seasons with the Atlanta Braves before finishing his career with the Philadelphia Phillies and Colorado Rockies.

    In 1,853 games in the outfield, Murphy committed 71 errors in over 4,000 total chances, and had a career .983 fielding percentage.

    But the position change may have impacted him more at the plate.

    Murphy finished his career with a .265 average, 398 homers, 1,266 RBI and 2,111 hits in over 2,000 games.

    He led the National League twice in home runs, RBI and slugging, and once in runs.

    From 1980-88, Murphy finished in the top 10 in the NL in home runs each season.

    After batting over .270 just once in the minors, Murphy would bat over .300 twice in 1983 and 1985.

    Murphy’s most impressive feat may be the fact that he played in all 162 games in four-consecutive seasons from 1982-85; a feat he certainly would not have accomplished had he remained a catcher.

Joey Votto

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    The reigning National League MVP and owner of a career .994 fielding percentage at first base began his career as a catching prospect.

    Of course, he only played in seven games at the position.

    Votto was drafted as a catcher by the Cincinnati Reds in 2002, but switched over to first base in 2003 and has not looked back.

    Since debuting in 2007, Votto has batted under .300 just one time, in 2008; he batted .297.

    In just four full major league seasons, Votto has already smacked 118 homers, driven in 396 runs, collected 689 hits and has a career average of .316.

    He’s also made two consecutive All-Star teams.

    Not bad for a player who was once ranked as only the fifth-best Cincinnati Reds prospect and barely in the top 50 in the major leagues.

    However, similar to Murphy, Votto’s offensive production may not have even come close to resembling the averages he currently has, had he remained behind the plate.

    After playing in at least 150 games in three of the past four seasons, Votto’s position change is seemingly another switch that has proved beneficial.

Raul Ibanez

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    In 15 seasons and 1,547 career games, Ibanez has played just one game behind the plate.

    That’s a small amount for a player who caught 126 games through his first four seasons in the minor leagues.

    But after 1,255 games in left field, a .987 fielding percentage and a .281 career average, Ibanez is a former catching prospect whose position change may have led to over a decade of success.

    Ibanez also recently joined Albert Pujols as the only two active major leaguers to have 10 consecutive 30-double seasons.

    The former All-Star has 250 career home runs, 1,780 hits, 376 doubles and 1,043 RBI.

    Prior to this season, Ibanez has batted at least .270 in 10 straight seasons.

    Ibanez has also appeared in over 120 games in every season since 2002; another streak that would have been much more difficult to accomplish as a catcher.

    Ibanez has enjoyed success in multiple areas since changing positions.

    Not only has he found success at the plate and in the field, but he’s also managed to have a 15-year career since making the switch.

Craig Biggio

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    After growing up idolizing Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees, Biggio began his career as a catching prospect for the Houston Astros.

    After switching to second base full time in 1992, Biggio is a future Hall of Famer.

    The list of accomplishments for Biggio is a lengthy one.

    After debuting in 1988, Biggio would go on to make seven All-Star teams and win four consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1994-97.

    Not only did he finish in the top 20 in hits in the National League 11 times during his 20-year career, but he finished with a total of 3,060.

    He also finished in the top 20 in the NL in runs 13 times, stolen bases eight times and batting average five times.

    And after nearly 2,000 games at second base, Biggio finished his career with a .984 fielding percentage.

    Not bad for a former catching prospect whose .375 average in Single-A was followed by him going straight to Triple-A, and the major leagues the following season.

Carlos Delgado

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    Delgado spent parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues and played over 400 games at catcher.

    Once he reached the major leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays, he played there just twice.

    Delgado originally switched from catcher to left fielder before settling in as Toronto’s primary first baseman in 1997.

    473 home runs, 1,512 RBI, 2,038 hits and a .992 fielding percentage later, the position change looks like it was a good idea.

    Delgado had made minor league All-Star teams as a catcher, but it was his chance to replace John Olerud as Toronto’s first baseman that led to 13 more seasons in the major leagues.

    The two-time All-Star played parts of 12 seasons with the Blue Jays before finishing his career with the Florida Marlins and New York Mets.

    Delgado finished in the top 15 in the American League in home runs in eight consecutive seasons from 1997-2004, batted .344 while playing in all 162 games in 2000, and led the league in RBI total in 2003 with 145, while finishing second in MVP voting.

    It seems as if 416 career minor league games as a catcher followed by a position change did not affect his offensive or defensive production for over a decade.

Jimmie Foxx

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    When a player makes their minor league debut in Double-A at the age of 17, the future has a chance to be very bright for their career.

    If that player is Jimmie Foxx, their career will end with an induction into the Hall of Fame.

    After originally playing catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, Foxx would go on to play a little of everything during his career.

    Foxx finished his career with a .992 fielding percentage after playing 1,919 games at first base.

    Foxx’s name is also mentioned with Lou Gehrig’s as the greatest first basemen of all time.

    Not bad for a former catcher.

    However, for all of the various positions that Foxx played on the field, it was his ability at the plate that cemented his legacy.

    In 2,317 career games, Foxx batted .325 with 534 home runs, 1,922 RBI, 2,646 hits and a .609 slugging percentage.

    In 1932 alone, Foxx batted .364 with 58 homers and 169 RBI.

    From 1928-41, Foxx played in at least 100 games while batting a least .285 in each season. He batted over .300 in 10 of those 14 seasons.

    Foxx finished his career as a nine-time All Star, three-time MVP, two-time World Series champion and winner of the 1933 American League triple crown.

    It’s debatable as to whether or not Foxx would have had the same career had he remained behind the plate.

Bryce Harper

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    After months of speculation, the Washington Nationals finally saw their top prospect make his debut this season on September 6.

    Only it was Stephen Strasburg, not Bryce Harper, who took the field.

    However, after playing in 109 minor league games this season, Harper has made his case for either a roster spot out of spring training or at some point during next season.

    In 72 games at Single-A, Harper batted .318 with 14 home runs and 46 RBI. He also had 82 hits and 19 stolen bases.

    Harper followed this performance with a .256 average in 37 games at Double-A.

    But what may have the biggest ripple-effect across the major leagues is the fact that Harper, a catcher during his amateur career, did not play a single game behind the plate this season.

    And the Washington Nationals don’t plan on putting their $9.9 million investment behind the plate anytime soon.

    The decision to move one of their top-hitting prospects to a position other than catcher is far from a new idea. The better a catcher is at hitting, the higher the chances are that the player will change positions.

    And, if their initial contract is close to $10 million, the higher the chances are that the change will take place before the player ever steps into a minor league batter’s box.