Why is Adrian Nieto ready for the majors if Kevan Smith isn't?

Adrian Nieto, photo courtesy of MLB.comIt was recently reported that Adrian Nieto, selected by the White Sox in the Rule V Draft in December, has made the 25 man roster to back up Tyler Flowers at catcher.  Any player going straight from Class A to the majors, let alone a catcher, is very unusual and carries multiple risks.  Jesus Flores did it in 2007 with the Nationals, but has had only mixed success, bopping back and forth between the majors and minors since.  The most recent catcher we can find who made that jump and stuck in the majors long term was Butch Wynegar in 1976.

Can Nieto handle the most complex role on the field having never seen AA, let alone AAA?  Will his development be stunted by the jump and the lack of playing time being on the bench?

There are lots of questions we could delve into here, but let’s take a different angle than we’re seeing discussed in the Sox media world.  Why is Adrian Nieto ready for the majors, while Kevan Smith isn’t?

Kevan SmithNo one has mentioned Smith’s name as being realistic candidate to break camp with the team this year, and he’s typically only mentioned on the outskirts of the prospect radar.  Given that the Nationals left Nieto exposed to the Rule V, and he was similarly in the 20-30 range among their prospects, he likely wasn’t talked about by most people before that draft either.  And yet, Nieto appears to be packing for Chicago, while Smith has been destined for Birmingham since camp began.  They are much more similar than people may be aware.

Number Crunching

Smith was at Advanced Class A in 2013, as a 24 year old.  Nieto played in the same league, as a 23 year old.  Here’s what they did offensively:

Nieto: .282/.371/.446, 11 HR, 18.3% K/PA
Smith: .286/.370/.484, 12 HR, 14.9% K/PA

The hit results and OBP are nearly identical.  Smith displayed more power, and with a better contact rate.  Neither was a significant threat to steal bases.  Smith was older, but only by a year, and was in just his 3rd professional season.  Nieto was in his 6th season, though he missed some time with injuries and his PED suspension, and had played about 100 more games in his career to that point.  Smith’s offensive results in 2012 were stronger than Nieto’s as well, with both playing mostly at Class A.  Other than the advantage of Nieto’s switch-hitting, Smith (RHB) appears to have a stronger offensive profile at this point.

Key for catchers of course is the defensive side of the game.  Some of those aspects, such as pitch framing and field control, can’t be easily measured with stats.  But there are at least two dynamics that can be measured – catching base-stealers and blocking pitches.  Looking at caught stealing rates:

Nieto: 31% CS in 2012, 24% CS in 2011
Smith: 33% CS in 2012, 34% CS in 2011

Given Smith is a former college quarterback, having a strong arm is not a surprise.  Both players put up respectable numbers in the last year of available data (2012), and Smith was stronger the year prior.  Now let’s look at passed balls as a way of evaluating plate blocking:

Nieto: 14 PB in 85 games in 2013, 15 PB in 70 games in 2012
Smith: 14 PB in 92 games in 2013, 11 PB in 76 games in 2012

It appears Smith has also outperformed Nieto here, though neither player’s numbers are fantastic in this area.  Smith’s .989 FPct in his minor league career is also slightly better than Nieto’s .984.  In short, these defensive metrics seem to indicate Smith is slightly more polished at this point.

The Intangibles

With catchers, there is a third “leg” to add to offense and defense that is key to their value to a team.  How well a catcher handles his role as the unofficial captain – pitch calling, game control and amateur pitcher psychology – is a major factor in the success of the pitching staff and the team as a whole.  With both players not having been elite prospects nor playing above A ball, there isn’t much information to work with here.

As Spring Training has worn on, there have been multiple positive reports from camp about Nieto’s handling of pitchers.  A recent MLB.com article pointed out not only Hahn’s positive outlook, but also that Nieto was seen picking John Danks’ brain on the bench about pitches and location even when Nieto wasn’t catching him that day.  Some may suggest, given this came from the MLB site, that these sentiments are partially fluff.  But there must be some truth there, or the Sox wouldn’t be looking at taking him north with the team.  Look no further than the club's words about Josh Phegley’s early assignment to Charlotte as evidence.

Smith has only been in 2 games with the major leaguers thus far in Arizona, so there’s not been much chance to evaluate his skills on the front lines.  There were scattered positive reports about Smith’s continued development as a catcher and game captain in Winston-Salem last year, but nothing from the big club.  In our interview with him last August, he certainly seemed to have a solid baseball IQ, and he took pride in his work with the pitchers and their varying personalities.  Is the lack information on this subject the result of so-so impressions, or simply that Smith hasn’t risen in the ranks enough to be evaluated that closely on soft skills?

The Big Picture

Taking the wide view, the numbers seems to indicate that Smith is stronger offensively and at least on par with Nieto defensively, as of today.  The important but much harder to evaluate “intangibles” seem to give a stronger nod to Nieto, but without prying into the minds of pitchers and coaches in camp this is only supposition.  And of course this doesn’t address the roster reality – Smith isn’t on the 40 man roster, and Nieto needs to be on the 25 man roster or potentially (likely) be lost back to Washington.

There is plenty of reason to believe Kevan Smith is about as ready to be a major leaguer today as Adrian Nieto.  But the Sox want to keep both in the house, which means giving Nieto the job, even if it has potentially negative effects on his development.  Keep an eye on both, as things may be much different a year from now.

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