If the Seattle Mariners make the playoffs in 2022, there will be plenty of places to deliver praise. Standout rookie Julio Rodriguez, a lockdown bullpen, and a starting rotation that keeps them in every game have gone a long way toward getting the team ever closer to the playoffs.
However, when the tale of the 2022 season is written, it would not be complete without mentioning Cal Raleigh, who has stabilized a black hole position and is rapidly developing into a star in his own right.
Even the brightest of projections for Raleigh, who took over as the team’s starting catcher in April more out of necessity rather than on merit, could not have foreseen what he has done this year.
The Florida State product debuted last season in a 21-game cup of coffee and did not impress enough at the major league level to earn a spot on the opening day roster in 2022. Coming through the minors, he was regarded as a semi-solid defensive catcher who could flash an occasional bit of power. In 2019, a year he split between High A and Double-A, he hit a combined 29 home runs, but when he reached AAA in 2021, his power evaporated, even in the hitter-friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League. When he reached Seattle that year, his power further disappeared, and he hit only a pair of homers in 148 bats on his way to an abysmal .180/.223/.532 slash line. However, after Tom Murphy got hurt 14 games into the 2022 season, Raleigh was called back up, and with Luis Torrens floundering on offense and defense, he was pushed into the starting lineup.
He hasn’t looked back since.
As of last week, he leads all catchers with 23 home runs, has played practically every game, and has proven to be a steady hand at managing the pitching staff. In essentially every measurable category, Raleigh has taken a massive step forward in 2022. His strikeout rate is down, his walk percentage has doubled, and his home run rate (plate appearances ending in a home run) has gone up from 1.4% to 6.5%. He’s also stopped chasing breaking pitches out of the zone-instead waiting for something that he can punish. Interestingly enough, the percentage of batted balls he has hit as line drives has actually gone down this season. Still, his fly ball rate and hard-hit rate have both gone up, meaning that when he connects, the ball is probably going a very long way at light-tower level.
He’s developed into a hitter that will feast on mistakes, particularly on any pitch left up in the zone over the out half of the plate. Look at how his swing profile has changed from last season:
As you can see on the heat map, the upper right corner of the upper half of the strike zone-particularly the upper outside part of the plate when he is hitting right handed-is almost entirely dark red. When he gets a pitch in that area, he has the ability to send it a long way.
Even when the pitch isn’t necessarily in his wheelhouse, Raleigh can use his strength to absolutely pulverize it, as the White Sox found out in a Mariners 3-0 win last Wednesday.
Under the Jerry DiPoto regime, the Mariners development staff have emphasized a “control the zone” hitting philosophy of hunting pitches in the players’ preferred area of the strike zone and then punishing them. For players blessed with supernatural talent in all aspects of the game, such as Julio Rodriguez, that skill can come easily, but Raleigh, with his slower swing, and “country boy” body type, developing that skill takes hard work. That work appears to be paying off-Raleigh ranks in the top quarter percentile of hitters this season in hard hit rate, “barrels”-balls that are squared up perfectly according to launch angle and velocity, and exit velocity. It’s been a stunning offensive turnaround for a player that just a year ago looked to be almost devoid of power and potentially consigned to a career as a backup.
Instead of letting that happen, Raleigh improved on offense and has become a leader behind the plate and one of the league’s better pitch framers. The Mariners pitchers can have confidence that he is going to help them get as many strikes as possible and is going to stand up for them when the umpire doesn’t get a call correct.
“If you look at how the season started for him and where he’s at right now, I don’t think you could have predicted this,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told the Seattle Times earlier this week. “It was in there. But you just don’t know when it’s going to come out. I’m really, really proud of him. It’s not just the home runs and what he’s done offensively. But the job he does is behind the plate. He makes an impact every night whether he gets a hit or homer or not.”
There’s a very good chance Raleigh will hold the Mariners record for most home runs by a catcher in a season by the time he’s done this year, and even if he never has a season quite as prodigious as this one, it looks like the Mariners have found a catcher they can believe in for some time to come. This year Raleigh has developed into a player who can make a difference in a game in ways both big and small, and as the team charges for its first playoff spot in two decades, those differences could determine how far they rise.