How Raleigh became top power-hitting catcher

August 18th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- In late April, Cal Raleigh sat in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, not quite sulking, but certainly not energetic.

He’d just been optioned to Triple-A Tacoma, the odd man out in a three-catcher crunch that the Mariners had carried during the early leg of the season. Not unexpected, but nonetheless frustrating, especially for a backstop who’s had a glove in his hand since diaper days.

That moment three months ago -- call it a setback -- made Raleigh’s epic Wednesday all the more rewarding. Seattle’s second-year backstop crushed two mammoth home runs in the Mariners’ 11-4 win that clinched a three-game sweep over the Angels. He now leads all MLB catchers -- yes, all of them -- with 18 homers, and there are still seven weeks to play. Since returning on May 7, Raleigh is hitting .216/.276/.473 (.749 OPS).

Stand down, Willson Contreras, an All-Star and top target ahead of the Trade Deadline, who didn’t get moved despite the Cubs’ sell-off. You too, Salvador Perez, the World Series champ and, in many ways, the face of the position over the past decade. And you as well, Will Smith, who’s blossoming into one of the game’s most clutch players for the Dodgers.

Raleigh, to put simply, is on one.

“The king of California,” shouted Julio Rodríguez from a neighboring locker in the visiting clubhouse at Angel Stadium on Wednesday.

Raleigh’s blasts weren’t just towering feats of strength, but also, an encapsulation to the adjustments he’s made at the plate, creating a shorter swing to the baseball with a focus on getting his foot down on time for the fastball, which also sets him up better for secondary pitches.

The first was against a first-pitch slider from reliever Mike Mayers, which Raleigh was sitting on. It was a hanger, and he jumped all over it. The second was again against a slider, but one at the bottom of the zone that he dug out against Jaime Barria, who worked the count full with his entire pitch mix.

“I don’t feel like I’m a different player,” Raleigh said of the Minors demotion. “I just feel like it was a different mindset, just a perspective change and kind of changed some things, what I was doing, going about my business. Obviously, I fixed some things physically, but it was more of a mental thing.”

This raw power might not be an outlier. Raleigh led all Minor League catchers with 29 homers in 2019, and he crushed 32 at Florida State. It’s a huge reason why Seattle selected him in the third round in 2018.

As Statcast shows, as Raleigh has made adjustments, he's whiffing at fewer pitches -- especially offspeed and breaking balls.

The value of catchers today is measured more in gamecalling, attention to detail and a relationship with his pitching staff. If it sounds overwhelming, it’s because it is. Yet Raleigh has won over his pitching staff -- and his manager, an 11-year MLB catcher -- with an acumen for attention to detail. His defensive numbers have been above average, too, specifically his framing and pop time on caught-stealing attempts.

“The catcher has been fantastic,” Servais said last month. “I’m so happy for Cal Raleigh and how he continues to progress and to grow. He's having fun. Like I said, the adjustments he’s made have paid off.”

And here’s two veteran pitchers, on his behalf:

Marco Gonzales: “There’s some ounces of maturity that are coming through. I’ve really enjoyed connecting with him. He loves the chess game, and I feel like I’m that type of pitcher where it’s basically a chess match throughout the game. I don’t have the sexy stuff that everyone is talking about, and so for us, it’s about in and out, up, down, and he’s really enjoyed that, taking pride in learning hitters.”

Robbie Ray: “I really enjoy throwing to Cal. I really like the dynamic of him behind the plate. He’s a big guy, and I like throwing to big guys. He’s really working hard back there, too.”

Aside from Raleigh, Mitch Haniger is back, so is Rodríguez. The latter two are, objectively, top run producers, and even on nights that Ty France scuffles, they find a way. Wednesday was a prime example, with Raleigh’s two homers among four, including deep flies from Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez.

Raleigh was arguably their biggest catalyst during their downturn in May-June, when they dropped to 10 games below .500. If anyone can attest to their massive turnaround, it’s him. In those months, he had an .822 OPS, and he had some hugely clutch moments -- in Houston, their house of horrors, and a Little League homer against the A’s.

Could even he imagine this breakout?

“I don’t think I would’ve believed you,” Raleigh said, told that he leads MLB catchers in homers. “I don’t think I would’ve even believed you after the first couple weeks of the season. I always have that belief in myself and I have a really good system around me, people that care about me, people will help me. Credit goes to them, really, they're the ones sometimes, especially when I'm down, they believe in me more.”

Raleigh is a big part of why the Mariners got here, and he’ll be a vital part of where they’re going.