The Rise in the Fall of Nevin Ashley

Nevin Ashley is a 25-year-old catcher for the Rays originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2006 draft out of Indiana State University. Ashley showed ability at the plate through his time in A ball, but began to see his power disappear soon after.   Ashley does possess surprising speed for a catcher as evidenced by his AFL leading four triples. Below is a snapshot of his career rates:

 

Season

Level

PA

BB%

K%

OBP

SLG

ISO

BABIP

2006

R

185

12.1%

26.1%

0.44

0.477

0.144

0.431

2007

A

490

10.3%

21.4%

0.354

0.431

0.152

0.332

2008

A+

386

13.0%

24.2%

0.348

0.315

0.08

0.299

2009

A+

236

9.9%

23.5%

0.343

0.335

0.095

0.305

2009

AA

139

13.2%

26.3%

0.331

0.314

0.102

0.279

Despite run of the mill offensive numbers, Nevin Ashley was named as a 2009 Florida State League All-Star.  There is no question about his arm strength behind the dish as he gunned down a video game-like 48 of 101 (47.5%) base runners in 2009 between A+ and AA. As analysts, we don't have great measures available to evaluate catcher's game calling or defense. For this reason catcher defense is ignored altogether when evaluating Wins Above Replacement. Nonetheless, there's no denying it exists. If proof is needed, look at John Jaso's minor league offensive numbers and ask why he has had little to no shot with the big league club to date.

GIven the lack of information, its worth noting that Ashley was named the Rays Organizational Defensive Player of the Year Award. This seems like a true endorsement given the lack of measurable. For further subjective evaluation jsut ask Stephen Strasburg, the #1 overall pick this year, "Nevin Ashley (catcher Rays) did a great job calling the game. We were always on the same page. We knew to go to a sinker in those situations to get a ground ball." Desert Dogs Pitching Coach Paul Menhart ,when asked about catching Strasburg, chimed in, "Ashley caught his first outing and today's effort. They have had a good plan each time, a very aggressive plan."

Ashley was selected along with Organizational Base Runner of the Year Shawn O'Malley to represent the Rays in the Arizona Fall League. It's no secret Ashley worked with Ben Zobrist's Swing Mechanic, Jamie Cevallos prior to the 2008 season. While they do not actively work together any longer, they do remain in contact.  Ashley seems to have found a groove in the warm Arizona climate where he has posted an OPS of 1.113 heading into November 17th, good for 4th in the league. Before I run the risk of speaking hyperbole,  Nevin Ashley's 67 At-Bats in the Arizona Fall League do not qualify him as an offensive phenom in anybody's eyes. Most readers have heard the warning shots, which are all very true:

 

A) Ashley has been old for his minor league level

B) His offensive performance the past two seasons in A+ and AA have been uninspiring to say the least

C) The Arizona Fall League is a heavily inflated offensive league

 

The hope instead is that Ashley can have a modest bat to accompany potentially elite defensive skills. While sabermetricians have yet to quantify this, it is fun to imagine and not impossible that our outside the box front-office and coaching staff may have a true proprietary defensive read on Ashley. If Ashley's defense is the equivalent of John Jaso's offense and Ashley can begin to put up some  respectable numbers at the dish, the Rays could have a future contributor on hand. Remember, this is a position where the expectations are so low that 2009 catcher Dioner Navarro could put up an OPS of .583 and still only be -.1 WAR.

 

How can we put perspective on Ashley's 57 at-bat-sample size in an extreme offensive league without discarding it entirely as some suggest? Ashley spent 2009 playing in A+, AA, and the AFL. I calculated  the average team OPS in each league to create league factors based around the middle number which was AA. Then I weighted Ashley's OPS in each league by both the league factor and by the percentage of Ashley's total plate appearances for the season. This allowed for Ashley's 2009 weighted OPS of .728:

 

 

 

LgOps

Weights

OPS

PA

%PA

Weighted OPS

AA

0.711

1

0.644

139

31.4%

0.203

A+

0.684

1.037975

0.678

236

53.4%

0.376

AFL

0.790

0.888889

1.113

67

15.2%

0.150

 

 

 

Total PA

442

0.728

 

 

Despite the offensive nature of the league and small sample size of at-bats, we can also compare historical catcher data from the AFL going back to 2005. In an offensive league the numbers should be inflated for all hitters so it is still an apples-to-apples comparison. Below is a table of all AFL catchers since 2005 with a minimum of 50 at-bats and an OPS of .800 or better. The age column refers to the catcher's age at the time of his AFL appearance. Before and Pre-OPS refer to the catcher's immediate preceding season prior to the AFL. Now and Post-OPS refer to the 2009 season. When selecting the level for Pre and Post-AFL, I used the level with the most plate appearances for the season.

 

Name

Year

Age

AFLOPS

AB

Before

Pre-OPS

Now

Post-OPS

Tyler Flowers

2008

22

1.433

75

A+

0.921

AA

0.993

Matt McBride

2009

24

1.152

66

AA

0.728

???

???

Michael McKenry

2008

23

1.126

84

A+

0.827

AA

0.831

Nevin Ashley

2009

25

1.113

67

A+

0.678

???

???

Jason Jaramilo

2006

24

1.027

66

AA

0.708

MLB

0.673

Cole Armstrong

2008

25

0.968

97

AA

0.706

AAA

0.714

AJ Ellis

2006

25

0.966

52

AA

0.676

AAA

0.813

Mark Wagner

2008

24

0.916

59

AA

0.666

AA

0.887

Curtis Thigpen

2006

23

0.892

88

AA

0.79

AAA

0.577

Raul Padron

2007

23

0.864

50

A+

0.678

AA

0.717

Bobby Wilson

2006

23

0.851

56

AA

0.778

AAA

0.714

Jeff Clement

2007

24

0.847

52

AAA

0.86

AAA

0.845

Matt Wieters

2008

22

0.845

73

A+

1.024

MLB

0.753

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

2005

20

0.825

73

A+

0.913

MLB

0.661

Jeff Clement

2005

22

0.824

67

A

0.908

AAA

0.845

Josh Thole

2008

22

0.82

69

A+

0.808

AA

0.816

 

With the exception of Curtis Thigpen, this list has put up respectable numbers following their Arizona Autumns. The two players that jump out as being most comparable to Ashley are A.J. Ellis are Mark Wagner, given their age and mediocre offensive numbers preceding the AFL. 

 

A.J. Ellis has spent most of the past two seasons in AAA with the Dodgers organization. He has displayed a keen eye walking 15.4% and 18.4% during that time period. He also had a BABIP of .372 the past 2 seasons. The knock on Ellis is that his lack of power (ISO .060) will erode his walking skills in the big leagues. Nonetheless his past 2 seasons his slash lines have been .321/.436/.546 and .314/.438/.375. I don't know of his defensive ability but if he is of average talent, he would have played for the Rays by now.

Mark Wagner seems to have followed Ashley's path as well displaying early success at the A levels before stalling out with a .666 OPS in AA in 2008. During his repeat campaign for the Red Sox AA affiliate following his AFL success that number jumped to .887, with both OBP and SLG jumping  over .100.

 

Catchers are notoriously late bloomers at the plate in the minors. Ashley may fade away quietly, but there remains a chance he can become an average bat for a catcher to go with his excellent arm and subjectively well thought of defensive ability. Nevin Ashley could become the Gabe Gross of catchers. All I ask, is that you don't close the book on Nevin Ashley just yet.

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