For Tigers catching prospect Josh Crouch, talent shining through

Detroit News

It was another game, another couple of big hits, for Josh Crouch on Saturday night at Lansing’s Jackson Field as West Michigan toppled the Lugnuts, 8-6.

Crouch had a double, and a home run — his eighth homer in 2022 between an earlier stop at low-A Lakeland and his 61 games for the Whitecaps, where he has batted .304, with a .383 on-base percentage and .863 OPS. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio at West Michigan has been strong: 33 to 26.

He also has a big arm. His receiving skills have ticked upward. He is 6-foot, 200 pounds, and bats right-handed, with nice splits: .851 OPS against right-handed pitching; .891 against lefties, with respective batting averages of .311 and .298.

All of this from an 11th-round draft pick in 2021 by way of the University of Central Florida.

Crouch’s season has been one of the Tigers farm’s more luminous, and maybe less-publicized, efforts when Colt Keith and Wenceel Perez, or Wilmer Flores and Ty Madden, have more often stolen the thunder at LMCU Ballpark.

“He’s doing a tremendous job,” Brayan Pena, who manages West Michigan, was saying during a weekend phone conversation. “We believe in his talent, which is trending in the right direction.

“I think he’s a huge part of our turnaround — ever since we got him.”

Pena, of course, was a Tigers catcher in 2013, part of his 12-year MLB run. And, at least privately, he and others within the Tigers galaxy would know the Tigers could use some organizational muscle behind the plate.

There is Dillon Dingler at Double A. And then there is, well, Crouch.

So, why the later-round backhand to Crouch during 2021’s MLB Draft, especially when his power already was considered by scouts to be a bonus?

Behind-the-plate skills, primarily, caused some teams to back away. Which is why the Tigers have been working so steadily on making Crouch a better defender.

“When he first got to us, from a receiving standpoint, he scored really well at the top of the zone and not as well at the bottom and at the edges,” said Nick Bredeson, who is West Michigan’s developmental coach. “When he got here (first week of May, from Lakeland), that was the focus.

“We wanted to get him better at the bottom, and add some value at the side. Right now, he’s trending that way. He has really put in the work to improve how he grades out.”

Refining skills will be the ticket to Crouch handling MLB-grade defense. Among non-concerns is his arm.

“He can really throw,” Bredeson said. “It’s a combination: arm-strength, foot speed and release speed, and the ability to get the ball in the air and put it where he wants.

“He’s sitting at 36, 37% (put-out rate on base-stealers). We’re actually at a point where we’re trying to get him to throw less. He loves throwing the baseball. He’s probably gotten three or four guys (pickoffs) at first base.”

It is the bat that will decide, as much as some essential defense, how close he gets to Comerica Park.

But there is much to like, as West Michigan’s hitting coach CJ Wamsley made clear Saturday.

“He can handle velo (velocity), he can handle spin, he can handle lefties or righties,” Wamsley said. “A couple of games, he’s hit a homer to left-center, or gotten a shift-beater (hit). He’s turning into a multi-dimensional hitter who understands when it’s time to be aggressive and when it’s time to look for a specific pitch. And I think being a catcher helps out a ton there.

“It’s all the way from the stuff you see on the scoreboard to some of the deeper nitty-gritty. He does a really nice job of understanding situations. Sometimes, it’s a (sacrifice) fly, sometimes the answer is in the gap or a home run. The thing he does really well is that it takes a very disciplined hitter to cultivate a plan or an approach.”

Wamsley wasn’t finished.

“Offensively, what’s not surprising to me is that he’s a student of the swing who’s always trying to get a little better. He’s the guy we’ll have good conversations with. It’ll be, ‘Hey, I was looking at my swing, and what about this?’

“When you think about it, he’s barely a year into his professional career, knowing the strike zone, and hitting with intent. As cliched as it sounds, he gets a little bit better every day. Whether with his approach, or his swing decisions. If a runner’s on second base, he’s thinking single; or a runner at first base, double; a runner at third base, sacrifice fly.

“He understands the game.”

And, again, not only on offense.

“His game-calling was always good, and that’s something he’s got to continue to get better at,” Bredeson said. “But it’s gotten significantly better. He’s become kind of a student of the game in that respect.

“And it’s not just knowing what each day’s pitcher has. He’ll go down to the bullpen and catch each pitcher’s bullpen. For a starting catcher to know he’ playing that night — and do that — tells you a lot.”

Pena agreed.

“When you have every single pitcher here give you credit for your game-calling and say they want to throw to you, that says a lot about your leadership and your character.”

Which is all fine and necessary.

What will count most, as it always matters with a big-league position player with ideas of playing in the big leagues, is the bat.

No matter what else has evolved in 2022, it’s his hitting that has pushed Crouch into conversations about the Tigers’ future. And at a position begging for help.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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