The day Josh Crouch appeared on MLB Pipeline’s Tigers prospect rankings last month, High-A West Michigan development coach Nick Bredeson called him into the office. Bredeson has worked with Crouch since he arrived from Single-A Lakeland in May, challenging him to develop from an 11th-round Draft pick last year into an everyday catcher.
Bredeson’s message to Crouch was simple: Take five minutes and appreciate the moment, and all the work that went into it. Then, get ready for the next game.
“A year ago, when you’re in college, you’re looking at other guys and your friends that are on prospect lists,” Crouch said. “And then you wake up one morning and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m really on it, too.’ It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Crouch was never a high-level recruit. He was a junior-college catcher who leveraged his lone full season at the University of Central Florida into a pro opportunity as a third-day Draft pick. He was one of 10 catchers at Lakeland last year, batting .230 with a .593 OPS.
Now, Crouch is one of the top catching prospects in the Tigers’ system, and not because his last name fits the position. He entered Wednesday batting .292 with 25 doubles, 10 homers, 65 RBIs and an .818 OPS between the two levels. He has been the offensive and defensive cog of a Whitecaps roster that has changed around him with promotions. West Michigan was 8-13 before he arrived, and it entered Thursday 61-45 since.
“As we said in Spring Training, you can make yourself into a prospect by performing,” Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko said. “There’s been a few guys [in the system] that have just outperformed the league everywhere they’ve been. That’s been Crouch.”
Catching prospects often take longer to develop than other prospects, Garko said. They have to learn not just how to hit in pro ball, but how to pitch to pro hitters, since they’re in charge of calling pitches in a game. It’s a physical and mental grind that involves being invested in every pitch of a game, with more responsibility than anyone on the field.
“You start feeling tired,” Crouch admitted. “You’re facing 95 [mph fastballs] every night and no one cares how tired you are. So come to the field every day and be mentally prepared. I feel like it’s way more mental than anything else. How am I going to be ready to beat this guy tonight?”
Crouch is going through it while playing for a manager who caught 437 games in the Major Leagues.
“I couldn’t tell you how proud we are of the work and the dedication that this young man has put in,” Whitecaps manager Brayan Peña said. “He has put himself in a very good position in our farm. I’ve never seen anybody bring more passion and dedication and understanding to study the game.”
Said Crouch: “It wouldn’t matter what I would be doing on the field, it wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t have the constant accountability from the dugout. If something goes wrong, Peña and [pitching coach Dean Stiles] are on me: That can never happen again. I think just that over time, the constant accountability has put me at a level that I am playing the best that I have ever played right now. And the result is what it is.”
The Tigers liked the way Crouch could take charge of a pitching staff, but they asked him at the end of last season to get stronger, not just to hit for more impact but to handle the grind of catching nearly every day. It has been a challenge, but he has met it.
Crouch estimates he has lost 10-12 pounds since the season started. He is devouring calories anywhere he can find them to maintain strength. His host family is helping to keep him going with postgame meals.
“They have loads and loads of food. They cook for us at the house,” he said. “They’ve been super beneficial. If you’re at a hotel, you’re out of luck.”
As a hitter, Crouch not only became stronger, but smarter. He eliminated a stride in his batting stance last year so that he could be quicker with his swing and adjust to changing speeds. Meanwhile, he worked on his hitting mechanics to make sure he could put quality swings on as many pitches as possible.
“He understands the type of hitter that he is,” Peña said.
While Crouch ranks second on the Whitecaps in homers, he’s batting .333 with runners in scoring position with three homers and 50 RBIs. Just as important, he has more than twice as many hits (34) as strikeouts (14) in those situations. With runners in scoring position and two outs, he improves to .386 with 22 RBIs.
With help from hitting coach CJ Wamsley, Crouch has become a valuable situational hitter.
“I’ve used the whole field this year,” he said. “I don’t just have to pull the ball. I can hit a double to right-center field. I can hit a single down the right-field line. I can hit a shift-beater through the three-four hole. It’s just been playing the game, not forcing anything, just letting it happen. …
“[Special assistant Alan] Trammell talks about being a good overall hitter. You don’t need to sell out for power. Just be the good hitter and then trust that the power is going to come down the line, playing in different parks and stuff like that.”