Detroit Tigers catcher Josh Crouch on 2022 success, blending analytics and prospect status

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers selected Josh Crouch with the No. 315 overall pick in the 2021 draft.

Less than two years later, the rising catcher is a prospect to watch entering the 2023 season.

Crouch, who turns 24 in early December, won’t compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he should begin the season in Double-A Erie and could surpass fellow catcher Dillon Dingler on the prospect hierarchy within the organization.

“You have to hit,” Ryan Garko, Tigers vice president of player development, said in late August. “Nothing matters unless you hit. That’s become our rally cry as a staff. Before I got here, (Crouch) hit the ball. He’s a pretty good hitter, but he just wasn’t impacting the baseball very well.”

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Crouch played 24 games in Low-A Lakeland at the end of the 2021 season after being drafted out of Central Florida. Those games gave the Tigers a small sample to help their former 11th-round pick in the early stages of his development.

He stayed in Lakeland throughout the offseason and increased his strength.

“It was an interesting player, but he wasn’t impacting the baseball hard enough,” Garko said. “He came back really strong. You could see right away that he was impacting the baseball more. And then the hit tool that he already possessed becomes much more valuable because he’s impacting the ball harder.”

In the 2022 season, Crouch played 107 games for Lakeland (11 games), High-A West Michigan (90 games) and Double-A Erie (six games). He hit .286 with 11 home runs, 70 RBIs, 43 walks and 72 strikeouts between all three affiliates.

Crouch posted a 9.9% walk rate and 14.7% strikeout rate with the Whitecaps. He was named an All-Star and voted the best defensive catcher in the Midwest League.

“He still has a lot of work to do behind the plate,” Garko said, “but we’re pretty impressed with both the physical part of the receiving, blocking, throwing but also the game management. The people skills are really good. He’s smart and has a high aptitude. He can understand a game plan and present it well to the starting pitcher. I think he’s done a really nice job making himself a pretty viable option coming through the system that can help us.”

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Here’s what Crouch said during a conversation with the Free Press (and MLB.com’s Jason Beck) in late August at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park, with questions and answers edited for clarity and length:

What has it been like for you to be here in West Michigan, doing what you’re doing right now?

“It’s been a process for me going into last offseason, just knowing what I needed to work on and gaining weight. All of this season, it’s been trying to stay consistent. That’s the biggest thing for me. Trust in the process. Trust in everything our hitting guys want me to continue to work on. And I feel like I’ve done a great job of executing it throughout the year.”

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What’s the biggest reason for your success this season?

“I would boil it down to the stuff you don’t see on the field. Talking about the swings with the coaches. Swing adjustments. How can I do this better? Just constantly learning is what it boils down to. This game is fluid. You constantly have to evolve, or you’re just going to get passed by. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of making adjustments throughout the season, and that’s enabled some success. Props to all the coaches here. I have not been around a better group of coaches in my entire career, between (manager Brayan) Peña, (development coach) Nick Bredeson and (hitting coach) C.J. (Wamsley), and D-No (Dean Stiles), our pitching coach.”

Was there a moment, hitting-wise, where you felt like everything clicked?

“Every day we go over our scouting reports on the pitchers, and C.J. is like, ‘This is what we’re going to do to attack this guy.’ For me, it’s diving into the data, sitting on pitches, getting those pitches and getting my ‘A-swing’ off. That’s what it’s been boiled down to. In the cages, I have the same routine that I do every single day. I trust that as a baseline, then work with the coaches and execute every night.”

How has your approach evolved this season?

“I’ve used the whole field this year. It’s being able to know I don’t just have to pull the ball (49.5% pull rate in High-A). 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 3-4 hole over here. It’s just been playing the game, not forcing anything and letting it happen. And then, we call it pass the baton. Let the guy behind me drive me in.”

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How much of your approach is sitting on a certain pitch, and how much of it is letting the game come to you?

“There’s a balance. On the iPads, it has the analytics of what they’re probably going to throw in this situation. I go up to the plate thinking, this guy is 60% fastball first pitch, but also knowing there’s a guy on first base, and it’s a close game, so they’re probably not going to throw a fastball down the middle — they’re going to try and get me to roll over something, so it’s probably going to be an off-speed pitch. Or if a sinker guy comes in, and there’s a guy on first and second base, they need a double play, so he’s going to throw me a sinker, so I’m sitting on a sinker.”

It seems like the analytics and in-game situations work hand-in-hand.

“It’s definitely 40% the analytic side, but 60% of what I’ve realized this year is just read the game and read the situation. What is the situation calling for? Like C.J. says, ‘Be the hitter that the situation is calling for.’ If the situation is calling for a single backside here because there’s a huge gap, that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t need to hit a homer. I’ve been talking to Alan Trammell about stuff like that. Just being a good overall hitter, and you don’t need to sell out for power. Just be the good hitter.”

How active of a role do you play in formulating the scouting reports going into a series?

“We get the analytic report sent to us on our email. We look at that. I come to the field every day and talk with our pitching coach, and sometimes pitching coordinators are in town. It’s like, ‘This is what this team is trying to do.’ … You want to use what they aren’t good at and what we are good at. Combine the two things together.”

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You have mentioned keeping your weight. What has that process been like this year?

“I’m over 600 innings behind the dish on the year, so there’s going to be that 10-12-pound weight loss because I’m playing every day. It’s an adjustment being in the first full season. That’s why it’s super important for me to put in the work this offseason and gain that 20 pounds knowing I’m going to lose 10 because of the game. Late in the season, it is a grind. You start feeling tired. You’re facing 95 (mph) every night, and no one cares how tired you are. Come to the field and be mentally prepared.”

On the defensive side, have you seen your framing improve?

“Bottom of the zone was kind of an issue at the beginning of this year. Nick Bredeson and (director of coaching) Ryan Sienko, huge help to me as far as cleaning up some glove path stuff. It’s getting to know the pitchers and simplifying everything for myself with my glove move. Really, it’s getting to know what this guy is trying to do, so I need to beat my glove here. That’s what it’s meant for me this year.”

The offense is one thing, and then there’s the framing, but how do you value your defense as a whole?

“What I’ve learned here is game calling trumps everything else. If you execute a good game plan against another team, you’re going to win more times than not. The receiving part is beneficial, but it’s secondary to game calling. We got to develop a solid plan, and then anything else I can do to steal strikes on the back half is secondary.”

Sounds like A.J. Hinch.

“That’s what we say: catch a winner every day.”

What does it mean to see your name pop up on prospect rankings? (Crouch is the Tigers’ No. 29 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.)

“It means a lot. It’s a combination of all the work I’ve put in over the past year, year-and-a-half and everyone that’s helped me get to this point. It wouldn’t matter what I’m doing on the field because it wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t have constant accountability from the dugout. Over time, the constant accountability has put me at a level that’s like, ‘Wow, I am playing the best that I ever have played right now.’ The result is what it is. You put in the work and eventually it will all pay off. That’s where I’m at with it. It’s one of those moments. Nick Bredeson, our development coach, called me into the office the day it happened. He said, ‘This is one of the moments where you can look up and appreciate what’s happening.’ Every day is the same schedule. Grind, grind, grind every single day. You don’t have time to look up and appreciate something cool like that, so he’s like, ‘Take five minutes and realize that’s a pretty cool thing that happened.'”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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