Two days ago, the Milwaukee Brewers announced the placement of catcher Manny Pina on the disabled list and called up 23 year old Jacob Nottingham to the big leagues for the first time. A former 6th round pick of the Houston Astros back in 2013, Nottingham has been traded twice in his career - first to Oakland around the deadline in 2015 as a part of the Scott Kazmir deal, then from the Golden State to Milwaukee a few months later in the Khris Davis trade prior to the start of the 2016 season. Nottingham debuted two nights ago in the laugher against the Reds, appearing as a defensive replacement behind the plate starting in the 7th inning while drawing two walks and scoring a run in two plate appearances. His first career start came last night, when he went 0-for-3 but looked good behind the plate. This might not be a long stint in Milwaukee for Nottingham, but he’s the organization’s most advanced catching prospect and is someone that we’ll probably see a good deal of in the next few seasons. So what can we expect from the young backstop?
Nottingham has a very physical build, especially for a catcher, standing 6’2” and tipping the scales at 230 lbs. He bats from a crouched, slightly open stance, with significant bend in his knees. His hands are held high, up around ear level, and he uses a brief toe-tap before loading up and swinging.
Jacob began the year by reaching the AAA level for the first time in his career and was off to a hot start with Colorado Springs, batting .296/.345/.519 (119 wRC+) with one home run through his first eight games at the highest level of the minors. He was once considered an offense-first prospect whose bat may have forced him off the catching position, especially after crushing A-ball competition in 2015. In 119 games between the Class-A Midwest League and Class-A Advanced California League, Jacob hit .316/.372/.505 with 17 home runs and 33 doubles while whiffing in just 19.4% of his plate appearances.
Since joining Milwaukee’s organization, though, the script has flipped on Nottingham’s career trajectory. His bat hasn’t continued to develop as hoped while playing the last two seasons in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. Nottingham has an aggressive approach at the plate and some holes in his swing that more advanced pitchers have been able to exploit, and in 213 games at the AA level during 2016-17 he hit for only a combined .223 batting average while striking out nearly 27% of the time. Because of his penchant to swing-and-miss, his hit tool projects to be well below average at the major league level. Scouts at MLB Pipeline give him a 40 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, meaning that ultimately he may be best suited for a backup role long-term.
It isn’t all bad at the plate, though. He did make some significant strides in cutting down his strikeouts last season (from 30.2% to 22.6%) while also boosting his walk totals. “The plus raw power is still present” according to the scouts at Baseball Prospectus, and Nottingham did launch 20 long balls in 841 plate appearances during his two years with Biloxi. His overall slash of .209/.326/.369 last season did translate to an above-average 103 wRC+, although I wouldn’t expect his OBP to be boosted by 20 hit-by-pitches again in the coming seasons like it was in 2017. Nottingham is nearly as slow as molasses in January based on his 30 run tool grade, but he’s looked like a solid base runner, swiping 16 bags while getting nabbed only five times in the last two full seasons.
The offensive profile here will be driven by how often Nottingham will be able to make contact against major league pitching. His inconsistency with the bat may hold him back from becoming an everyday player behind the plate, but he has a good shot to fill the role of “backup catcher with pop” quite adroitly.
As alluded to above, a few years ago there were concerns that Nottingham would have to move to first base because of defensive shortcomings behind the plate. That is no longer the case, however. According to MLB Pipeline “club officials were very impressed with his improved catch-and-throw skills and overall progress as a blocker and receiver in 2017.” Nottingham received an above-average grade of 55 for his arm strength and threw out a whopping 40% of runners trying to steal on him last season with Biloxi. Behind the plate, he was credited with +10.5 pitch framing runs by Baseball Prospectus, though their scouts note “his “big galoot” frame makes him a bit stiff mechanically both on blocking balls and getting out of the crouch for throws.” Overall, Nottingham projects to be at least an average defensive catcher, if not better if he can continue to improve his blocking ability. Good defensive catchers often times are able to carve out lengthy careers in the big leagues, and the stock is trending upward right now for Jacob Nottingham.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus