Recently, the Oakland A's promoted top catching prospect Derek Norris to the major leagues and A's manager Bob Melvin announced that Norris would be sharing time behind the plate with longtime incumbent starter Kurt Suzuki. Meanwhile in Stockton, a similar shift has taken place as 2011 draftee Beau Taylor has secured is sharing time behind the plate with fellow catching prospect Max Stassi.
Taylor's uncanny capability to get on base has allowed him to become a fixture in Stockton's lineup as a versatile bat, hitting everywhere from second to eighth in the order this season. Taylor, experiencing his first full professional campaign, has arguably been the most consistent performer amongst the A's top catching prospects this season, save Norris. Along with his success, Taylor has debunked the prototypical "power bat" catching stereotype, possessing instead characteristics that qualify him as a bonafide leadoff threat. With the promotion of top hitter Miles Head to Double-A Midland, Stassi and Taylor are nightly components in the Ports lineup, swapping DH and catching duties as the young prospects hope to accumulate at-bats and continue to pave a path that may eventually lead to the big leagues.
Taylor had a standout high school career in Rockledge, Florida, and he led his squad to an AAU national championship at age 13. He would earn rookie of the year honors as a freshman and claimed the All-defensive title his sophomore campaign, ultimately setting the foundation for a dominating upperclassman career. He notched a .720 OBP his junior season with 20 XBH and led the squad to the state semifinals en route to being bestowed with most valuable offensive player in each of his upperclassman seasons. Taylor would commit to Central Florida as a catcher, after playing each infield position over his high school tenure.
Conference USA would prove kind to Taylor, who became the first Golden Knights catcher to claim Freshman-All American honors. That season, Taylor hit .335 with a .500 SLG, recording 26 CS defensively, and pounding 15 doubles. His sophomore and junior seasons would result in Taylor being considered for the Johnny Bench award, recognizing the most elite collegiate backstop. He finished the 2010 season on a 21-game hitting streak and had a 15-game hitting streak as a junior. Defensively, Taylor also shined, as he recorded a .998 fielding percentage with 20 CS in 2011, helping to vault UCF into the NCAA regionals.
Following his career at UCF, Taylor was a 5th round selection by the A's, being scooped up as Oakland's 4th overall selection in the draft behind Sonny Gray, B.A. Vollmuth and Bobby Crocker. One characteristic that attracted Oakland to Taylor was his plate discipline. In college, he amassed a 0.74 BB/K in 2010 and a 0.85 BB/K in 2011. This season for the Ports, Taylor has an even BB/K through Sunday's game. While he hasn't walked an overwhelming amount (25 times in 162 at-bats), he has made consistent contact.
Taylor maintains a simple approach at the plate.
"I'm just trying to get a good pitch and not have the pitcher fool me with a pitcher's pitch," Taylor said. "I'm trying to get mine in my count. Like, when I get two strikes I can open up the zone, where before I'm not really trying to swing at outside pitches, just making sure that it's middle-in. You just can't be fooled by the pitcher."
In his professional debut season last year, Taylor appeared in five games with short-season Vermont before becoming one of the first members of his draft class to advance to a full-season league. Taylor played in 43 games for the Low-A Burlington Bees last year and fared well, hitting .293/.367/.367 in a pitcher's league. He only had nine XBH and he struck out 34 times as opposed to 18 walks, however.
The 2012 season got off to a slow start for Taylor, who was sidelined during spring training with an injury. He began the year at extended spring training but joined the Ports on April 14th after a home plate collision landed Stassi on the disabled list.
Taylor has noticed a distinct difference in the level of competition between the Midwest League and the Cal League.
"There are some days in the Midwest League where everybody would be tired and wouldn't go 100 percent, but here in Stockton everybody brings it every day. Plus bigger batters and a lot more power here," Taylor said.
Taylor seems to have adjusted to the competition. Through Sunday, Taylor was hitting .309/.400/.438 in 45 games with three homers, two triples and eight doubles. Since Stassi returned to the active roster on May 2nd, the two have shared the catching duties equally, while both have also gained significant playing time at the designated hitter spot. Taylor seems to have benefitted from the playing with Stassi, who is a year younger than Taylor but has more than two years of professional experience and two big league spring training camps under his belt.
"[Stassi] has helped me a lot with game calling," Taylor said.
"Plus he's made sure I'm ready before every game by doing certain drills with blocking and receiving stuff. But, we both feed off of each other. And I've taught him some things, too. To have another catcher like [Stassi] is great, especially in this league."
Taylor has been considered a strong defensive catcher dating back to his collegiate days, but he has committed an uncharacteristic nine errors this season already. He made only four last year with the Bees.
"You've got to keep working on catching, you can't stop," Taylor said.
"Hitting just comes naturally, I've always loved hitting, but catching gets tough because it's a hard position to keep playing single every day. Receiving the ball and making sure I'm front of the ball to block it… I remember one game where I missed three pop-ups and I was like ‘God, how could I miss those?'
"But it's a little different than back in Florida. I've mainly got to work on my pop-ups and throwing errors, those are the ones. If someone was stealing I would just air-mail it into the outfield. Me and Stassi have been working those as far as controlling where I throw and catching pop-flies."
Taylor's statistics seem to suggest that catching may take a toll on his offensive production. He is hitting .267/.369/.366 while donning the catching gear and .353/.431/.549 at DH. Occasional defensive lapses aside, Taylor has proven to be a valuable member of the Ports this season and looks poised to move through the minor leagues at a steady rate.
"He's been a big asset," Stockton manager Webster Garrison said.
"He's been off to a really good start. He was in extended spring, so when he got here he was just trying to get it going. He's had some really good at-bats and he's a real catch-and-throw guy as a catcher as well. He's learning to call the game and getting better and better as we go, but a definite offensive threat in his young career."