Name: Mitch Canham
DOB: September 25, 1984
Drafted in the supplemental first-round out of Oregon State, Canham burst onto the scene near home – playing with the Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League.
In 28 games, the Washington native hit .293 with seven extra base hits, 20 runs scored and 18 RBI. He also drew 11 walks but fanned in 30 percent of his at-bats.
Canham also got a quick taste of the California League, going 0-for-7 across two games with a sacrifice fly RBI.
With the Padres aggressively pushing their top talent, Canham was back in Lake Elsinore to begin the 2008 season.
Playing in 113 games – most at the catcher position – Canham hit .285 with 41 extra base hits, including eight homers. He scored 65 times and notched 81 RBIs. The backstop also drew 66 walks compared to 73 strikeouts for a .382 on-base percentage – showing much better discipline from the year before. Canham hit .311 with runners in scoring position and hit better off left-handed pitching (.318) than right (.277).
The left-handed hitter placed sixth in the California League in on-base percentage, was eighth in the circuit with a .362 wOBA (weighted On Base Average), 10th in wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average based off wOBA) at 11.9, and 11th in wRC (weighted Runs Created based off wOBA) with 77.7.
Moved up to Double-A in 2009, Canham hit .263 across 111 games with 29 extra-base hits, 48 runs scored and 53 RBI. He also posted a .339 on-base percentage thanks to a 46-to-68 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Canham's .303 BABIP was among the top 20 lowest marks in the league and posted a negative 3.6 wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average).
All in all, it was a disappointing year from an offensive standpoint, especially the lack of power. He had just three more extra-base hits on the road than at home so Nelson Wolff – one of the toughest places to hit in the entire minors – was not a big factor.
"You know how college is, the head coaches call every single pitch," former San Antonio and current Portland hitting coach Orv Franchuk said. "That was a big adjustment for Mitch. It was hard, I think it affected the offensive part of his game. He had to spend a lot of time with that part of it and adjusting to every single pitcher in the bullpen and the starters.
"It just seemed like at least the first couple of months, probably the first three months of the season it took up a lot of his effort and I think it wore on him a little bit. The Texas League is not the easiest league in the world as far as playing conditions. It's hot, the travel is really tough, it's humid. I was a catcher, I know what that's all about.
"But on the other hand, he understood his number one priority was to catch and throw and handle the staff, and I don't think that was a priority in college, obviously, because coaches handle all of that stuff. He could concentrate a lot more on his offense.
"Having said that, it was a big adjustment for him having to call the game and know the pitchers, and get along with everybody and try to get the best out of each guy every single day no matter what. That was his job. Terry Kennedy and I were both catching guys so I felt like that was a good situation for him to be in, for Mitch to be in to get better with that part of his game. He did improve, he got a lot better."
Canham moved on to the Arizona Fall League and saw action in nine games. He was 5-for-33 – a .152 average – with one triple. He grounded into as many double plays (3) as he had RBI.
Canham spent the last year working on a flaw in his swing that had him leaking forward – thus sapping strength from his swing. He had a triple-tap of his foot that has his weight moving forward before the spring of his swing can follow. The meaning is that his hands had to do most of the work and his torso and the torque created to drive through the ball is lessened.
Working on keeping his foot and trigger in balance has been a challenge. The tap was a timing mechanism that he used to release his hands and body. He has eliminated the tap but perhaps overcompensated with other issues.
What crept up during 2009 was not taking his hands straight back during his load. His hands are pulled back behind his back, causing his torso and front shoulder to rotate back. With an open stance that has his lead foot pointed towards the first base bag, the move is over exaggerated and appears to send his balance off-kilter. This makes for a longer path that his bat must traverse to get through the zone.
Pitches on the inside corner are also tougher to reach, as the backstop has closed his front shoulder off during his load. His body must, therefore, make an adjustment to reach the inner half. He is often jammed as a result.
His entire swing happens at once and does not afford him quality pitch recognition. His load is quickly followed by putting his foot down and starting forward. Staying back with his weight on his back foot before exploding forward has been a point of emphasis. Not only will it allow him to recognize the breaking ball better, it will also turn into more power. His walks were down in 2009 after he appeared to be heading in the right direction the previous season.
The expectation is the power numbers will continue to increase, as he learns to be mechanically sound – seeking better pitches to hit and making more consistent hard contact.
A smart runner that can take advantage of a pitcher being lazy, Canham will steal a handful of bags each year. He is not a base clogger and moves well for a catcher. He can go from first to third on a single and can even bag some triples on balls hit into the gaps.
Getting better defensively has been an objective since entering the system. He has improved tenfold in his ability to block balls in the dirt and keep the rock in front of him. He is also more adept at framing pitches.
"We are still in the improvement mode, there was some good this year and some bad," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "Occasionally, he would loose focus and box balls, but its just about developing consistency and is really no different than (Nick) Hundley at this stage, and Nick has another level to climb in the majors too.
"Mitch has gotten to the middle of the system pretty quick and still needs some work on calling games. Right now, he has a bit of a college mentality in trying to trick guys and is still making the adjustment from aluminum to wood. For example, if someone looks bad on two straight fastballs, make them prove that they can hit that pitch before calling something else. This year, he couldn't have asked for two better guys to work with him on a regular basis than Terry and Orv [Franchuk, the Missions hitting coach] two former catchers."
His arm will never be great, as he tends to short-arm the ball. He doesn't have great arm strength but has worked hard on his throwing mechanics. Canham had caught the ball too low in the past, as his crouch was pronounced. Most of it was in his squatting. He bends his back more now from a higher crouch to provide a low target. Now, he is standing a bit taller, giving him a quicker bounce to an upright and throwing position. He threw out 28-of-127 runners attempting to steal, good for 22 percent. That number is up from the 18.6 percent he snared the year before. The opposition attempted to steal on him more than any other catcher in the league. It was, however, 34 fewer attempts than the year before.
"I saw improvements," former San Antonio and current Portland pitching coach Steve Webber said. "He has limited experience as a catcher, and it goes back to the college game - he didn't start catching till he was in college. The college game is you get the signal from the dugout, put the fingers down, give it to the pitcher and he throws it. There's very little thought process that goes on in terms of what are the pitcher's strengths, what are the hitter's strengths, what's the count, and so on. I think he made great strides as the year went along.
"As far as leadership goes, Mitch is a great leader, and there's no question about that. The pitchers have a lot of respect for him. I think with any college catcher they have a huge number of things that they have to be aware of, and, of course, first is their ability to receive, block, throw, and that goes along with the offensive side of it. The thing that probably comes along a little bit later is game management. I do think he made some improvements."
Calling games took a step forward in 2009. He has become more adept at mixing pitches and working the strength of his staff into the pitch selection process. A vocal leader that commands respect, Canham got on well with the staff and earned their praise as the year progressed. Early in the year, the rigors of catching seemed to hinder his hitting, but he seemed to find a better balance in the second half. It helped that his hitting coach and manager are former catchers.
My concern was, what was his commitment, and his commitment is total," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Terry Kennedy said. "He worked at it, it was slow improvement, but he did improve. He threw well at the end of the year, especially in playoffs, and he has always been a pretty good blocker and that even improved. But it was his glove work that needed the most work, and he worked at it and it got better. He's still got a ways to go, but it got better."
Conclusion: Canham has a number of issues that must be dealt with. His defense has gotten better; seemingly at the expense of his offense. He lost some confidence with the stick and his pitch selection faltered. It was further complicated by mechanical flaws. All of his issues are fixable, and Canham is a consistent worker that is not afraid to put in the extra effort. If he can align both parts of his game, even though his defense will never be considered a plus tool, he has the attributes to be a successful major leaguer with a high average bat and gap power.
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