Feature Photo: Riley Adams, C, University of San Diego (Photo by Brock Scott)
Last year, it took only 10 picks before the first catcher was off the board in the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft. By the start of the second day, eight catchers had been selected, six of them coming from the college ranks. There isn’t expected to be as much of a run on college catchers on the first day of the 2017 MLB Draft on June 12. However, one of the top collegiate backstops in this year’s class, University of San Diego’s Riley Adams, is generating late day-one, early day-two buzz from scouts.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Adams is built more like a first baseman or right fielder than a catcher. His height hasn’t prevented him from developing into a solid defensive backstop, however. 2080 Baseball’s Ryan Ozella evaluated Adams earlier this season and observed that, despite his height, Adams “keeps a low target with a soft receiving hand and shows the ability to frame balls higher in the zone. He moves well laterally and is quick to smother and block balls into the dirt.” Ozella also noted that Adams showed above-average arm strength from behind the plate.
Adams, who was also a three-year letter winner in basketball in high school and is a second-degree black belt in Karate, credits playing multiple sports and practicing yoga with being able to maintain his flexibility. He says yoga, in particular, “is really helpful for opening things up in the hips and being limber.”
“Being taller than the average size for a catcher there are things that I have to work on extra hard compared to most people,” Adams said. “I’ve tried to do my best job of staying as flexible and as mobile as I can behind the dish.”
A shortstop for most of his life, Adams says he fell into catching almost by accident – midway through his high school career at Canyon Crest Academy (San Diego, CA) his team didn’t have a catcher and his coach asked him if he wanted to give the position a try.
“I think I’m pretty lucky that I made that switch because I don’t think I would be in this position if it wasn’t for that,” Adams said.
A Baseball America preseason first-team All-American, Adams came into the 2017 season riding a wave of positive momentum. After slashing .327/.433/.512 for the Toreros in 2016, Adams earned All-Star honors in the wood-bat Cape Cod League that summer as well. Playing for the Orleans Firebirds, Adams slashed .333/.385/.417 in 29 games in the Cape. He says that competing day-in and day-out against the top collegiate players in the country elevated his game.
“I got to work with some really outstanding pitchers and I learned a lot from them and we had a really talented hitting coach out there, Benny Craig, who helped me understand some aspects of hitting that I didn’t really know about before,” Adams said. “It was a good experience to learn from those guys and to see professional-level pitching every single day. That’s really the easiest way to get better is to keep getting those reps in and I think that helped significantly.”
Adams has taken what he learned last summer and parlayed it into a big season at the plate for USD this spring. The right-handed hitter was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year on Tuesday. On the season, he slashed .312/.424/.564. His 13 home runs were more than doubled his 2016 output. Adams says his improved power numbers are a result of getting more comfortable with his large frame.
“There are always a few things that you are trying to work on with the mechanics of your swing and figuring stuff out and trying to get the bat path more level. At the same time, I think I am growing into my body and starting to figure out the long levers that I have,” Adams said. “A lot of it is just getting comfortable and finding the right path to the ball and figuring out how my body works to swing the most effectively.”
Ozella said that Adams’ swing “follows a short upward path, generating easy loft and backspin, and he flashes solid-plus raw power to the pull side during BP, with balls jumping to left-center field.” He also noted that Adams can be vulnerable to pitches down-and-away. Adams has seen his strikeout totals tick up this season along with his power numbers. He struck out 46 times in 206 at-bats in 2016, but he has 55 strikeouts in 191 at-bats this season. However, Ozella also noted Adams’ ability to work a walk. In three years at USD, Adams has 86 walks in 156 games and a career .409 on-base percentage.
A self-described visual learner, Adams says he has taken aspects of former USD star Kris Bryant’s (3B/LF, Cubs) swing and put them into his own.
“We have similar body types in that we are taller and lanky, but I think that there are things that I like in his swing that I try to put into mine a little bit,” Adams said.
Adams points to Giants’ star catcher Buster Posey as the player he tries most to emulate, both on and off the field.
“Obviously, he’s a phenomenal player and does everything well but what I think I enjoy most about him is his leadership on the field and the way that his demeanor is in working with the pitchers,” Adams said. “I think off the field, too, that he’s just a phenomenal person.”
Catchers who can work a walk and hit for power are always in demand, and Adams projects to be one of the first backstops selected in this year’s draft. Although some scouts have suggested that Adams may have to ultimately move off of the position because of his size, Adams says he loves playing behind the plate.
“The coolest side of catching is the mental side of it. I like to think of myself as a pretty smart kid and I am always trying to think things through. Calling a game and working with the pitching staff, I think that is probably one of the most fun aspects of it for me,” Adams said.
Although Adams doesn’t call his own games at USD, he did have the opportunity to call games last summer in the Cape Cod League. He says that he relished the challenge of learning a new pitching staff and playing off their strengths and weaknesses while with Orleans.
“I really enjoyed the chess match that you play calling games and working with a pitcher that you’ve never been with before and trying things out,” Adams said.
Coming out of high school, Adams was a relatively low-profile prospect. He did hear his name called in the 37th round of the 2014 MLB Draft (#1,099 overall, for those counting at home) by the Cubs, but Adams decided to go to college rather than turn pro at that time. Now mere weeks away from the June 12 draft day and hearing his name called in the draft again, Adams is eagerly anticipating his future playing professional baseball.
“That would be a dream come true. I think every kid including myself, their dream is to be a major league baseball player. I have worked pretty hard to get to the point I’m at right now,” Adams said. “To hear my name called in June would be that next step into making my way towards the big leagues. It would be another chapter in the book but I know that after the draft, there is still a long ways to go and a lot more left to get better at. It’s going to be a fun experience but there are still greater things ahead.”