Going into the season, there was plenty of reason to think that the catcher position was going to be a persistent sore spot for the Cincinnati Reds. After all, the team got very little out of the position in 2013, split as it was between Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan, and Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had done nothing to improve that in the offseason. In fact, Jocketty put all his chips on Mesoraco, trading Hanigan to Tampa Bay and handing the starting job to the 26-year-old backstop.
That proved to be a wise decision, as Mesoraco has gone a long way toward rewarding Jocketty's faith. On Sunday, the Reds' catcher blasted two home runs, including a towering grand slam, driving in six to help Cincinnati demolish the Marlins and keep pace in the National League wild-card race. For Mesoraco, Sunday's pair of homers pushed him to 20 on the season, making him the first catcher this year to hit that mark, and continuing what's been a breakout season for the former top prospect.
A first-round pick back in 2007, Mesoraco's Reds career got off to a slow start. Taken 15th overall out of a Pennsylvania high school, Mesoraco spent four seasons in the minors, making his major league debut as a September call-up in 2011. In 2012, Mesoraco functioned as the primary backup to Hanigan, but got only 184 plate appearances on the year, hitting an uninspiring .212/.288/.352. Mesoraco took over the bulk of the starter work last season, pushing Hanigan to the bench, but still struggled to make consistent contact, batting .238/.287/.362 with nine homers in 352 plate appearances.
There was still plenty of time for Mesoraco to improve — he was still only 25 when the season started, making him the fifth-youngest starting catcher in the National League — but there was no sign of that coming any time soon. Mesoraco had easily handled every level of the minors he'd played in, including a .289/.371/.484 line in Triple-A Louisville in 2011, and was ranked as high as third on Baseball America's list of Cincinnati's top-10 prospects that year. But in his brief time in the majors, Mesoraco had been done in by an inability to do much more than hit weak ground balls. In 2012 and 2013, Mesoraco's ground-ball rate was 45 percent, a large part of why his batting average on balls in play in those two seasons was .234 and .264, respectively. All those ground balls kept Mesoraco's batting average around the Mendoza line and limited his power output.
That's all changed in 2014, as Mesoraco has completely revamped his approach at the plate. Thanks to some offseason work with new Reds hitting coach Don Long, as well as a tip from Double-A Pensacola manager Delino DeShields during an early season rehab assignment, Mesoraco has become more upright in his stance, allowing him to generate more power with his swing. The results are easy to see: On the season, Mesoraco's ground-ball rate is now just 35 percent, while his fly-ball rate has shot up from 34 percent to 42 percent. His homer-to-fly ball rate has doubled, from 10 percent to 21 percent, and his home runs per at-bat has been cut in half; he's now hitting one every 15 at-bats, compared to his 2013 rate of 36.
What's more, Mesoraco is now hammering fastballs, hitting .381 with a .762 slugging percentage on four-seamers this season, compared to a 2013 line of .270/.483. And while off-speed and breaking pitches still give Mesoraco some trouble, he's taken steps toward improvement against them, going from a 2013 line of .194/.290 against changeups and .215/.354 on sliders to .231/.423 and .255/.436, respectively.
Interestingly enough, Mesoraco's breakout has come despite some truly atrocious patience at the plate. While Mesoraco isn't swinging as often as he did last season (marginally — 36.6 percent versus 33 percent), his contact rates have plummeted, both outside the strike zone and inside it. On pitches outside, Mesoraco's contact percentage has gone from 70.8 to 52.4 percent; inside the strike zone, he's down to 81.3 percent against an 87.7 percent rate last year. All of that has dropped his contact percentage from 80.9 percent to 70.2, a number more in line with hack-tastic sluggers like Chris Carter and Chris Davis. Accordingly, Mesoraco's swinging-strike rate has ballooned, going from 9.6 percent last year to 14 percent this season, and his strikeout rate has risen from last season's 17.3 percent to this year's 23.6.
In essence, Mesoraco's plate approach more closely resembles that of someone like Ryan Howard or Khris Davis: big swings that come up empty a lot but produce jaw-dropping blasts when they connect. Take Mesoraco's grand slam on Sunday against the Marlins: On a 2-1 count, Mesoraco gets an 87 mph changeup right down the middle of the plate from lefthander Brad Hand and destroys it, sending it nearly to the second deck in Great American Ballpark's rightfield.
Mesoraco's newfound power is no fluke: According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, he's averaged 390.5 feet on his homers this year, not counting Sunday's pair of dingers. Of his Reds teammates, only Todd Frazier hits them farther, with an average distance of 395.9 feet.
All of that has helped Mesoraco display the kind of slugging prowess that Cincinnati hasn't seen since the days of Johnny Bench. In Reds history, only six other catchers have hit 20 or more homers in a season. Bench did so 11 times from 1969 to 1980, falling short only once in that span, in 1976. Since Bench last cracked the 20-homer mark in 1980, however, just two Cincinnati backstops have passed that milestone: Ed Taubensee in 1999 and David Ross in 2006.
It's not just Cincinnati that Mesoraco is leading, though. His 20 homers are tops among all major league catchers, just ahead of the Mariners' Mike Zunino's 18. If he can keep up this pace, he could join some historic company. If Mesoraco can reach 30 homers — which is doable, given his current homer pace and the fact that the Reds have 44 games left on the year — he'd become the first catcher since Mike Napoli in 2011 to bash 30 or more in a season, and just the third to do so since 2003, joining Napoli and Javy Lopez. That kind of power display is rare for a catcher; only 26 catchers have hit 30 or more homers in a year. Bench did it four times and was also the last catcher to lead the league in homers, bashing 40 of them in his MVP-winning 1972 season.
Mesoraco isn't the second coming of Johnny Bench, but the Reds don't need that kind of otherworldly production to stay competitive. If they want a chance at a playoff spot, they just need Mesoraco to keep producing like he currently is, keeping the lineup afloat as Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto work their way back from injuries. Jocketty took a gamble assuming that Mesoraco would be ready for a full-time starter's role this season. It's a bet that's paid off in a big way.