The 2015 Gold Glove Award recipients at catcher, Yadier Molina in the National League and Salvador Perez in the American League, threw out 35% of stealing base runners over the course of the 2015 season. In his first full season playing in the United States, Houston Astros catching prospect Marlon Avea caught 58% of attempted base stealers, a number impressive on its own but made more remarkable by the fact that Avea did not become a catcher, a notoriously difficult position to learn, until age 17.
“I was always an outfielder growing up,” Avea says about his youth. International prospects are eligible to be signed by major league teams at age 16, but Avea received little attention from scouts as an outfielder as his sixteenth birthday came and passed. Entering his age-17 season, he knew his window as a prospect was closing. “My coaches suggested I try catching to see if I could catch the eye of a scout.”
The position switch allowed Avea to showcase his strong throwing arm and the Houston Astros took a chance on his raw potential, signing him in November of 2010. He was sent to the Dominican Summer League to develop his skills behind the plate, an experience Avea credits as a major catalyst in his development.
“I learned a lot there and it was very helpful to be able to be taught by coaches in Spanish.”
Language barriers are often one of the most significant challenges international prospects face while transitioning to playing in the United States and Avea is no exception in that regard.
“It has been very difficult because of the language,” Avea says about his first seasons in the United States. He debuted with the Astros Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2014 before playing a full season in the United States in 2015, advancing from Rookie League-Greeneville to the Astros Full-Season A-affiliate by the end of the season. “It’s hard, but I’m working on it.”
Many players from Avea’s home country of Nicaragua do not have access to high-quality education and come to the United States vastly ill-prepared to succeed off the field. At the country’s premier baseball academy, Academia de Beisbol Nicaraguense, founded by former MLB All-Star Dennis Martinez, the prospects are only required to attend 3 ½ hours of schooling each day and the majority of players who sign with an MLB team do so before finishing high school.
Avea proved a testament to this challenge facing Nicaraguan players when presented with his stellar defensive statistics. He admitted that he previously had no idea how he had performed behind the plate, unable to decipher the numbers and abbreviations on the statistics page of his own player profile on Minor League Baseball’s website.
“Which of those letters stand for caught-stealing percentage?” He asked, looking over his statistics. “It really is a pain not knowing the language.”
Avea hopes to continue to learn more English as well as improve as a hitter in 2016. Despite his tremendous success defensively, his ability at the plate has slowed his progression through the Astros system.
“I want to become a better hitter,” Avea says, a career .207 hitter in the minor leagues. “I know I have the skills to be a good hitter, but I need to polish them. I’m going to keep working hard.”
If his development at the plate goes anything like his development behind it, Avea could quickly become an exciting prospect to watch in 2016.