Before the shutdown, Jonah Heim showed that he was ready for a major league role. The problem is that the Oakland A’s may not have a spot for him just yet.
Usually, the backup catcher position gets scant attention. They get in the lineup maybe twice a week, giving the primary option behind the plate a needed day off from the wear and tear of the position. However, for the Oakland A’s this season, the backup catcher may well be an important position.
Barring injury, the A’s are set to open the season with prospect Sean Murphy behind the plate as the primary catcher. While Murphy performed well in his 60 September plate appearances last season, he still needs to show that he is ready to handle a full time workload at the major league level.
That made the competition between Jonah Heim and Austin Allen all the more fascinating. Allen also made his major league debut last season, looking somewhat overmatched as he posted a .215/.282/.277 batting line in his 71 plate appearances. He hit four doubles, drew six walks, and struck 21 times in that brief trial.
Prior to spring training grinding to a halt, Allen had looked like a different player. While these statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt, his .406/.441/.656 batting line, with two doubles and two homers in 34 plate appearances would have likely given him the inside track to being the A’s backup catcher, despite his own lack of experience.
However, there is another rookie that had made quite the impression. Johan Heim, the A’s 11th ranked prospect according to MLB.com, had also impressed during spring training. In his 27 plate appearances, he had produced a solid .320/.370/.400 batting line, hitting two doubles with a walk and two strikeouts.
That production comes on the heels of a breakout season in 2019. Long regarded as an excellent defensive backstop, the offense finally caught up to his arm and glove. In 327 plate appearances between AA and AAA, Heim produced an excellent .310/.385/.477 batting line, hitting 21 doubles and nine homers. He drew 35 walks while striking out just 45 times, his excellent contact skills continuing as he began driving the ball with more authority.
Those improvements continued in the Dominican Winter League. Playing for the Toros de Este, Heim produced a .301/.386/.411 batting line, hitting six doubles and a triple in his 83 plate appearances. He was lauded for his leadership behind the plate, with some in the organization preferring him to Murphy, who had played for the team the previous winter.
In another organization, Heim’s improved offense and strong defensive abilities would give him the inside track at the backup catcher spot. The problem is that Allen has also looked like an improved player this spring and has a greater track record of production in the minors. That may give him the edge in this battle, with Heim heading back to AAA to prove that 2019 was not a fluke.
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Jonah Heim may need to wait to get his chance with the Oakland A’s. While he appears ready for a major league role, his path is not clear just yet.