Before the start of the Winter Meetings, the Colorado Rockies signed Jackson Williams to a minor league deal for some catching depth going into 2016. If you recognize the name (and the picture above), you should; Williams broke into the big leagues with the Rockies in 2014 after a long minor league career.
Now, after spending 2015 in the San Francisco Giants' organization, Williams is back with Colorado on a minor league deal that will no doubt include an invite to Major League Spring Training in February and then a spot most likely in Triple-A Albuquerque to start the year as catching depth for a Rockies' position group currently in flux.
Scouting Jackson Williams
Williams is in that weird AAAA purgatory that befalls so many players who aren't quite good enough to fully make the transition to the big leagues (or alternatively, players who have the talent and haven't found the right timing and opportunity). Williams is a former first round pick (2007) from a major college (the University of Oklahoma), and yet it took him eight years to break into the big leagues. Even now — entering his tenth year of professional baseball — he has just 30 Major League plate appearances to his name.
Some stats of note:
|9 yrs||MiLB career||746||2657||2312||256||518||109||5||42||247||247||513||.224||.309||.330||.639|
|2 yrs||MLB career||14||30||24||2||5||1||0||1||4||6||5||.208||.367||.375||.742|
Nothing jumps out from his big league stats, of course, but he hasn't exactly been given enough opportunities for us to draw any meaningful conclusions, anyways. On the minor league side, he doesn't have great pop and he's never hit for average, but he also doesn't strike out a ton, and seems like that stereotypical backup catcher.
More timely for our scouting needs heading into 2016, Williams slashed .228/.312/.279 at Double-A Richmond last summer in the Giants' organization (83 games, 312 plate appearances). In 2014, with Triple-A Colorado Springs back when they were a Rockies' affiliate, Williams slashed .256/.353/.368 over 72 games (286 plate appearances).
Coincidentally, that .256 batting average, and 2014's OPS of .721 are to date the best single-season numbers of Williams' minor league career, so he's clearly a pretty light-hitting catcher.
Miscellaneous notes on Williams
There's a lot to put here on any player, I suppose, but with Williams it seems right to focus on this story from 2014 about how the catcher voluntarily turned down his Major League debut.
It didn't matter since he broke through later in 2014 with the Rockies, anyways, but on the day that Williams was set to make his big league debut with the Rockies after nine years in the minor leagues, Yohan Flande was also scheduled to make his first career start... and Flande doesn't speak any English.
As Williams told The Oklahoman, the catcher bowed out from his big league debut in order to give Flande as smooth a start as possible:
"I told them Flande has been pitching really well, but I hadn’t really caught him much because of communication issues. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to make my debut, but at the end of the day it’s about winning games in the big leagues.
"Because it would be (Flande’s) first Major League start, if that meant sacrificing myself, so be it. I’ve always tried to do whatever I can to help. Good, bad or indifferent I’m not afraid to say something when I know it’s best for the team."
Williams kept to the company line in his assessment of turning down a Major League debut to better help Flande with his:
"It is what it is. I enjoyed my time there, soaking in everything, seeing how things operate at that level. Especially for a catcher, you’re held more accountable for a lot more, things like knowing the other team’s hitters and how to get the most out of your pitchers."
And even though 2014 was a wasted season for the Rockies (isn't that understating it to a huge degree?), Williams' professionalism couldn't let his own self interests get in the way of team development:
"I could have not said anything and gone out there and played. I knew the Rockies were struggling, trying to get back on track. I wanted our pitcher to be 100 percent comfortable in his debut."
A decade-long minor league lifer who would give up his own Major League debut — and then wait two months without a guarantee until he got another shot — to help a non-prospect pitcher make a debut for a basement dwelling team in the dog days of summer is a high character guy, to be sure. We often focus far too much on the outcomes, whether statistical or editorial, and fail to fully understand (or give credit to) the humanity rooted in so many good things in baseball.
Jackson Williams, high character guy. Won't help his OPS! But I'll take a helpful veteran like that as organizational depth all day.
[Since I am the true and real leader of the Yohan Flande Fan Club, I have now decreed Jackson Williams the second-best baseball player of all time, thanks to his selflessness in birthing the career of Mr. Flande. And so it shall be.]
Williams' best comp on the Rockies
Well, it's tough to say what kind of a big leaguer Williams is because he just doesn't have a ton of big league time to his name. Dustin Garneau? A poorer man's Michael McKenry? (But isn't that really what Garneau is supposed to be?) We (probably) know that Williams isn't a Hundley-esque level of proficient behind the plate, and time has passed him by for being another Tom Murphy, but that doesn't mean catching depth isn't valuable.
For the Rockies' sake — really, for Hundley's trade value and Murphy's development — let's hope we see relatively little of Williams in 2016 to the point where we never really learn what comp would be best.
What to expect in 2016
Not much! Look, it's nothing against Williams — his on-field character as showcased above is beyond reproach, and he seems to be a quality organizational depth piece to trust in pitcher development in the minor leagues. Besides, he will probably have the opportunity to play another decade if he so chooses, since backup AAAA catchers never die. (It worked practically forever for Corky Miller!)
As far as 2016 goes, though, the Rockies certainly have two (Hundley, Murphy), probably three (Garneau) and maybe even four (Ryan Casteel, if they want youth) catchers ahead of Williams on the depth chart.
Williams spent most of 2015 in Double-A because of the Giants' backlog in catchers, but with the Rockies this season I'd expect he sees a considerable amount of time with the Albuquerque Isotopes. As it so often happens with the physical demands of catching, though, it'd certainly be realistic to see Williams in Denver for his customary two or three weeks of big league time next summer, too.