There’s a player named Cooper opening some eyes on the Brewers farm this year. He can hit for average, draw a walk, and slug one into the gap. He plays a position of recent organizational need, though a few shrewd offseason moves have clouded his path to the bigs. Sound familiar? You might be thinking of Garrett Cooper, slugging first baseman for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. But I’m thinking of Cooper Hummel, reserve catcher for the Carolina Mudcats.
Hummel was an 18th-round draft pick out of the University of Portland in 2016. A well-regarded defensive prospect, his glove drew interest from as many as twenty big league clubs before the Brewers called his name. The question that divided scouts was whether Hummel would hit. He batted .118 and .192 his freshman and sophomore years, respectively, albeit with sporadic playing time. Hummel assumed full-time duties behind the plate his junior season, and responded with a loud .320/.422/.490 slash line. That was enough to convince Milwaukee to bring him into the fold. Hummel signed with the Brewers for $98,500, just shy of the threshold at which Milwaukee would have been forced to allocate resources from higher-round slots.
Like most new picks, Hummel packed his bags for rookie league. He was in uniform for Helena days after the draft. Hummel appeared in 35 games that summer, stepping to the plate 133 times. A quick glance at his numbers engenders little cause for excitement. The backstop hit just .176 in Montana, though that figure was significantly deflated by a .224 BABIP. Hummel, it seems, ran into some ordinary bad luck. Consider this: The young backstop walked more than he struck out, reaching base via the free pass in 20.3 percent of his plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus credits him with a palatable .266 Total Average (TAv) for the season, alongside 0.3 FRAA.
The Brewers liked those numbers well enough to assign Hummel to Class-Advanced A Carolina at the start of the 2017 season, eschewing low-A altogether. (This, in turn, allowed the club to challenge Mario Feliciano behind the plate in Appleton, where the 18-year-old has exceeded expectations.) But finding a path to regular playing time hasn’t been easy, as Hummel shares the roster with Mitch Ghelfi and Max McDowell, a pair of 2016 Midwest League All-Stars who are eager to insert themselves into the organization’s long-term plans. For the first part of the season, Hummel was the odd man out, catching bullpen sessions and taking his swings in live BP.
A late-May injury to Ghelfi provided Hummel an opportunity, and he’s since wrestled his share of slots in the lineup card away from a struggling McDowell. Hummel has amassed all of 59 plate appearances this season, the smallest of small samples, but he’s playing like a man on a mission. Entering Monday, is slash line is sitting at .265/.390/.429, and his 16.9 percent walk rate exceeds his 15.3 strikeout percentage. Hummel’s power is more of the doubles variety for now, but his performance this year shows a nice continuity with the patience and power he flashed during his junior year in college. Hummel boasts a .292 Total Average (TAv) and 0.4 WARP thus far in 2017. Not bad at all for a player who’s appeared in just 14 games and counting.
The narrative that the Brewers organization is thin on backstops persists, but it’s becoming less and less accurate as catcher has been something of an area of focus for Milwaukee under David Stearns. Under his watch, the club spent early-round draft picks on Feliciano, Payton Henry, and K. J. Harrison. Ghelfi and McDowell performed beyond expectations last year, and Ghelfi in particular raised his stock with a hot start to the year before his injury. Meanwhile, Stearns added Manny Piña, Jett Bandy, and Andrew Susac via trade. And don’t forget Jacob Nottingham, who’s hitting .333 over his last ten games as he tries to rediscover his top-prospect stroke in Biloxi.
Hummel, too, is part of this organizational turnaround. He may never amount to more than a big-league backup, and even that would be a fantastic outcome for an 18th round pick. But he’s still young, and has ample time to develop on the farm. Most importantly, he’s proving that he belongs on the Carolina roster, with a season OPS that is second only to Jake Gatewood’s. Keep an eye on him as the year wears on. Hummel may yet emerge from under the radar as he marches his way up the depth chart.