“Teams always need catching depth, and that often seems to mean they need Erik Kratz.”
- BP Annual, 2017
The odds have always seemed stacked against Erik Kratz finding a career in baseball. Kratz was born on June 15th, 1980, to a devout Mennonite family in Telford, Pennsylvania, which also happens to be Jamie Moyer’s home town. The son of a butcher, Kratz didn’t make his high school varsity baseball team until his junior year. He had played third base until that point and was supposed to be a bench player for the varsity squad, but early on in the season the team’s starting catcher received a suspension from school after getting caught smoking a cigarette. Kratz’s coach asked him to don the tools of ignorance for first time, and after hitting a home run in his first at-bat as the starting catcher, he didn’t relinquish the job behind the plate until after graduation.
Scholarship offers didn’t come for Kratz, and after receiving his high school diploma he enrolled at Division III Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He chose the school because of his faith and its educational qualities, and received a degree in Business Administration with a focus on marketing. But Kratz also suited up for the EMU Royals for four years while paying his own way through school and was the team’s starting backstop each season. He was named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year twice and hit .507 with 14 home runs during his senior season, which was enough to catch the attention of the Toronto Blue Jays. They made him their 29th-round pick in the 2002 MLB Draft. According to Baseball Reference, Kratz is the only player that has ever been drafted out of EMU, and the only other person from Eastern Mennonite who has played any level of professional baseball is Larry Sheets, who enjoyed an eight-year career with the Orioles, Tigers, and Mariners in the 80’s and early 90’s.
In 2007, Kratz was a 27 year old who was still bouncing between the AA and AAA levels. There was some pop in his bat, but he hadn’t been much of a hitter as a professional. But Kratz had already developed a reputation as a sound defensive backstop. From Dirk Scott, Toronto’s director of player development at that time: “He’ll do well as a serviceable backup. He won’t be there because of his bat, but because he can catch. He’s like Ken Huckaby and Sal Fasano in that regard. They are able to go up and fill a need, which is to catch. Kratz can catch and throw in a couple of hits and he might get himself a couple of years of pension up in the Majors.”
Kratz knew that it was a long shot for him to get to the majors even even at that time, but his work ethic, laid-back demeanor, and love for the game kept him going. In an MILB.com interview, Kratz said, “I really, really love to play. That’s something that sometimes is lost in baseball, in the pro game especially, is the love of the game. Guys make fun of me in the locker room for it but everyone knows that’s how I feel about the game. I always tell people that if I came to the ballpark and wished for a rainout I would quit…I love the competition, I love the competitive aspect of baseball and that I can come to the ballpark everyday and have the opportunity to play, to do something that I love and hopefully one day do it in the big leagues.”
After two more seasons of toiling in the minors for the Blue Jays, Kratz was allowed to depart as a minor league free agent following the end of the 2008 campaign. He signed a minor league deal with the Pirates before the start of the 2009 season and spent the entire year at AAA Indianapolis, where he put together an .807 OPS with 11 home runs in 93 games and made the International League All-Star Game. He re-upped with Pittsburgh on a minor league deal for 2010 and once again began the year in AAA. He got off to another hot start and for the second year in a row, made the IL All-Star Game. In the fourth inning of the game, IL manager Charlie Montoya came out and pulled Kratz. The veteran catcher was disappointed at getting taken out of his first All-Star game, until he learned the reason why – he was getting called up to The Show for the first time.
Kratz was once demoted on his birthday. He and his wife had intermittent troubles paying their rent. He had considered quitting the game on numerous occasions. But finally, at age 30 and in his ninth professional season, Erik Kratz made it to the big leagues. On July 17th, 2010, he started at catcher and batted seventh in his first MLB contest, coming against the Astros, and logged his first hit off of Bud Norris. Kratz went 2-for-5 with an RBI and caught all nine innings of Pittsburgh’s 12-6 victory. “To see that many fans erupt after a win, that’s awesome. That’s a sound that I remember as a kid going to games,” Kratz said in an interview afterwards.
The good times didn’t last for Kratz, as he would collect just two more hits in his next eight games before getting sent back to the minors in August. He didn’t receive a September call-up, and after the season Pittsburgh outrighted him and allowed him to become a free agent. This time, Kratz latched on with the Philadelphia Phillies, the team he grew up rooting for. He was a AAA All-Star again in 2011 and found himself back in the big leagues that September, recording two hits in six plate appearances. He began the year in AAA once again in 2012, that wound up finally being the year that Kratz got a lengthy audition at the big league level. As a 32 year old, he appeared in 50 MLB games and hit .248/.306/.504 across 157 plate appearances, knocking nine dingers over the fence. His .285 TAv, 45 percent caught stealing rate, and solid pitch framing numbers helped him accrue 2.0 WARP, making 2012 his most valuable season to date.
Kratz was a fixture for the Phillies once again in 2013, making the first Opening Day roster of his career and even receiving some everyday action while Carlos Ruiz served a 25 game suspension for a positive drug test. He also appeared in a line of commercials for Godshall’s Quality Meats.
But the bat didn’t hold up quite as well for Kratz as it did the previous season, and he also missed some time with a torn meniscus. He ended the year with a .223 TAv in a career-high 213 plate appearances and wound up getting traded back to Toronto that winter, where his career began more than a decade before. Kratz spent the first half of the season shuttling back and forth between Toronto and their AAA affiliate in Buffalo before he and his .572 MLB OPS were sent to Kansas City in July. He found action in nine games in August but only two in September and was left off the postseason roster as the Royals advanced all the way to the World Series. Kratz could manage only a .634 OPS in 115 plate appearances between the two stops, and 2014 is the last season to date that he’s taken more than 100 trips to the plates in the big leagues.
Kratz appeared in only four MLB games for the Royals in 2015, spending most of his time in AAA Omaha before getting designated for assignment in June. He was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox, but was released eight days later before ever suiting up for any of their affiliates. He latched on a minors deal with Seattle a few days after that, but was released once again less than two weeks later after hitting .205 in 10 games in AAA Tacoma. Then, in a couple more days, he signed back on with Philadelphia. A .347 TAv in 26 games with Lehigh Valley was enough to earn Kratz another September call-up, and he went 5-for-22 in the big leagues during the final month of 2015.
Kratz continued to navigate his way from team to team in 2016. He started the year with the Padres, but was dealt to the Astros at the end of Spring Training. He hit .069 in 14 games and made his first big league pitching appearance (giving up three hits, and two runs – one earned – in one complete inning) before getting released on May 22nd. He latched on with the Angels a week later, but didn’t log any big league time with them. In mid-June, he was acquired by the Pirates in a cash transaction and hit .107 in 18 games before getting released in July. He signed on with the Blue Jays and spent the rest of the year in AAA, hitting .155 in 19 games before once again hitting the free agent market.
2017 was quieter on the transaction front for Erik. He signed with Cleveland before the season and spent the majority of the year with their AAA affiliate. His bat bounced back to the tune of a .270/.359/.472 slash with 13 homers in 86 games, and the Yankees purchased his rights in August and made him a call-up in September. He batted 1.000 for the Bronx Bombers, recording two hits in two at-bats before the end of the season. He was once again granted free agency following the season and the Milwaukee Brewers showed interest in signing him to a minor league deal, but he saw greater opportunity in returning to the Yankees. He began 2018 back in AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and posted an .894 OPS with four long balls in 17 games.
On May 25th, in desperate need of production from the backup catcher spot, David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers paid cash to the Yankees to acquire Erik Kratz and bring him to the big leagues. The front office praised their new player’s defensive prowess and acknowledged his improved AAA production on offense in recent seasons. Kratz debuted with the team the next day, the 11th franchise he’s been a part of and the seventh team he’s seen big league time for, and perhaps predictably hit a home run in his first game.
Against the odds, Erik Kratz has spent nearly two decades as a professional baseball player. He’s appeared in 231 MLB games, another 981 minor league games, has spent nearly five full seasons in the big leagues, and has earned more than $2 mil during his playing career. He owns a measly .219 career True Average and has accrued just 2.4 WARP in the big leagues, though he has thrown out 34% of potential base thieves. Through it all, Kratz has stayed grounded and realizes how lucky he is to have lived the life he was blessed with. He was once quoted as saying “There are a lot of players that are better than me that will never see a big-league field. There are so many things that are out of your control.” Soon to be 38 years old, the Brewers will be hoping that Kratz can be the wise old sage in their young locker room and that, at least in a part-time capacity, his rejuvenated bat and outstanding defense can help them get over the hump and into the postseason. For the fans, he ought to become one of the easiest players to root for.