Now is Luis Campusano’s time to shine for Padres

Sep 17, 2023; Oakland, California, USA; San Diego Padres catcher Luis Campusano (12) bats against the Oakland Athletics during the seventh inning at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

The Padres have been waiting for their young catcher, Luis Campusano, to break out. With a taste of success late last season, it may finally be happening.

The minute the Padres drafted Luis Campusano in the second round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Cross Creek, Georgia, expectations were high. He signed for $1.3 million, forgoing his commitment to play college ball for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

He spent the coming years rising in the Padres’ touted system that A.J. Preller built. In 2019, he was named California League Co-MVP. After battling in the minor leagues for parts of three seasons, he earned a call-up during the tumultuous COVID-shortened 2020 season. There was basically no minor-league baseball that season.

According to MLB Pipeline, Campusano rose through the ranks all the way up to the third-best prospect in the organization and 44th overall in baseball.

Being a highly-touted catcher is very valuable. Not only do they need to handle their own with the bat and glove, but they basically need to be the quarterback of the team. They must develop a rapport with the pitching staff, almost anticipating their thoughts. That didn’t come naturally to Campusano, who is more of an introvert by nature.

To his credit, it seems as if he has worked through those challenges to become a fine catcher in every sense.

His stint with the big league club in 2020 was as short as possible- one game. He had quite a debut, hitting a home run. However, he suffered a wrist sprain and never saw the field in that season again.

It almost felt like he had to start over in Triple-A El Paso that next season, toiling through 81 games with the Chihuahuas. Once again, he got just a sip of coffee with the big league squad in 11 games. He went a brutal 3-for-34 with zero extra-base hits in that span.

2022 saw the end of his rookie status with another 16 games in the bigs, with a dismal .593 OPS.

Many wondered if he would ever figure it out. Some of his peers, like Fernando Tatis Jr., had set the league on fire at around the same age. Asking Campusano to progress at the same rate is not fair.

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Then, in 2023, he finally got an extended look in a Padres uniform, and boy, did he look good.

At first, it was a stop-and-start season, battling another injury. He played seven games in mid-April but did not see MLB action again until after the All-Star break.

In that stretch of 42 games, beginning on July 19 through the end of the season, his average looked like something Tony Gwynn would put together- .331. It wasn’t all singles either; Campusano has power, slugging .500 while hitting six homers with a .875 OPS.

Among hitters with a minimum of 170 plate appearances during the 2023 season, his 134 wRC+ ranked 25th in all of baseball and third-best among catchers.

Catchers certainly deserve to be graded on a more generous scale with their offensive numbers, given the demands of their job besides just hitting.

As mentioned, being a proper catcher in the big leagues is more than just driving the ball to the gaps at the plate. Especially with the new MLB rules that favor base-stealers, Campusano’s quickness and arm strength were constantly under duress.

His “pop time” metric (how long it takes to get a throw to second base) ranked in the 45th percentile. His “blocks above average” (a catcher’s equivalent to the Outs Above Average) sat in the 31st percentile, also below average.

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However, let’s not forget he only has 77 games of MLB experience under his belt at just 25 years old. One would think he gets only better from here. If he can get those to even average numbers defensively, with how favorable his projections are at the plate, he’s the catcher every organization covets on their roster.

Most catchers these days are defense-first, offense-maybe-later types. Campusano has an opportunity to be proficient at both, a rare skill in this age of analytics toward run prevention.

Last season, his expected WOBA, slugging, batting average, sweet spot rate, whiff rate, and strikeout rate were all above average.

Even as Ethan Salas draws headlines in the farm system as perhaps a generational talent behind the plate, Campusano is the present in San Diego. If his 49-game sample in 2023 is any indication of what he can do at the plate on a regular basis, Campusano has a bright future no matter where he ends up.

For now, he is San Diego’s catcher in 2024. Never mind what happens in the future, Campusano’s time is now. He should get basically a full season as “catcher one” on this roster. What he does with such an opportunity will be one of the most interesting storylines of the 2024 Padres.

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