On a warm Monday afternoon in Davenport, Iowa, the leadoff man for the Class-A West Michigan Whitecaps is a catcher who leads his team in stolen bases – an odd combination. He’s also an infielder and outfielder, but on this day, he’s behind the plate. He’s also third on his team in home runs and extra-base hits. It’s about time you’re introduced to Tigers minor leaguer Brady Policelli.
Policelli has never been one to appear on top prospect lists since turning pro in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped him from earning his way into an everyday role. Beginning 2018 as the Whitecaps backup catcher, the 23-year-old has impressed coaches throughout the Detroit Tigers system, including West Michigan manager and former Tigers great Lance Parrish. “Brady’s made a believer out of me,” Parrish said. “He had some quality swings at the beginning of the season, and it forced us to look for ways to get him additional at-bats.”
Drafted in the 13th Round from Towson University in 2016, Policelli received a reported $75,000 to sign his professional contract after college – a modest total compared to players drafted just a few rounds earlier. The native of Walkersville, Maryland has had to earn his opportunities through hard work and versatility; ascending from backup catcher to primary second baseman, and a current everyday spot in right field. The Tigers noticed the dynamic skillset almost instantly after drafting him and decided to convert the 5-10, 200-pound second baseman into a catcher to help mold him into a super-utility role.
His initiation as a catcher led him into the most significant growing pain of his professional career – literally and figuratively. Playing for Class-A Lakeland during a game last June, Policelli got crossed up with his pitcher. Instead of getting the fastball he expected, he received a slider. While inadvertently resting his other arm on the inside of his right leg, the ball flew directly into Policelli’s throwing hand, completely shattering his right thumb joint. To make matters worse, “Polly” broke two other bones while dislocating his thumb, requiring three screws and a pin to be placed into his hand while sidelining him for the remainder of last season.
“My Doctor said after the surgery that my thumb joint looked as if someone hit ceramic with a hammer and blew it into a million pieces,” he said. “I remember him comparing my thumb joint to dust.”
Now fully recovered, Policelli has been able to show off a vast number of tools. As a catcher, his pitchers praise his ability to call a game. “Brady’s always in the dugout discussing how we want to approach the next hitters we’ll face,” said West Michigan pitcher Brad Bass. “He knows hitters pretty well and works his butt off on every pitch.”
He holds his own controlling the opposing running game, having thrown out over 35% (12-for-34) of would-be base-stealers this season. All this from a player who caught just 17 collegiate contests.
It became more evident that Policelli needed to play every day, but getting him in the lineup along with Tigers 2017 third-round draft pick Joey Morgan (also on the roster) became trickier than expected. “When we were down in spring training, he was just another catcher, Parrish said. “Early on, I found out about his ability in the infield as well as the outfield. He made it a point to remind me of that.”
This persistence opened the door for Policelli, who made a more-natural move to second base where he’s played 12 games this season. At second, he’s shown the middle infield ability he honed playing shortstop at Towson, looking comfortable and showing the aptitude to make the expected plays. After the arrival of 2018 Tigers third-rounder Kody Clemens and departure of outfielder and Tigers prospect Jose Azocar to Lakeland, the big-armed infielder moved once again – this time to right field – to expand his versatility even further. “We put him at second base before Kody [Clemens] got here,” Parrish said. “Once a spot opened to get him in our outfield, I wanted to put him there just to see what he could do.”
As a right fielder, Policelli has shown the range necessary to cover enough ground in the largest of outfields. His plus-arm has proven to be strong enough to handle the required throws, but accurate as well.
In the tenth inning of a game at Kane County last week with West Michigan leading 5-4, a ground ball to shortstop led to a wild throw down the right-field line. With the tying run scoring on the play, Policelli grabbed the live ball and noticed the runner who initially put the ball in-play was headed for third base to put the potential winning run just 90 feet away with nobody out. That’s when Policelli unleashed a picture-perfect throw from near the right-field bullpen to third base for the out. Had the runner been safe, the game would’ve likely ended moments later when the next batter lined a base hit into center field. Instead, West Michigan rallied for an 8-5 victory one inning later. The throw elicited reactions from the person writing this piece much like the one in the video below:
Ok, maybe not quite that response, but an incredible play considering the magnitude of the moment and circumstances of the game.
In an age where the super-utility player is a necessity on every team in Major League Baseball, Policelli looks to carve out a role in a space that many others are unable to fill. Players like the Cubs Javy Baez and Indians Jose Ramirez began their careers in this role before settling into a specific position. While Don Kelly is notorious for having held that spot with the Tigers for most of his big-league career, Niko Goodrum is currently thriving in the role for Detroit. Policelli is fine-tuning his skills to be just as effective. Most super-utility players aren’t typically useful catchers, which gives Policelli’s manager additional lineup flexibility on a daily basis.
“The thing about Brady is that he’s a great athlete,” Parrish said. “He very much reminds me of Brandon Inge during his prime, where you had a great athlete who can do anything you asked.
As a hitter, Policelli shows a knack for staying within the strike zone, having struck out only 42 times in 64 games this season. At the time of publication, he holds a .267 average, five home runs and 22 RBIs with 22 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases.
Standing at 5-11, “Polly” knows he doesn’t fit the physical profile that many of the prospect publications seek. “It doesn’t bother me that I haven’t been considered a prospect,” Policelli said. “As a player, I don’t look too much into that type of stuff because it can be easy to get too caught up in it. I just go out and play as hard as I possibly can.”
Policelli, who credits Tigers roving catching instructor Joe DePastino and current manager Lance Parrish for his improvements behind the plate, prides himself on being one of the rare catchers who can run, or lay down a perfect bunt. “For me, running has always been a difference-maker of my game,” he said. “That speed allows me to collect at least ten more base hits a season on ground balls I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get over the course of the year.”
Even as a catcher, the talented righty has no plans to lose his edge on the base paths. “When the Tigers wanted to convert me to a catcher, I wanted to make sure my speed was still a big part of my game,” Policelli said. “Other guys say that when you catch a lot, your knees start to wear, and fatigue becomes a factor. I chose to ignore that and stick to my game.”
Policelli must prove that his bat can play at the higher levels, but his speed combined with an advanced baseball IQ and terrific work ethic give him an excellent shot at maximizing the tools he has.
“I think he’s destined to become a super-utility guy in this organization,” Parrish said. “He could very well find himself on the big-league club at some point because he’s exactly the kind of guy the Tigers are looking for.”