By Kaelen Jones
MARYVALE — When Brewers manager Craig Counsell first saw Jacob Nottingham, he didn’t know what to make of him.
Nottingham, whom Milwaukee acquired from Oakland in exchange for outfielder Khris Davis last February, stands 6-feet-2 and 230 pounds. His large stature prompted discussion over whether his future was at catcher or first base.
“The first thing I noticed really is that when we got him it was the project of catching,” Counsell said Monday. “And frankly, we weren’t sure.”
Counsell and his staff determined the now-22-year-old would likely fit best as a backstop. However, a right bicep ailment limited Nottingham last spring, preventing Counsell from getting a complete look at him before sending the former 2015 sixth-rounder back to Double-A Biloxi.
Nottingham, listed as the Brewers’ No. 17-rated prospect by MLB.com, has yet to make his major league debut since breaking into the minors with the Houston Astros in 2013. Last season, he was featured at catcher in 83 of 96 games for Double-A Biloxi, and grew increasing more comfortable at the position — so much that Counsell is not only encouraged by the progress but said the results of his hard work are tangible.
“From a catching perspective, he’s taken huge strides,” Counsell said. “Really positive strides to where you notice it. You notice how he’s sitting back there.”
“Catching was a big jump for me, which was good because I used to be a little behind on catching,” Nottingham said. ”Obviously, I still have a lot to learn to get better, but took a lot from my catching being really good (last year).”
Worry over Nottingham’s ability to get low behind the plate in lieu of his size has been eased. Counsell noted significant improvement in Nottingham’s framing and capacity for receiving the ball, crediting the work of Milwaukee’s catching instructors.
Nottingham himself expressed appreciation of veteran teammates — both current and past — for their influence on his approach. Interactions with former Brewers catchers Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, and now Stephen Vogt and Manny Piña, have aided Nottingham’s development.
“Those guys, they helped me a lot and taught me a lot about being a good catcher and a good teammate,” he said. “How to take care of the pitchers and learn their different tendencies, they taught me a lot of that.”
Experience at catcher and lessons from previous veterans have helped Nottingham become a more complete player, something Counsell said makes players more valuable now than in past eras where home-run-hitting ability alone was enough to sustain a lengthy career.
“There’s a lot of guys hitting home runs now, but your defense is measured now,” Counsell said. “The defense is measured for everybody, so it’s become, really, a place where the value is measured, and it becomes really concrete.”
That said, perhaps Nottingham’s improvement defensively is occurring at just the right time. Despite his offensive game being considered ahead of his defense, he slashed just .209/.326/.695 with nine home runs last season.
“I had a couple good months,” Nottingham said. “But hitting is hitting. Sometimes you’ll get in some slumps.”
Nottingham is confident his bat will steady this year. The reason for Counsell’s pleasure, however, is his growth as a defensive catcher. It has ensured his value, even as Milwaukee carries four other catchers on its 40-man roster, the most of any team in the major leagues.
“The players that everybody wants are the more well-rounded players, because it’s measured,” he said.
As for fine-tuning the balance between being a complete player both offensively and defensively, Nottingham said he’s still figuring out how to tow the line without trying to do too much.
“That’s something I’m learning, and that just comes with maturity,” he said. “Obviously, I had bumps in the road from a mentality (standpoint). But coming into this year, I’m trying to be even no matter what, if it’s good or bad.”