As the 2018 regular season began, it was quite easy to picture the Brewers in the playoffs, and if you were going to pick a player who would be their top hitter during their first postseason series, there certainly would have been a few logical candidates: Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Eric Thames… and as the season went on and Jesus Aguilar emerged as a star, then 2017 All-Stars Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop were acquired at the trade deadline, it would have been easy to envision those guys leading the offense, too.
But no — as baseball often goes, a totally unexpected contributor emerged to lead the way as Milwaukee swept the Rockies in three games. 38-year-old catcher Erik Kratz — who began the year as a non-roster invitee with the Yankees, spent the first two months of this season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and joined the Brewers in a trade on May 25 as they desperately tried to plug a hole created by a season-ending injury to Stephen Vogt and a disastrous start to the season by Jett Bandy — came through, tying for the team lead with five hits in the three-game series, despite the fact that he didn’t even play in Game 1. Sure, Yelich (2 for 8 with a homer and six walks) maintained his soon-to-be NL MVP form and was a huge contributor, and Braun played a big role as he collected five singles in 13 at-bats. But the impact that Kratz made — going 2 for 4 with two RBI in Game 2, then going 3 for 4 with a double in the decisive Game 3, all while calling a pair of stellar games behind the plate — was absolutely tremendous and will go down as the most memorable when we look back at this series five years from now.
As great of a story as it would have been just to have a 38-year-old part-time catcher carry the offensive load during a postseason series, Kratz’s is even better because of the steps it took him to get here. After playing collegiately at Division III Eastern Mennonite University (a school that has produced two major-leaguers in its history, Kratz and former outfielder Larry Sheets), Kratz was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 29th round of the 2002 draft. Though he theoretically should have already been rather polished as a 22-year-old draftee, the Blue Jays didn’t treat him as such; after playing out the ’02 season in rookie ball following the draft, Kratz spent the next two seasons as what minor-league aficionados kindly refer to as an “organizational catcher,” a guy who spends time in extended spring training and fills holes on rosters throughout the system as they open up. He received limited playing time at Low-A, High-A, and Double-A, but saw most of his game action at short-season Auburn, where he posted a .311/.394/.495 slash line over a two-year span. After achieving consistent offensive success over his first three pro seasons, Kratz finally earned a full-time spot in full-season ball in 2005, jumping all the way to Double-A, and though he posted a disappointing .635 OPS there, his 11 homers in 292 at-bats in the pitcher-friendly Eastern League evidently were enough to convince the Jays to send him to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Unfortunately, he struggled offensively when given that opportunity, and it must have represented a turning point in the Blue Jays’ evaluation of him, as he toiled between Double-A and Triple-A for each of the next three seasons, never playing in more than 84 games and never getting a big-league opportunity.
Kratz finally became a minor-league free agent after the 2008 season, and that’s when things began to trend upward for him a bit. He signed with the Pirates and put himself on the front office’s radar by posting an .807 OPS with 11 homers at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2009. After being named a Triple-A All-Star for the second straight year in July 2010, he famously got news that he was headed to the big leagues during the middle of the All-Star Game. He hit just .118 over nine big-league games that year, but at least he got his MLB debut out of the way.
While that move furthered his career in one way, allowing him to finally live out his dreams of becoming a big-leaguer after eight-and-a-half professional seasons, in another way it sent off a tedious, unpredictable, and seemingly endless journey that has lasted for the entire decade. Since the Pirates moved him off the 40-man roster in September of 2010, he’s been traded six times, designated for assignment five times, outrighted to the minor leagues four times, received his unconditional release twice, and been claimed off of waivers once, all while being optioned to Triple-A 11 times and being recalled or having his contract purchased 15 times. Over that span, he’s gone from the Pirates to the Phillies to the Blue Jays to the Royals to the Red Sox to the Mariners, back to the Phillies, to the Padres to the Astros to the Angels, back to the Pirates, back to the Blue Jays, to the Indians to the Yankees to the Brewers, appearing in the majors with just over half of those teams (the Pirates, Phillies, Blue Jays, Royals, Astros, Yankees, and Brewers) during that stretch.
He hasn’t spent an entire season in the same organization since 2013, and he had never received more than 200 at-bats in a single season until getting 203 with Milwaukee this year. (For what it’s worth, he did cross the 200-plate-appearance threshold with the Phillies in 2013.) When he finally played in his first career playoff game on Friday, he became the oldest position player to make his postseason debut since 39-year-old third baseman Lave Cross suited up for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1905 World Series.
Even with the knowledge that Kratz was going to get a decent amount of action in the postseason, it would have been nearly impossible to guess that he’d make any sort of huge offensive contribution; after all, he was a .211/.258/.363 career slash line through 868 major-league plate appearances and had posted a .236/.280/.355 line in 219 PAs for the Brewers this year. As MLB.com’s Andrew Simon tweeted on Sunday, he got a third of the way to his entire major-league hit total from 2015-17 over his two games in this playoff series:
Erik Kratz MLB hits in ...— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) October 7, 2018
2018 NLDS: five
But on the big stage, Kratz came through, becoming one of four Brewers players to collect a pair of hits in Game 2 while driving in half of Milwaukee’s four runs, then on Sunday becoming the only player in the entire three-game series to have a three-hit day. He finished the series leading the Brewers in batting average (5 for 8, .625) and on-base percentage (also .625) while finishing second only to Keon Broxton — who had a homer in two at-bats — in slugging percentage. His impact was also felt behind the plate; as The Athletic’s Robert Murray pointed out on Sunday night, the Brewers have three postseason shutouts in franchise history, and two of them have been caught by Kratz. To put that stat slightly differently, Kratz’s team has never allowed a run when he’s been behind the plate in the postseason. Unfortunately, there’s no NLDS MVP award for Kratz to win, but even so, Brewers fans will remember his name for years to come after this weekend. If this performance helps propel the Brewers to their first World Series in their 50-year existence, he could end up as an immortal part of franchise lore.
This certainly isn’t to say that Kratz is going to come close to this success in future seasons or even in the Brewers’ next playoff series; for all we know, his career might be over after this season. But in a baseball world where predictive stats like BABIP, FIP, and win expectancy give us the feeling that we know exactly what’s going to happen more than ever before, it’s still possible for a no-name catcher just 20 months shy of his 40th birthday to come out of nowhere and carry his team to a pivotal postseason series sweep. We never really know what’s going to happen in baseball (or life, for that matter), and even if you’re someone like Kratz who has been down on your luck for a prolonged period, it always makes sense to keep chasing your dreams — you never know when that dedication might finally pay off.