In the months since a power surge kick-started his move up MLB Draft boards, Kevin Parada’s momentum hasn’t slowed. The Georgia Tech catcher has put together four different home run binges this year, his latest a streak of five blasts in four consecutive games that ended in his team’s series finale against the University of Miami on Sunday.
The 20-year-old who seemed like a sure middle-to-late first-round pick before the season is now earning top-10 consideration, and it’s not just because of his Division I-leading 23 homers and .381/.467 /.794 slash line. His defense of him is starting to look first-round caliber, as well.
At this stage of his amateur career, the most pressing question some have had about Parada is whether he can stick long-term behind the plate. He has done a lot in the last 2 1/2 months to settle any lingering doubts, and his coaches would implore anyone looking at some raw numbers (21 percent caught-stealing rate and eight passed balls) to look deeper.
“Our pitching staff challenges him immensely because we’re not exact all the time,” head coach Danny Hall said of a Georgia Tech staff with a 6.41 ERA, .282 opponents’ batting average, 60 hit batsmen and 28 wild pitches between its members .
Parada’s defensive strides can be credited to two things — the preseason work he did to improve his arm strength and the changes he made in his catching stance leading into his sophomore season.
The latter took time to accomplish. Zeke Pinkham, a former University of Louisville catcher who started as a volunteer coach at Georgia Tech during Parada’s freshman year, had urged Parada to adopt the one-knee catching style major leaguer JT Realmuto re-popularized in recent years. Parada tested the stance on occasion as a freshman last season but he didn’t feel comfortable enough to take it into games.
It wasn’t until after Georgia Tech’s season was over that Parada started becoming more proficient in the knee-down stance, which he can now use as needed. He spent a significant part of his collegiate Team USA tenure refining it under the guidance of catching guru Jerry Weinstein, a special assistant in the rockies organization who Pinkham called “a catching baseball legend.” There weren’t always clean results during the adjustment period. Parada had to work around some mistakes in games, in front of vigilant scouts who were looking for improvements in his blocking and receiving. Pinkham figures some of them jumped to conclusions on missed blocks, leading to reports that Parada may not profile as a catcher in the long term.
Pinkham struggled to reconcile those external descriptions with what he saw from Parada in-season. “It got under my skin,” he said, when he read someone’s note calling Parada an average blocker. Pinkham remembered watching Parada, an athletic defender who practices yoga to improve his flexibility behind the plate, get to balls he shouldn’t have attempted plays on in multiple situations. Against Georgia last year, Parada scooped a pitch that hit the dirt outside the right-handed batter’s box, quickly set his feet and threw to second base to start a successful rundown of a player who would have made it into scoring position if Parada hadn’ t stopped the pitch from skipping toward the backstop.
WHAT A PLAY! Stop to Waddell to Jenkins! pic.twitter.com/4NNG85UNJc
— Georgia Tech Baseball (@GTBaseball) April 28, 2021
Pinkham said Parada has made plays like that one this season, too.
“He does things that you just scratch your head at, like how did he do that?” Pinkham said. “In my opinion, it resorts back to his athleticism from him. He’s not your typical catcher.”
Blocking wasn’t a focal point for Parada and his coaches, but receiving was. Parada worked above the ball as a freshman, causing the momentum of pitches to push his glove down and sometimes out of the strike zone. Pinkham drilled the importance of working low to high with the mitt so Parada could better present low strikes to the umpire. He made enough progress that Weinstein, who was in Atlanta for the Georgia Tech-Miami series, declared, “he’s accomplished that,” when the work was brought to his attention.
Parada’s progress since the summer shone through to Weinstein in another notable area—arm strength. The raw power at the plate that Parada boosted through his offseason training regimen, adding more than 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame, also benefited his throwing. Weinstein said Parada’s usual velocity on home to second throws is around 80 mph, just a tick below the 81 mph average in the major leagues. His throws from him to the bases on steal attempts have distinctly more carry than last season.
“There’s not a lot of sinkage and run,” said Weinstein, whose Rockies will pick 10th overall when the draft kicks off July 17. “At least this weekend, everything carried and he was accurate. And that’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
Parada’s potential is especially evident on the rare occasion he makes an attempt to throw out a runner from the knees, Pinkham said.
“It fires me up, because it just shows how athletic he is and how strong his arm actually is,” Pinkham said. “Anybody that’s caught knows how hard it is to throw runners out from your knees. You need to have a strong arm, you have your momentum going forward. … When he does that, I think it’s like him sticking it to them (those who aren’t sure Parada can catch at the next level). Like, ‘I can do it. Watch me do this. The guy you like catching can’t do this.’”
Weinstein believes Parada’s arm strength will continue to improve once he is in an environment where he can learn how to refine the nuances of his craft. Part of the reason Parada is well-positioned to make such a leap is his keen understanding of what he needs to do to prepare for the future. He showed it in the gym, where he worked to elevate his offense and avoid the exhaustion he felt after making 48 starts behind the plate last season. And he showed it when he took the initiative to better his throwing of him.
A few weeks before he returned to Georgia Tech for his sophomore year, Parada was introduced to well-established trainer Alan Jaeger by advisor Michael Nickeas. Jaeger, the founder of Jaeger Sports, walked Parada through his approach to injury prevention and encouraged him to start an arm care routine followed by a throwing program similar to the ones many pitchers do in the offseason. Jaeger set Parada up with J-Bands and over six weeks guided Parada through his build-up leading into the fall baseball season.
“That was a very pivotal fall,” Jaeger said. “He had time to just really learn this program and do it right.”
Jaeger’s work with Parada, as it is with any of his clients, focused on maintaining the integrity of his throwing shoulder and surrounding muscles. The more Parada improved his range of motion from him, the better off he’d be. By the time he was playing and practicing in October, the difference was immediately noticeable to his coaches.
“In the fall his arm looked better than I’d ever seen it,” Pinkham said.
Parada’s throwing is even better now, after months of adhering to Jaeger’s guidance.
Pinkham isn’t exactly surprised by how far Parada has come. If anything, he’s amused. Parada reminds him of catcher Henry Davis, the top pick of the 2021 draft who is a product of Pinkham’s original program.
“Henry told us last year, ‘I’m gonna go No. 1 overall,’ before the season even started,” Pinkham said. “And I remember I was like, ‘Good luck. I hope you do. I’m pulling for you.’ But I was also like, ‘No way that’s gonna happen.’ So last year, I remember playing in the regional against Vanderbilt. And Kevin said that he’s gonna hit a home run off Jack Leiter, (the eventual) No. 2 overall pick. And we were like, ‘Kevin, just worry about getting a hit…’ What did he do? I have hit a home run off Jack Leiter.
“They both say they’re gonna do something, they do it. They both believe in themselves that much. It’s unbelievable. And it’s impressive.”
(Top photo of Parada: Courtesy of GT Athletics)