Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Primer
With fantasy baseball draft season beginning to pick up, this is a great time to survey the landscape at each position and figure out how we want to attack them this season. With the exception of the notoriously weak catcher group (yuck), position scarcity isn't something to be concerned with at other positions, but that doesn't mean there isn't value to be found by dissecting each one individually.
Our next stop is that dreaded catcher position. All ADP numbers are from National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts since February 1.
The Not-So-Magnificent Seven
Catcher is shallow. Really shallow.
Following a sizable gap, outside the top 100 we tack on five more guys clumped together: Yasmani Grandal (124), Wilson Ramos (127), Willson Contreras (132), Yadier Molina (139), and Buster Posey (141). Salvador Perez was originally the first player taken in this second group, but he's now out for the year.
Then, there's essentially another 50 picks until the next catcher is taken. That leaves us with just seven total catchers going inside the top 150 overall picks.
Given the dearth of quality catchers, one's natural instinct might be that it's imperative to nab one of these guys early, particularly in two-catcher leagues.
That's right, the top seven catchers in drafts aren't projected to do much differently -- and often worse -- than a run-of-the-mill outfielder typically being drafted outside the top 400. And this is hardly a case of cherry picking Calhoun, as you can make similar comparisons to other late-round names you'll recognize like Brandon Belt, Justin Bour, Evan Longoria, Jason Kipnis, Brandon Crawford, Mark Trumbo, and even Kendrys Morales.
Sure, you can maybe quibble over some of these individual numbers, but they're not all that different from other models, including numberFire's projections. Needless to say, if you're drafting one of these players, you're paying a very steep premium.
Playing the Waiting Game
In a vacuum, it's hard to justify paying up for one of these seven, and Realmuto in particular looks like a poor value.
This isn't to say Realmuto won't have a nice season. In 2018, he raised his fly-ball rate (37.4%) and hit more barrels, helping him to to a career-high 21 home runs, and his move to Philadelphia and homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park can only help him improve that mark again. Realmuto is also the rare catcher who is capable of stealing bases, swiping 28 from 2015-17. While he only stole three on five attempts last year, he still registered an 87th percentile sprint speed, so the tools are still there if he gets the green light. He also hasn't dipped below a .277 average in three straight years.
So, yes, Realmuto is a fine player! There's a reason he's the first catcher off the board. But as the saying goes, "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
Due to his position, he's never exceeded 141 games or 579 plate appearances (both from 2017), so even with his set of skills, it's difficult to hang with batters from other positions at his ADP. As a top-50 pick, Realmuto is going right around players like Cody Bellinger, Khris Davis, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa -- all guys with far more upside.
Now, it's a good time to mention that due to position scarcity, many abide by the concept that a catcher like Realmuto is inherently more valuable than his raw stats because he's that much better than a replacement-level catcher. The idea is you're getting a leg up on someone who waits on the position and gets shut out from the top options.
While there's some truth to that, and you probably don't want to totally punt the position, there are reasons to believe that catcher position scarcity isn't actually something to worry about, particularly in one-catcher formats. And even in two-catcher leagues, strategies that advocate adding a premium to catchers don't tend to account for the fact you can stream your second catchers just like you would a fringe starting pitcher. You're not stuck with whoever you pick, and new catchers can emerge on the waiver wire just like any other position.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter what position your stats come from and in drafting Realmuto early, you could be sacrificing a chance to take the 2018 home run king in Davis, or a former fantasy first-rounder like Correa. I'll gladly take one of those two.
On the other hand, while Sanchez is similarly being drafted too high, he easily has the most upside of the top seven and is worth keeping an eye on in case he happens to drop.
To say Sanchez was bad in 2018 is an understatement. But he was injured and suffered from a rotten .197 BABIP, the second-lowest mark among batters with at least 350 plate appearances. When he did make contact, the power was still there, ranking top 20 in barrels per per plate appearances, and his average exit velocity barely budged. With health, there's little reason to doubt he can slug over 30 home runs.
And unlike the others in this group, who all play in the NL, Sanchez should also benefit from occasional starts at DH, giving him a chance to accumulate more plate appearances than most catchers. Throw in a stacked Yankees lineup, and Sanchez has the potential put up some really nice numbers.
Let's not forget, in 2017, Sanchez posted 79 runs, 33 homers, and 90 RBIs in 525 plate appearances. We probably shouldn't bet on an average much above .250 after last year, but otherwise there's a clear path to Sanchez being the class of the catcher position in 2019. If he lasts past the top 70, it's worth giving him a hard look.
As for the other five -- Grandal, Ramos, Contreras, Molina, and Posey -- going much later between picks 120-150, it's hard to justify taking them at their ADPs, too. In this section of the draft, you may be passing on names like Edwin Encarnacion, Rougned Odor, Brian Dozier, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Moustakas, or Rafael Devers, all of whom are capable of posting strong 2019 campaigns and significantly higher stats.
However, ignoring this group of five goes under the assumption that they're being drafted at their ADP, so like Sanchez, be mindful of being flexible if any of them drop. Should one fall out of the top 160 or even 170 -- which can happen on occasion -- the overall talent pool begins to flatten out and you might consider taking the relative discount.
The "Best" of the Rest
So, unless one of the top guys happens to fall in your lap, you'll be looking at one of these fellows as your fantasy backstop(s).
And there's a reason they're all going this late -- this is more about finding warm bodies who will get adequate playing time than anything else. If the top options were any indication, the reality is you have a low chance of stumbling on some surprise breakout star in these parts.
The key then is identifying guys who either won't hurt you in batting average or can provide solid pop. By this point in the draft you'll have a pretty good idea of your team's strengths and which way will be more beneficial to your specific situation.
Despite being an unknown quantity, Danny Jansen (191) is arguably the most interesting of these fallback options as a young prospect who only turns 24 in April. His age is immediately appealing at a position that's generally older and frequently deals with injuries, and he's posted solid numbers in the minors. He also didn't appear overmatched during a brief MLB cameo last year, slashing .247/.347/.432 with 3 home runs over 95 plate appearances. Even if he experiences some struggles in his first full season, his floor is unlikely to be worse than the rest of the gang, and there's at least the possibility he performs closer to the first tier.
Outside the maybe taking a shot at Jansen -- and like before, only if he drops a couple rounds past his ADP -- the best course of action is to wait it out as long as you can until the catcher pool starts to thin out and you have to get your guy.
The safer options who project for fairly regular at-bats without a crippling batting average include Welington Castillo (217), Yan Gomes (220), Francisco Mejia (256), Francisco Cervelli (267), Tucker Barnhart (267), and Omar Narvaez (291).
Gomes' ADP seems a bit high since he'll be splitting time evenly with Kurt Suzuki, and San Diego prospect Mejia will be fighting for playing time with Austin Hedges, but overall, those in this group have a shot at over 400 plate appearances with double-digit homers and serviceable counting stats. If he can stay healthy, Castillo has the best power potential here.
And speaking of power, if you're okay with taking a hit in batting average and are strictly hunting for dingers, Mike Zunino (237), Jorge Alfaro (238), and Robinson Chirinos (245) are other possibilities.
With a career .207 average, you know what you're getting with Zunino at this point, but he's also pretty much a lock for 20 bombs. Alfaro only hit 10 homers last year, but his Statcast numbers indicate another level if he can hit more fly balls. What he know for certain is he's a batting average risk -- despite owning a career .270 average, it's come with an unsustainable .405 BABIP and brutal 35.2% strikeout rate. Chirinos isn't getting any younger, but he hit 18 home runs last year with a .222 average and 32.9% strikeout rate. Expect more of the same.
Astudillo is a fun player -- you probably know him best for this and this -- but it's hard to nail down how much playing time he'll get, or if he'll even make the Opening Day roster. Theoretically, Miguel Sano's injury should open the door for him as a utility bat, at least initially.
Meanwhile, Kiner-Falefa logged 396 plate appearances playing all over the place for the Rangers last year and even tallied seven stolen bases, but he otherwise has little upside. Astudillo is certainly the more intriguing of the two -- he's never registered a strikeout rate above 5% at any level -- but Kiner-Falefa is more likely to see regular playing time.
In deep or two-catcher formats, Austin Hedges, Jonathan Lucroy, Kurt Suzuki, and Austin Barnes should also see enough plate appearances to fill out your roster and are all going outside the top 300. Batting above .270 in each of the last two seasons, Suzuki is a solid value pick.