MLB Fantasy Preview 2013: Joe Mauer Over Buster Posey
Opening Day starter Justin Verlander winds up and deals to the number one fantasy catcher, Joe Mauer. With his picture-perfect stroke, Mauer swings and nails a liner to right-center field and drives in a run, just as he did in once per every 6.3 at-bats last season. The Minnesota fans go wild, and Mauer is off to yet another high-offense season.
What, you thought this was a throwback from 2009? Welcome back to the world of Mumford and Sons and Google Glass, my friend: Joe Mauer is once again the best fantasy catching prospect around.
Despite holding an Average Draft Position (ADP) as the fifth-best catcher in most drafts, you'll want to shoot him up your own personal draft board. And Buster Posey, meanwhile, should take a hard fall down.
This is a look at the top catchers available in Fantasy Baseball this year, doing it as only numberFire can: by the stats.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before we get into the meat of the list, I asked Chief Analyst Keith Goldner to break down the rankings and exactly what you should know about these numbers.
1. What type of scoring is this list based on?
The rankings are based on a category 12-team league. Categories are 5x5: SB, HR, Runs, RBI, Avg and W, K, SV, ERA, WHIP.
2. What exactly does the nF score measure, and how does that help my fantasy team?
The numberFire score takes a player's contributions across all categories versus a replacement level player that you could find on free agents. After summing the total contribution, each player's rating is then adjusted for his position eligibility based on the value of each position throughout the league due to position scarcity. For example, a catcher and outfielder with the same numbers will rank the catcher as the higher player due to the fact that it is a weak position.
3. Position scarcity? But the top catcher is at No. 47 and the top shortstop at No. 35! Should I really wait that long to grab those positions?
Simply put, yes.
4. Where do the projections come from, and why should I trust them more than anyone else?
The projections come from the same place that all our projections come from. First, we evaluate all players and teams using our advanced metrics. Then, we find the most comparable players playing on the most comparable teams historically, weighting each comparison according to that similarity. We then take those comparable players' historical stat lines as the building blocks for the projections.
With that out of the way, let's get to the list, based on our MLB Draft Kit!
Top Ten Catchers for 2013
1. Joe Mauer - Minnesota Twins
Not buying Joe Mauer as the top fantasy catcher this year? Well, our projections should be considered with respect to that timeless tale of statistics: regression to the mean. For the non-math minded out there, that means that while players will have good or bad seasons, they will eventually return to their average state.
That bunch of geek-ease is important for two factors putting Mauer at the top of the charts: Mauer and Posey's respective on-base percentages. Yes, Mauer's .416 on-base percentage from 2012 may not happen again... but considering his .406 lifetime OBP%, there's a good chance of it re-occurring. Posey, meanwhile, achieved his .408 on-base percentage by almost doubling his walk percentage from his last full season - from 6.3 percent in 2010 to 11.5 percent in 2012. Since there is less data to go on, there's a much larger chance of Posey regressing than Mauer regressing.
And that makes Mauer one of the safest picks on the board, even if he doesn't hold Posey's upside. While he will likely not do much better than his 1.6 percent home run rate from last season, don't be surprised if his strikeout rate declines as well - his 13.7 percent rate from last season was a career-high. And while we're not saying to take Mauer early - we have him as a late fourth-round pick in 12-team leagues - he's the best catching prospect out there this season.
2. Yadier Molina - St. Louis Cardinals
Not far behind Mauer comes the first answer of most fans' "Name That Molina!" contest, Yadier. Finishing fourth in the NL MVP voting again will be tough, but there is every reason to believe that he will be near the top of the catcher charts once again this season.
In 2012, Molina finished with career-highs in four categories: plate appearances (563), batting average (.316), on-base percentage (.373), and home run rate (3.9 percent). In most other advanced analytics though, including his ninth-best 9.2 at-bats per strikeout, Molina had an average season. So while we expect his batting average and home run totals to decrease slightly, the rest of his production likely will not suffer.
There is one key trend that boosts Molina's top-catcher candidacy even further, especially in terms of potential RBIs: his new-found penchant for extra-base hits. Last season, 31 percent of Molina's hits went for extra bases, about average league-wide but extraordinary for a singles-hitter who had never been above 22 percent in that category in his first seven seasons. But that number was no fluke; in 2011, even before his home run serge, Molina finished with an even better 32 percent of his hits going for extra-bases. The extra-base ability is there and likely will not be going away, leading to even more potential runs and RBIs.
3. Buster Posey - San Francisco Giants
I can hear the shouting from the Bay Area already: third for the reigning NL MVP? How dare you disrespect the reigning NL MVP! I bet the reigning NL MVP wouldn't like this.
Well, here's a little secret that you may not know about the reigning NL MVP: his stats came in a vacuum. There was no statistical basis to believe that he would achieve those numbers, and there is no statistical basis other than "Blind Hope" to believe that he'd continue them.
His home runs are likely to remain steady - his 3.9 percent home run rate was actually lower than his 2010 season with 443 plate appearances. The batting average and on-base percentage, though, will likely not. Posey's strikeout rate (15.7 percent), at-bats per strikeout (5.5), and percentage of balls put into play (69 percent) were all worse than his last full season in 2010. It just so happened that the balls that did go into play happened to find holes more often than normal.
Sorry to tell you Giants fans, but that's not statistically sound; sooner or later, those balls will begin finding gloves again. So while Posey has the upside that puts him in the top 100, his downside potential places him third on our list of top fantasy catchers.
4. Victor Martinez - Detroit Tigers
I'd say that Martinez's first season in Detroit can be considered a success - his .380 on-base percentage was the third-best of his career. And unlike Posey, there's all the reason in the world to believe that his value will maintain this season.
Martinez actually hit home runs with less regularity last season; his 2.0 percent home run rate was his lowest in a season with at least 300 plate appearances. But in the Detroit lineup, sacrificing power for average isn't the worst idea in the world; his 5.2 at-bats per RBI was his best ratio since 2007 in Cleveland.
And while his strikeouts were a career-low 8.6 percent, his walks were a low 7.7 percent as well, giving him a 1.11 SO/BB ratio that was right in line with his career average. That means that the low strikeouts were likely not a fluke; Martinez simply swung away more last season, which resulted in more at-bats with balls in play (career-high 81 percent) across the board.
5. Carlos Santana - Cleveland Indians
Santana holds this year's Geovany Soto Memorial Trophy for "Catcher expected to have a breakout season despite no evidence to support that claim". What, I'm supposed to be impressed by last season, where his home run rate decreased by 1.2 percent, his extra-base hit percentage decreased by 12 percent, and his .252 batting average was sadly .005 better than his career average? I think that I'm good.
If you want potential, then go ahead and take Santana. But "potential" is what makes a eighth to tenth round selection, not the beginning of the fifth round like he's going in many drafts currently. As it stands, we slot him directly between Nick Markakis and Adam LaRoche in terms of position players, even after adjusting for position scarcity.
6. Matt Wieters - Baltimore Orioles
As a fan, I like watching Wieters. Part of that may be my soft spot for Orioles fans and my joy at seeing them actually have a successful season last year. But that doesn't transfer over to the All-Knowing Statistical Realm, where Wieters' 0.329 on-base-percentage, below-average .249 batting average, and 23 home runs from 2012 aren't going to get the job done.
Another Big Name who hasn't actually done much, Wieters' strikeout percentage jumped to a high 18.9 percent in 2012 while his home run rate actually decreased 0.1 percent from the previous season. All that swinging away didn't do him much good, it seems. In fact, the only number I can see where Wieters had a substantial increase in 2012 was his slightly better 10.1 walk rate and his 6.3 at-bats per RBI. While that walk rate may still be there, his RBI rate is highly volatile. Really now, do you expect J.J. Hardy, Wilson Betemit, Nate McLouth, and Chris Davis to provide him ample RBI opportunities once again?
7. Miguel Montero - Arizona Diamondbacks
While Buster Posey may be the biggest overrated name on our list, he's actually not the catcher with the biggest difference between his average draft position and his appearance on our Big Board. That would be Montero, who should be selected nearly 120 spots below his current 63.07 ADP.
The big key for Montero is actually putting balls in play - his 22.7 percent strikeout rate last season was one of the worst in the NL, but strangely not the worst of his career (23.7 percent in 2008). There is every reason to believe that his strikeout rate isn't going anywhere, and as such, there is a cap on his potential batting average.
Despite his career-best .391 OBP last season, I wouldn't expect a big number from him there either. The pesky regression to the mean rule indicates that he won't get near his 12.7 percent walk rate again, which was 3.5 percent better than his previous career-high.
8. A.J. Pierzynski - Texas Rangers
Yeah, he's still around and kicking. And despite not being a starter in many fantasy leagues this season, he's worth a look if you (rightfully) wait for a catcher, especially hitting in that Texas lineup and ballpark.
Last season for the White Sox, Pierzynski apparently decided, "You know what, I'm going to swing for the fences every time." And to be fair, it kind of worked: his home run rate increased to 5.2 percent of at-bats while his strikeout rate also increased to a higher-than-normal (but still lower than Montero or Santana) 15.2 percent. Of Pierzynski's fly balls hit, an incredible 13.2 percent went for home runs, 4.3 percent more than any other season in his career.
There are two reasons to believe he won't hit 27 home runs again: one is simple regression to the mean, which is why you see him knocked down to 21 home runs here. The other, though, is the effect of U.S. Cellular Field for allowing those home runs to carry: according to ESPN's Park Factors, the Cell allowed the fourth-most home runs last season. But look at No. 7 on that list; A.J.'s new gig in Texas won't be much worse for hitting round-trippers.
9. Alex Avila - Detroit Tigers
Regression to the mean works two ways. It means that players who had an extraordinary season, like Buster Posey, are likely to come back down to earth. But it also means that a player who finished 12th in the 2011 AL MVP voting will be likely to return to form after a down 2012. Ladies and gentlemen, get reacquainted with Alex Avila.
Avila's main fantasy concerns in 2012 were simple at-bats (he only played in 116 games) and a substantial decrease in power. Going from 19 home runs in 2011 to nine home runs in 2012 has to mean something, right?
Nope. In fact, he actually hit more balls to the outfield; only three percent of his fly balls were on the infield as compared to six percent in 2011. It's just that the ball didn't travel as well as normal: only 6.6 percent of his fly balls went for home runs, as compared to 9.5 percent in 2011 and a 8.5 percent career average. Expect the young hitter to get back to average or perhaps surpass it this season, and he could surprise with some late-round power and RBI totals at a position where both of those are at a premium.
10. Salvador Perez - Kansas City Royals
22 years old, playing in a burgeoning lineup, and he hit .301 in about half of the season last year. I think I just heard Eric Karabell gasp from here. A high-upside, must-risk candidate? Perhaps... but also a candidate for a quick trip to the waiver wire if he doesn't pan out.
The problem with Perez is sample size; sure, it would be nice to base everything off of his 305 plate appearances, 11 home runs, and .301 batting average last season, but it will be tough to maintain that pace for an entire season against pitchers who will learn his tendencies. In addition, there are plenty of red flags that indicate his production will go down, including a low 3.9 percent walk rate and an increase in ground-ball to fly-ball ratio between 2010 and 2011.
Honestly, I like him as an upside play more than Miguel Montero this year for where he's going in terms of average draft position. But even the 11th round might be a tiny bit early for a guy who doesn't have a statistical basis to continue his production.