The catcher and the why

First of all a special thanks goes out to Fantasy Pros and our own Nick Fleder for putting together our positional rankings. As far as I know, this will be the first time THT has released any form of consensus rankings. It’s a proud day for me, and I know you all will appreciate the painstaking work it takes to get this done. As I’m sure Nick will agree, our rankings weren’t necessarily a draft cheat sheet but a reflection of where we feel these players’ stats will measure up against each other at season’s end.

For day one, we rank the catchers. It’s the most undervalued position in fantasy baseball, so it’s generally difficult to get too excited about backstops. I see my catcher as little more than a seat warmer. Most years, I peg a certain catcher or tier of catchers I think the room is undervaluing, and I make sure I get my guy. I hardly ever draft the number one catcher or even a top five catcher for that matter.

Last year, I targeted Wilson Ramos and Miguel Montero, and that worked out quite well. In leagues with deeper benches, I will usually draft a lower level catcher and pair him with a top prospect. This tag-team method would probably be my favorite strategy in addressing the catcher position. However, all drafts are different, and you can never tell how a draft is going to play out until you are already well into the battle.

I have concluded that Mike Napoli is the number one catcher in 2012. Upon finally getting his chance to shine in Texas, Napoli built a second half that was nothing short of magical.

I didn’t see his 2011 breakout coming. I knew Napoli had prodigious power unrivaled by any other catcher, but I never thought he would hit as consistently as he did. To think he put up 30 HR/75 RBI/.320 AVG in only 439 plate appearances is astonishing. The fact that he continued that success well into the playoffs further solidifies his elite status.

At 32 years old, Napoli isn’t getting any younger, so being “elite” could be a very short experience for him, but his 2011 season wasn’t so different from his 2008 season. The only real difference was plate appearances, batting eye, and some luck, all of which are trending upwards. Obviously he will face some extreme batting average regression; I’ll bet my house he doesn’t hit .320 again. If he’s your guy, I totally understand, but I won’t reach for him in the first three rounds, which is where he will undoubtedly be selected.

Like Napoli, Carlos Santana has caught the imaginations of experts and fans alike.

First, getting 658 plate appearances from your catcher is unfair. No other catcher was within a hundred plate appearances of Santana in 2011. That in itself should drive the value of a catcher, but Santana offers so much more. He’ll be only 25 at the beginning of the season, and he’s also a switch-hitter. He has 30+ home run potential, and I think most scouts see him as a higher batting average guy than he was last season.

The Indians have already saidthat Santana is the face and future of their franchise. so look for them to continue to shelter him more at first base. We all love catchers who spend significant time at other positions. I don’t think any catcher profiles as a better source for RBIs and runs. His awesome potential will cost an owner roughly the same as Napoli, which drives me out of the bidding. I’ll stand on the sidelines and admire Santana, but he probably won’t be my catcher in 2012.

Never, and I will repeat this, never have I ever seen so many viable catchers for a basic 5X5, 12-team standard league. After Napoli and Santana, at least eight catchers could all have the same value as the other. In my rankings you’ll see that I have Brian McCann as my No. 3 catcher, but my No. 8, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Matt Wieters and Miguel Montero for the fourth spot in my rankings. I love the potential of every one for different reasons.

With much angst, I chose Mauer. The reason I like Mauer isn’t because he’s safe. He’s not. It’s not because he’s coming off some sort of breakout season. That’s already happened. When Mauer is healthy he is a great source of runs and RBIs for a catcher. He averaged around 93 runs and 85 RBIs in the three seasons before last year. I think he still had double digit power even though the 28 home runs of 2009 are conclusively an aberration at this point. Target Field will also squander any future power potential.

The No. 1 reason I love Mauer is because he improves your batting average so much that it allows you to draft a Mark Reynolds or Ryan Howard-like player without fear of what those players will do to your batting average. Mauer is still an elite hitter, and he won’t come much cheaper than he will in 2012. If there’s any catcher who has the best chance of finding a way onto all my fantasy teams, it’s Mauer.

Picking Posey over Wieters will be considered blasphemy by my colleagues I’m sure, but I’m don’t care. I’m not as sold on Wieters as everybody else, apparently. He batted only .235 against right-handed pitching in 2011, which is the worst of his career. His career batting average rates have been directly tied to his BABIP successes and failures. I worry that he may constantly struggle with a certain level of volatility.

I also understand that Wieters fits the profile of a guy I typically like, but I’m not convinced that he’s ready yet. I need to see more, and I’m not willing to pay the price to find out. In our THT mock draft, Wieters was selected third overall among catchers. He may warrant such consideration when the season is over, but I’ll play it a little safer. Last tidbit on Wieters: power seems legit, and there’s no reason to think he can’t hit more than 20 home runs again 2012.

Posey is a poor man’s Mauer. Scouts love the term “Mauer with power,” and I have seen that said about both Wieters and Posey. Where I see Wieters as diet Mauer with power, I see Posey as just Mauer. Posey is obviously less proven than Maue,r but can’t be considered as big an injury risk. One freak play can’t label a player as an injury risk. I’d say he has an injury “mark.” I assume that Posey will be healthy, and the Giants seem ready to play him more at first base this year to preserve that health. I secretly want Posey more than Mauer, but I don’t know if I have the guts to show that in my rankings.

When I entered 2011, I was ready to proceed with Montero as my catcher. He was so cheap, and no one believed he could improve on his successful 2009 season. I would point to his disappointing 2010 season as the reason. I like Montero because Arizona likes Montero. He isn’t going anywhere, and with ISOs much like all the more beloved catchers ranked ahead of him, he has a very underrated power stroke. If he continues to put up solid, across-the-board numbers and sees some increase in his power, Montero should still be a bargain in 2012, but this may be the last year to get him on the cheap. I doubt I will invest in Montero in any leagues other than my N- only leagues. He’s stable, but his ceiling isn’t quite as high as the others ranked ahead of him.

Speaking of stability, Yadier Molina took an impressive leap forward in 2011. He finally established himself as something more than the best defensive catcher and a solid source of batting average. He hit 14 home runs and didn’t compromise his other stats.

If he maintains power somewhere in the same level as last year, there really isn’t a catcher you can consider more stable than Molina. According to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Molina looks “buff.” I don’t know how to properly handle these kinds of news tidbits, but if he’s stronger than last year, why not think he can hit a few more home runs? Molina is a pick for guys looking to play it safe. For example, if you’ve already added some riskier selections or unreliables, then Molina is a perfect catcher to use for balance.

I often will draft from a lower tier of catchers, Nos. 9 through 15. If your bench is deep enough, I strongly encourage you to draft one of these lower-tier catchers preferably Wilson Ramos, Geovanny Soto or Kurt Suzuki, then grab the top prospect, which is Devin Mesoraco.

I don’t think there is enough difference among all these catchers to go into too much depth. Soto is power and experience. Suzuki is the RBIs and runs guy of the bunch. Ramos is the head of this group. If not for his kidnapping this winter, I would probably have him in the tier with the more valuable catchers, but I worry about his mind. Stress can be a powerful thing and could affect his performance. So even though he broke out in his first season as a starter, I’m not ready to pronounce him a star.

He is far from a slam-dunk but I could definitely see myself grabbing Mesoraco as his counterpart. That could be a dynamic duo especially in deep, two-catcher or NL-only leagues. I love the up-and-coming prospects, and none is more heralded than Mesoraco. Don’t be surprised if he unseats Ryan Hanigan as the Reds’ primary catcher by the All-Star break. He is every bit as good as his hype.

What is amazing is the number of catchers lying in wait. Salvador Perez seems like he could have some promise, but expectations for him should be tempered. Wilin Rosario is a future star, but he still has some growing to do. Yasmani Grandal, now with the San Diego Padres, could be impressive if given the opportunity. Ryan Lavarnway is the reigning Boston Red Sox minor league player of the year and could be ready to expand on his late season successes.

Basically, there’s a lot to get excited about for the future of fantasy catchers. This list may look very different in 2013.

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Comments

  1. MH said...

    I’m firmly in the camp that believes a breakout is on the horizon for Wieters.  You have to love it when former star prospects both reduce their K% and increase their power within a season, and that’s exactly what Wieters did.  He reduced his K% to a more than manageable last year, but his AVG was down (though still respectable for a catcher with power in the current run environment at .262) due to a .276 BABIP.  I don’t instantly look at BABIPs and see natural regression for hitters, but Wieters is one of the guys who looks to be in the “unlucky” camp here and not a natural low BABIL guy.  First, his career mark is .301.  Second, his batted ball profile, which is almost perfectly balanced, hasn’t really changed at all since reaching the majors and has actually been remarkably consistent.  Third, most of the fly balls he hits do leave the infield, another very consistent trend.  His 6.2 IFFB% last year was almost identical to his career 6.4%—and those are not the marks of a low true-talent BABIP candidate. 

    The biggest knock on Wieters I see vs. guys like Santana, Napoli, Mauer, and Posey is that they all probably have some more PA potential.  This is one of those tricky things at the C position though—of the three only Santana is a lock to get a greater-than-typical catcher workload.  Mauer and Posey are both coming off of badly injury plagued seasons.  Napoli is a bit of a wild card, since Ron Washington seems primed to give him lots of PT, but he’s never had even a full catcher workload season, as you mention is 32.  Attrition and injury are pretty big risks here (also why I have Santana as the #1 catcher).  Wieters, on the other hand, while he may not play 1B the way the others will, has proven durable behind the plate, and the O’s don’t have a Vlad this year to clog up DH if Wieters does in fact have an offensive breakout. 

    Put all that together, and as long as you believe in the power increase from last year, I see Wieters as having a very similar projection to Brian McCann—20ish HR with a solid AVG and counting numbers.  His floor may be a touch lower, but I actually think with the open DH slot, he could sneak more a few more ABs than he’s being projected for.

  2. Ben Pritchett said...

    MH- You always bring it. I totally agree with what you are saying, and I know every one of the stats you used. Don’t get me wrong, I was leading the Wieters parade when the Orioles brought him up to the club, but he has warning signs. I feel like there are enough of those signs to probably pass on the investment.

    I don’t think he hits over .280 next year. And like you said we have no idea how much playing time he will get or if it will be enough to allow him to accumulate enough other stats like Runs and RBIs. He is becoming the face of the Orioles so I agree that he could be in for less off days and more DH time, but that doesn’t eliminate the question mark entirely.

    I think we are all in agreement that he has legit 30 HR power, but with uncertainty surrounding everything else, I wonder about if the risk is worth the reward. As I stated above that is the reason I placed McCann, Mauer, and Posey ahead of him. I think their risks are more injury-related. I will be far more tolerable to injury-risk over performance risk.

    However, I will say this. You have made me shorten the gap amongst Mauer, Posey, and Wieters. There’s something to be said for that.

  3. MH said...

    Thanks for the kind words Ben!

    Just curious—why don’t you think he hits over .280?  I’m not saying I would project him higher than that (that’s about where I have him), but it seems all it would take is a BABIP swing in the other direction to get him well over that mark, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of reason to think that couldn’t happen. 

    I honestly think he has the best chance of the group of guys past Santana and Napoli of being the #1 catcher this year and go something crazy like .300-90-100-30.  Mauer and Posey both have some chance, but I think Mauer (even if healthy) has a tough time getting to double digit homers in Target field which means he’d have to hit like .350 to get there, while Posey (also even if healthy) is going to struggle to pick up the counting numbers with that ballpark/lineup situation unless he plays in 140+ games. That looks like a pretty serious longshot for Buster, especially if Brandon Belt and Aubrey Huff are both on the roster for a good portion of the year (no room in the outfield for Belt anymore with Melky, Pagan, and Schierholtz all slated to play regularly), though who knows how that shakes out with Bochy.

  4. Snarf said...

    MH,
    What has Schierholtz done to prove that he deserves more playing time than Huff or Belt?  Belt should play everyday at 1b or OF.

    I see Posey has undervalued. Melky and Pagan can get on base.  Sandoval showed last year that he’s more of the 2009 guy than the 2010 guy.  I can see a 75/18/90 season from Posey with a .285 average to go along w/it. 

    He better pull those numbers off…he’s my $23 keeper.

  5. MH said...

    @Snarf

    Its not that I think Schierholtz is any great shakes, but my understanding is Bochy LOVES him and is pretty committed to playing him every day, and the word is that Belt and Huff will compete for first base (which I assume means if Belt wins the job Huff is a bench player filling in once or twice a week at 1B or LF). 

    I don’t think your numbers for Posey are that far off, but I think you’re aiming a bit high on the counting numbers, partiuclarly the RBI.  He’d pretty much have to play in about 130 games while Pagan would have to be Pagan circa 2010 and Melky would have to repeat his performance last year.  FWIW ZiPs has Melky at .284 / .330 / .435 and Pagan at .269 / .322 / .403 (actually under the Mets page because it was done early in the offseason, but the park factor difference is minimal), so something between last year and his career numbers for Cabrera, while for Pagan basically the same as 2011.

    Those lines for Melky and Pagan are an improvement from what the Giants had, but not a drastic one.  I’d look at Sandoval’s 2011 counting rates to get a good baseline for Posey—he hit 23 HR in 113 games and only had 55 R and 70 RBI.  If Posey plays 120-130 games, I could see .285-18, but he could still pretty well have trouble topping 80 in both R and RBI.  Even eternal optimist Bill James has him hitting .304 / .370 / .474 and popping 19 HR in 138 games, but with only 71 R and 80 RBI. 

    Also FWIW, it would entirely depend on league format as to whether I would keep Posey at $23.  Assuming $260 budget, single catcher format with less than five keepers, I probably would pass.  The position is too deep right now, and even if you wanted to bid on him in auction odds are you could get him cheaper than that.  In a two catcher format, its close, I don’t think he will return a big profit (if any) on that money this year, but it could be worth it if a lot of the other good catchers are being kept and even if doesn’t return value this year he could still look like a decent $28 keeper next year if he shows he’s healthy (assuming a $5 increase in keeper cost).

  6. Snarf said...

    MH

    The league is deep (15 teams), single catcher format.  We take into account the 5×5 along w/XBH and OPS. Hitting is more heavily weighed than pitching (7 categories vs 6 categories).  The modifier is only $2 per year ($23 for 2012, $25 for 2013).  At $23 for this season that’s certainly not that much “value” but keeping a C w/500 PA potential is something.

    Posey had 600+ ABs in 2009 and 2010.  2011’s freak injury is not enough to say that he’s injury plagued.  He’s also going to play some 1B, so that’ll up his PA too.

  7. Ben Pritchett said...

    When you break down the settings, I think I agree with you Snarf. With that many cats, Posey could really produce. What’s the worst case scenario. He won’t hit a lot of home runs. Well in your league it awards you on XBH then I think it really limits the risk for Posey. He’s going to hit for AVG and get plenty of plate appearances assuming he’s fully healed which is the real question mark.

    Furthermore, the Giants came out this week and suggested that Posey will get AT LEAST a day at 1B a week to keep his bat in the line up.
    http://www.mercurynews.com/giants/ci_19890948?source=rss

    I’d say that’s encouraging. I think Posey warrants a Spring Training monitor.

  8. MH said...

    Yeah I think I’d agree, in that format its probably worth it to take him at $23.  Though he’s actually never had 600 ABs (if you meant PAs, apologies for the semantic nit-pick). 

    I also don’t mean to imply he’s injury prone, but he did suffer a very serious leg injury that required major surgery and rehab, and catcher is incredibly demanding physically, particularly on the legs.  I’d be a pretty conservative on the playing time expectation (I read the story about him playing first base once a week, but the Bochy is a fickle beast, and things could change quickly if Belt wins the job).  Very few catchers go full seasons of 600+ PAs in the majors over the course of the season.  Its only happened eight times in the last five seasons (once being a Victor Martinez’s 2009, where he spent about 40% of his playing time at first base). 

    All that in mind, I do think 500 PAs is within reach, and with the extra offensive category and $2 modifier as a kicker, unless you have a number of glaringly better options, I agree that he’s worth the keep at that price.

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