Welcome to Player-A-Day. The purpose of this column is to identify interesting major league players who may be fantasy-relevant in 2014. We will discuss the real-world roles the player may fill, set a range of potential expectations, identify any wild-card factors in play, and comment on how this affects the player’s fantasy value.
The high level
It feels like just a few days ago that I was writing about the Twins’ enviable depth at catcher in relation to possible fantasy asset Josmil Pinto (it was). Now the Twins have come out with the exceedingly rational announcement that Joe Mauer will be moving to first base for the 2014 season. This move is a boon to fantasy owners since Mauer may now eclipse 150 games played for the first time in his 10-season career.
Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello are the big losers of the announcement, since that duo probably would have platooned at first base without Mauer’s presence. That’s a replacement level pairing, so moving Mauer to first base is a sensible move for the Twins. Some combination of Pinto, Ryan Doumit, Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer should provide at least average production from the catcher position.
Should he remain healthy, the Twins could find time for Mauer at first base or designated hitter in nearly every game.
The details and fantasy implications
Typically, we’ve used this space to look into PITCHf/x data and figure out how to best leverage the player in question, but in Mauer’s case, the answer is “use him every day against all pitchers.” With the new position assignment, he now challenges Buster Posey as the top catcher in fantasy baseball.
Mauer has been a BABIP monster throughout his career. He’s always mashed a ton of line drives and stays away from fly balls. This means that we can expect a lot of hits but not a lot of home runs despite good pop. His supporting cast leaves something to be desired, which will hurt his ability to score runs and drive in runs over the course of a season. Still, batting in the heart of the lineup should give him among the best counting stats of any fantasy catcher.
Theoretically, Mauer is less valuable as a first baseman, which will be reflected in his WAR. But we don’t care about WAR. In the world of fantasy baseball, Mauer will have catcher eligibility through 2014, which means he’s a catcher and a damned valuable one. Everyday work at first base means more plate appearances, less fatigue, and substantially less injury risk for Mauer.
It makes him a reasonable bet to exceed 600 plate appearances, which is something only Carlos Santana accomplished in 2013 among catchers. Over the past 10 seasons, there have been only 19 catcher seasons over 600 plate appearances, four of which belonged to Mauer. That list contains only eight names.
Having done some analysis on catchers for an Ottoneu league, I discovered that Alex Avila set the replacement level in 2013. He batted .227/.317/.376 over 379 plate appearances. Mauer batted .324/.404/.476 over 508 plate appearance.
While fantasy play doesn’t often work out this way, Mauer owners theoretically used a player like Avila to back fill for another 150 plate appearances (some owners successfully plan ahead while others get stuck with even worse options). An owner who combined Mauer with a replacement level back-up received about a .300/.381/.453 line from one catcher slot. Those in shallower leagues would have seen better composite performance.
That’s a great performance from a catcher, but it’s quite a bit worse than Mauer’s personal rates. Now owners may get those 150 plate appearances from Mauer himself, which could be a real positive.
There’s one thing to watch out for with Mauer. In 2013, his whiff and strikeout rates spiked to career worsts. It’s unclear if this was a single-season fluke due to some combination of circumstances or a hint of things to come. Obviously, more strikeouts are not desirable if they aren’t accompanied by better power numbers.
Pricing Mauer is tricky this early and it depends heavily on your league setup. Leagues with very low replacement levels—think Avila or worse—will find Mauer to be more valuable than a 12-team, one catcher-type format. I’ve tentatively placed him ahead of Posey and Santana as the top catcher in 2014, but I see that trio as pretty comparable and may tinker with my specific valuations.