Season review: catchers

We’ve already taken our first look back, at the first basemen of 2008. Looking back, the article wandered somewhat aimlessly and had a weak conclusion. With a bit more focus and structure, that will not happen in my review of the catcher position. I’ll start by throwing a table your way:

En masse

Year	Catchers	OPS	% + WPA/LI
2004	27	0.760	48%
2005	27	0.738	44%
2006	25	0.767	48%
2007	28	0.730	21%
2008	24	0.750	42%

I know there are some categories that make no sense to you right now, but let me address each column in order:

The catchers column refers to the number of catchers who amassed at least 350 plate appearances in the corresponding year. It’s there mostly to show how many catchers qualified for the average OPS. The OPS category is self-explanatory—it is the average OPS of qualified catchers that year. That leaves the % + WPA/LI category, which refers to the percentage of catchers with a positive WPA/LI. (A zero WPA/LI represents a league-average hitter, so % + WPA/LI shows the percent of catchers who were above average at the plate.) I was a bit hesitant to use WPA/LI numbers, at least for this year, because of the seemingly radical park factor adjustments done by Dave Appleman of Fangraphs on the data. I’m not sure if the same was done for previous years. It doesn’t matter, we’re moving on.

The number of catchers who accumulated 350 plate appearances in each of the five seasons was within a range of four, a difference I consider statistically insignificant. Based on the OPS numbers, 2008 appears to be an average hitting year for catchers, but later we will take a more in-depth look at the numbers to see if that holds true. As far as % + WPA/LI is concerned, every year is relatively stable except for the 2007 season, which is significantly lower at 21 percent. When we do the more in-depth look at OPS, it will reveal why this is and what it means.

Year	750+ OPS	800+ OPS	850+ OPS	900+ OPS
2004	7	4	5	0
2005	9	2	2	0
2006	8	2	3	2
2007	6	2	1	1
2008	3	1	6	0

Here is the table that further breaks down where catchers fell in the OPS spectrum. Note that 750+ OPS does not show the number of catchers who had an OPS or .750 or higher, it shows the number of catchers with an OPS of at least .750 to the next highest OPS plateau, which in this case is .800. A .750-.800 OPS is slightly above league average. Usually if a player has an OPS below .750, his WPA/LI will be as well.

OPS numbers 800+ OPS are great for catchers, but only above-average compared to all batters. I would consider 850+ OPS catchers borderline elite—in three of the five years we examined they would constitute the top tier of catchers. The 900+ OPS catchers are the sluggers. They are a marvel of catching ability, and as you can see come around every only so often.

For fantasy purposes, this chart should dictate where we draft catchers. In a year like 2007, it was incredibly beneficial to own one of the two elite catchers, who were—just to put names to the numbers—Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez. However, in a year like 2008 in which there was no real elite tier of catchers but rather a sizable conglomerate of catchers at the top, it was not worth selecting an elite catcher.

It is too early to start making predictions on how the 2009 row of this chart will look, and therefore too early to definitively say if an elite catcher is worth a high selection in 2009 drafts. We also do not know how the market will value catchers.

Individuals

We’ve looked at the catcher position as a whole and attempted to make certain generalizations. Now we are going to look at some individual catchers and examine their seasons.

The risers

Ryan Domuit was the 16th catcher taken on average in fantasy drafts and ended up ranked fourth among his catching counterparts. His season line included a .318 average, 71 runs, 15 homers, and 69 RBI. He did nothing spectacular, but was a steady producer across the board. His .318 batting average stands out the most, although I cannot praise his average without mentioning his .338 BABIP, or 23.4 line drive percentage. Nothing he did this season appears unsustainable, except for maybe a slight regression in his batting average. So expect much of the same next season, except with a .300 average.

Geovany Soto was the ninth catcher taken in drafts and finished with the fifth best stats. Going into the season he was an unproven rookie catcher who had played great over a short stretch at the end of the 2007 season. That sounded like another player, J.R. Towles, heading into the season.

Soto ended up having a monster year, posting a .285 average with 23 home runs and 86 runs batted in, while Towles batted .137 through a third of the season and not surprisingly got sent down to Triple-A. One won and one lost. Soto is in the big leagues for good.

Chris Iannetta was not one of the top 23 catchers taken in preseason drafts and finished with the ninth best stats. He fell in drafts more because of his time-share with Yorvit Torrealba than because of his potential playing ability.

Early in the season, Iannetta proved he was way better than Torrealba and quickly his playing time turned way in his favor. Even in limited at-bats, Iannetta was able to mash 18 home runs and knock in 65 runs. Although I am slightly skeptical about his power abilities, considering that he will see more time in 2009 expect his home run total to remain the same. He will enjoy Coors while he’s playing there, and you should enjoy him while he’s there, too.

Mike Napoli was the 19th highest catcher selected in drafts this year, and ended up with the 10th best stats. There have been certain power specialists in fantasy baseball—guys like Richie Sexson in 2005 and Jack Cust and Adam Dunn this season—with high home run totals and not much else. The common theme among this type of player is that they are first basemen, designated hitters or corner outfielders. I cannot recall a recent power specialist catcher besides Mike Napoli this season.

Locked in a time-share with the younger and higher draft pick Jeff Mathis this season, Napoli hit for a decent .276 average, stole a surprising seven bases, but could compile only 39 runs and 49 RBI in limited time. What really gave Napoli his fantasy value was his 20 home runs in only 274 plate appearances, the result of a 52.5 flyball percentage and 23.5 HR/FB percentage. Interestingly, Napoli’s 52.5 flyball percentage is ahead of all other catchers except Mathis, who hit 52.8 percent flyballs. The Angels might have an organizational philosophy regarding flyball catchers, who knows? The bottom line is that Napoli outperformed Mathis by a staggering amount this year, and I hope the Angels will give him sole possession of the catcher’s role next season and his stats will go up.

Kelly Shoppach was not one of the top 25 catchers selected in 2008 drafts, playing behind the No. 1 catcher, Victor Martinez. However when V-Mart proved ineffective at the beginning of the seaosn and then limped to the DL, Shoppach got his chance to shine. Similar to Napoli’s, Shoppach’s value was carried almost solely by his 21 home runs. Do not be fooled. Shoppach strikes out waaaay too often, at a 38 percent clip, and benefited from a .359 BABIP this season. He will not find his way onto any of my fantasy teams in 2009.

The fallers

Most of the catchers who fell in ranking owe it to injury, old age or a combination. Those players are Victor Martinez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez. V-Mart and Posada have the potential for bounce-back years; Varitek and Pudge likely have seen their last season of fantasy relevance pass by.

Kenji Johjima had been consistently solid in his two years since coming from Japan. In each of those seasons he batted around .290 and hit at least 15 home runs. As a result, he was selected sixth among catchers. That picked quickly proved terrible: By the end of April, Johjima was batting .177 with a .459 OPS. Regardless, the Mariners front-office signed its struggling import of a catcher to a three-year, $24 million extension on April 25, even with top catching prospect Matt Clement waiting in the wings. Johjima was severely unlucky this season with a .233 BABIP, but I would remain wary of him in 2009. His OPS was below .600 for all but four days of the season. Ouch!

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been owned in fantasy leagues for two years too long. Yes, at 23 he has great potential, but I wouldn’t use a 13th-round selection on him until he is actually given a starting gig to realize that potential. Keep an eye open for when he is given that chance, though.

Final thoughts

Stay tuned for the reviews of the rest of the positions throughout the offseason, after which we can really draw some conclusions about position scarcity. Those numbers do change every year.

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