The Verdict: avoiding catchers will catch on

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple weeks, you know that Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants sustained a horrific injury in a collision at home plate with Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins. The incident has spawned a lot of debate within Major League Baseball regarding the rules surrounding home plate collisions. That debate is for another day in another forum (but personally, I feel that the rules are fine how they are). Rather, the focus of this is on how catchers are viewed and prioritized in fantasy baseball.

One of the popular strategies employed by fantasy baseball players is to spend significant auction dollars or a high draft spot on players at relatively weak positions. Position scarcity is definitely something to factor in to your evaluations when preparing for the draft. However, there is also something to be said about drafting the best player available instead. How do you think people who took Hanley Ramirez with one of the top picks are feeling right now about that selection?

While shortstop and second base are primarily the two positions that people look to fill early on, catchers have become crucial parts of people’s fantasy teams. One of the recent trends in fantasy baseball leagues is for deep leagues to require at least two catchers in the starting lineup. Given the lack of viable offensive options behind the plate, the choices are few and far between for a respectable hitter at that position. In this regard, it is understandable why people will overspend to acquie players like Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Brian McCann and Victor Martinez. But with that draft selections comes inherent risk.

In real baseball, it is increasingly being proven that having a star player be a catcher is a recipe for disaster. Posey is now the poster child for the revisitation of the concept of moving catchers to other positions in order preserve their careers and prevent injuries. As Joe Mauer rehabs his current injury, there was some speculation as to whether he would start learning how to play third base. To his credit, Mauer has stated he has no desire to change positions. But the Twins are understandably considering alternatives because they have invested too much money over too many years to see their star player miss several chunks of a season every year due to injuries. That is not say Mauer or anyone else can’t be injured playing another position. But being a catcher greatly increases the chances of getting hurt.

This then begs the question why fantasy baseball players place so much emphasis on filling the catcher position so early in the draft or for so many valuable auction dollars. Besides Mike Piazza in his prime, there have not been many other catchers, if any at all, that truly put up dominant offensive numbers to warrant such a draft pick.

True, Joe Mauer has won three batting titles and is one of the best hitters in the league. But he maxed out at 28 home runs a couple years ago and has never sniffed that number any other year. Victor Martinez can still be a 25 home run, 90 RBI player, but he misses time every year due to injury and he now plays first base as much as he catches. Brian McCann is a perennial all star and is a great hitter, but he doesn’t hit .300 and likely won’t reach 30 home runs or 100 RBIs.

And then you have Buster Posey, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and one of the game’s brightest young stars. He was on the verge of emerging as one of the best catchers in the league and could already be relied on for solid offensive production in all categories. These players are the cream of the crop at that position. However, none of them are worth the high draft pick or expensive auction bid.

To commit to one of the top catchers means you are depriving yourself somewhere else. The value of what you get from a catcher pales in comparison to what else you could obtain. Generally, most catchers are lumped together in terms of their overall stats. The exceptions, such as Mauer, Posey, Martinez and McCann, will put up better numbers than that, but those numbers are not commensurate with their perceived value.

Going back to Mike Piazza, the argument would be the same if we were having this discussion in 1999. Speaking of which, that was the first year of the 18-team, head-to-head points, mixed fantasy baseball league that I run. The very first draft pick of that league was Piazza, who was in the prime of his career at that point and easily one of the best fantasy players overall. But in retrospect, I am not sure how smart that was to take Piazza first overall even though he was a dominant hitter at a weak position. The guy who drafted him recently told me he would definitely not do that again if he could hop in the DeLorean and go back to March of 1999. And I agree with him. Piazza needed days off to rest, so he could never be counted on to play a full week. That wasn’t his fault, just the nature of the game. And that is my point. Do you really want one of your top players being someone who is always going to need days off with an increased potential for an extended injury?

All of this has reared its ugly head again because of the injury to Posey. MLB teams are currently reconsidering what they do with star players who are catchers. The Washington Nationals are front and center on this point because they proactively moved Bryce Harper, the #1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, from behind the plate to the outfield. The Nationals reasoned that Harper was too good a hitter to keep behind the plate. This rationale will ultimately pay off the the Nationals and Harper in the long run. Stay away from spending high draft picks or auction dollars on star catchers. They may wear the tools of ignorance, but that doesn’t mean you have to be ignorant too.

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  1. Will Hatheway said...

    Amen. I have stated before my aversion to positional scarcity-informed drafting, be it a SS with annually declining power, reaching for a lower-ceilinged or question mark SS not to much further down in the draft, or with catchers (either the stars or the most-esteemed of the main pack, since their stats seem really fungible. Just the other day, I started using the Red’s tandem in a one-catcher spot league, and I’m just fine with their production which I got for free). I had Cabrera, Votto, Braun, and Gonzalez as targets but not Ramirez, for example, because I don’t think you can miss out on the few surest things for significant over-production in your top roster spot. That’s not to say that I’m always right, but instead of a top catcher you could have about as sure a thing at SP as you could want, for example, let alone superior hitting production. The difference between your average 4th round SP and, say, one from the 12th round is generally far greater than a similar exchange with catchers.

  2. Todd said...

    “I am not sure why you need quantitative statistics to prove a point that you happen to adhere to yourself.”

    I don’t, but someone who doesn’t already believe it probably would. Anecdotes probably aren’t sufficient (and shouldn’t be).

  3. Michael A. Stein said...

    @Todd – If I were making a comparison between catchers themselves, or an even more general comparison between the actual value of specific players, then I would likely agree that a quantitative analysis should be done.  However, I was making a more pragmatic argument that, generally speaking, catchers should not be overvalued simply because of the positional scarcity.  The reasoning behind my argument is their greater propensity for injuries and missed games. 

    I took arguably the top 4 offensive catchers (Mauer, Posey, Martinez and McCann) and made the general argument that their increased value over lesser catchers is not significant enough to warrant an early pick or increased auction dollars.

  4. Todd said...

    I’ve been playing fantasy baseball for nearly a decade, and I’ve never drafted or purchased (at auction) an expensive catcher. I did have Victor Martinez for a year or two when he first emerged, but I ended up trading him. I’m usually pretty successful, both at identifying good mid-tier catchers (Miguel Montero’s been the guy the past couple of years), and at placing well in the standings in general. So my intuition lines up pretty well with your argument.

    That said, I think the argument is pretty weak. You assert: “The exceptions, such as Mauer, Posey, Martinez and McCann, will put up better numbers than that, but those numbers are not commensurate with their perceived value.” This is the key issue. Where do you support this claim?

    A couple of anecdotes about catcher injuries and the opinion of some guy who drafted Piazza #1 in 1999 don’t really contribute much support. And it’s also worth noting that no one pays as much for those guys as they do for Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, etc. If you’re going to claim that catchers are overvalued, you need to establish what their perceived value is, then what their actual value is, and show the difference. I don’t even see the first step of establishing their perceived value here, let alone demonstrating that that value is inflated.

  5. Kevin Wilson said...

    To me, this is a simple concept. You have a baseline for total points at each position, whether that be in actual points or a player eater type idea in a roto league. Then you determine how many points above baseline a given player is at his given position.

    You should never pay more for a +45 catcher than you would a +45 second baseman. Points are points. Isn’t this a simple concept, why are we not all embracing it? Am I missing something?

  6. Michael A. Stein said...

    I am not sure why you need quantitative statistics to prove a point that you happen to adhere to yourself.  My argument was simply to beware of drafting catchers with a high draft pick or significant auction dollars for the various reasons stated above.  I never said that people pay what they do for Pujols, Hanlet, etc. But in a snake draft, I have seen Mauer drafted before Cabrera, and McCann before Crawford. 

    I chose not to provide any data on what these players perceived value is because that is not the crux of my argument.  I am making broad generalizations that apply across the board in leagues of any format. 

    Again, the message is simple – think twice before drafting a star catcher and foregoing a potentially better and more reliable option elsewhere.  Think Joe Mauer vs. Jonathan Lucroy thus far this year.  How has the worked out for the respective teams that drafted these players?

  7. Rambo said...

    i don’t see why overall value really matters.  what matters is value over replacement player at that position.  considering that the average catcher in a 12 team mixed league had 50R/15HR/62RBI/.277AVG last year.  A replacement level C in 12 team mixed leagues (average of next 5 ranked catchers) averaged 41/9/48/.263.

    Now compare this to a typical joe mauer season of 90R / 10 HR / 90 RBI / .330 avg.

    how many top 25 hitters give you +.050 in batting avg, + 50 in runs, +40 in runs vs. a replacement level player?  the idea that overall production is what matters more is absurd.  the difference between mauer and a ww catcher is close to the difference between most 2nd rd hitters and their ww replacements.  and thats not even counting his insane 2009 season.

  8. Rocky said...

    By the way, the quality of writing on this site has been plummeting.  Case in point:

    “Position scarcity is definitely something to factor in to your evaluations when preparing for the draft. However, there is also something to be said about drafting the best player available instead. How do you think people who took Hanley Ramirez with one of the top picks are feeling right now about that selection? “

    This is simply an idiotic statement.  Hanley has been a complete bust this season and is now on the DL.  That has nothing to do with positional scarcity.  If hanley was back on pace for his typical .300/100/25/80/25 season at SS his owners would be very happy (even though they are only 1st round numbers for a SS).  I suppose we should also not draft outfielders early since crawford, rios, choo, cargo, werth and ichiro have all been busts. 

    Was this written by AJ Mass?

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