Projecting AL catchers with RC/27

RC/27 projections are back for 2009, but with a few twists this time. Like last year, I am grouping players together when they cluster around a common projected RC/27 value, and I am also looking at each position separately. This time, though, I am producing separate sets of tiers for AL and NL players, and the projections themselves are ranges of RC/27 values rather than specific values. This makes it easier to spot clusters of draft list cohorts who are all in the same ballpark without putting too much weight on minor differences in the RC/27 metric. Last year, for example, Jason Varitek 3.6 RC/27 was a bit higher than John Buck (3.4), yet they scored nearly the same number of Fantasy Points (228 vs. 224). Finally, I will highlight some of the key tradeoffs involved in choosing between players who are likely to be cohorts on your draft list.

The Elite: Joe Mauer emergence as the best and most reliable producer at a talent-scarce position makes him the clear choice to be the first American League catcher taken and a potential late first-round pick in AL-only leagues. Victor Martinez and rookie Matt Wieters are well ahead of the pack but are still a distant second and third. Or is it third and second? I smell a cohort analysis.

Cohort Analysis: Victor Martinez vs. Matt Wieters . It says something about the depth of AL catching that one of last year's greatest Fantasy disappointments and a rookie are among the elite. It also says something about the potential of these catchers to have monster seasons. While Martinez' projection might seem overly optimistic, it is predicated on only a partial recovery of the power he displayed in 2007. I've tried to temper my enthusiasm for Wieters, having been burned by highly-touted rookies before, but even Brian McCann and Russell Martin didn't put up minor league numbers like his. I'd be tempted to take Martinez before Wieters, since I'd like to see how Wieters' playing time and adjustment to the bigs shake out first. In doing so, I might be missing out on the AL's best catcher.

The Elite options
Player 2009 projection 2008 2007 2006
Joe Mauer 6.5-7.0 6.87 5.99 7.92
Victor Martinez 6.0-6.5 3.96 6.63 6.29
Matt Wieters 6.0-6.5 N/A N/A N/A

Solid No. 1 Catchers: The 20-plus home run power displayed by Mike Napoli and Kelly Shoppach in 2008 was legitimate for both players. So were the whiff rates in excess of 30 percent, which will keep both catchers from joining the top ranks. The Halos should give Napoli the bulk of the at-bats over Jeff Mathis , and Victor Martinez can shift to 1B and DH to keep Shoppach in the lineup, but neither of these scenarios is guaranteed. Despite the playing time risks, either one of this duo in part-time duty is a better pick than a sure full-timer like Dioner Navarro , Kurt Suzuki or Gerald Laird .

Cohort Analysis: Jorge Posada vs. Jeff Clement . It would be easy to dismiss the 37 year-old Posada and the inexperienced Clement, yet cautious projections show that both are deserving of No. 1 catcher status in AL-only leagues. Even if Posada maintains his 5.0 RC/27 from last year's injury-riddled season, he will be a top 10 producer among AL backstops. Better still, a mild power rebound is somewhat likely for Posada. Clement just needs to cut back on the Ks and increase his power a bit. He already accomplished the former after the All-Star Break last year, and the latter can be expected from a 25 year-old with a track record of power in the minors. Clement could still feel some growing pains in '09, but given Posada's age and recent shoulder surgery, I'd take my chances with the M's catcher here.

Solid No. 1 options
Player 2009 projection 2008 2007 2006
Mike Napoli 5.5-6.0 7.82 5.39 5.87
Kelly Shoppach 5.0-5.5 6.22 5.03 N/A
Jorge Posada 5.0-5.5 5.00 8.77 6.80
Jeff Clement 5.0-5.5 3.45 N/A N/A

No. 1/No. 2 Catchers: Despite superior skills, Josh Bard will probably lose playing time to Jason Varitek , so he should be the last of this cluster to be picked. That's too bad, because given the chance, Bard would hit 30 points higher and nearly as many home runs. I've already made jokes in past columns about no one ever seeing Navarro and Suzuki in the same place together, so I won't bother making one here.

Cohort Analysis: Jarrod Saltalamacchia vs. Max Ramirez . These catchers are in the same ballpark both literally and figuratively, at least until one of them gets traded. Ultimately, their respective values depend on where they fall on the Rangers' depth chart (or, again, if one gets traded). It is a very tough call, because they have very similar statistical profiles. You can expect Salty to hit around .265 with 10-15 homers as a full-timer. This would be a reasonable expectation for Ramirez, too, but one part of his profile makes me wary: only 83 at-bats above Double-A. Edge: Saltalamacchia.

Low-end No. 1/No. 2 options
Player 2009 projection 2008 2007 2006
Josh Bard 4.5-5.0 N/A 4.92 7.73
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 4.5-5.0 4.67 4.36 N/A
Dioner Navarro 4.5-5.0 4.63 3.20 3.99
Gerald Laird 4.5-5.0 4.50 3.33 5.35
Kurt Suzuki 4.5-5.0 4.24 4.63 N/A
Max Ramirez 4.5-5.0 N/A N/A N/A

Solid No. 2 Catchers: A.J. Pierzynski and Brandon Inge are the safest bets for regular playing time. Meanwhile, Jason Varitek looks ready to grab the Starting-Catcher-for-Life baton from Brad Ausmus , collecting regular at-bats deep into the post-prime portion of his career. For owners hoping that last year was an aberration for Varitek, the real outlier over the last three years was his '07 campaign, which produced an unrealistically high .255 average and .318 BABIP. Gregg Zaun and Taylor Teagarden will both produce as serviceable AL-only catchers, as long as they don't get pushed into part-time duty, which is actually pretty likely.

Cohort Analysis: A.J. Pierzynski vs. Brandon Inge . Piersynski and Inge may not differ much when it comes to RBI, runs scored or on base average, but Pierzynski should hit for an average that's 40 points higher than Inge's. The Tigers' catcher-turned-third baseman-turned-catcher-then-third-baseman-again depends on walks to get on base, which helps his Detroit teammates, but not most Fantasy owners. Inge will probably hit a few more homers, but Pierzynski will clobber him in the batting average category.

Solid No. 2 options
Player 2009 projection 2008 2007 2006
A.J. Pierzynski 4.0-4.5 4.37 3.78 5.17
Gregg Zaun 4.0-4.5 4.23 4.77 5.63
Brandon Inge 4.0-4.5 3.76 4.04 4.78
Jason Varitek 4.0-4.5 3.60 5.47 4.23
Taylor Teagarden 4.0-4.5 N/A N/A N/A

The Rest: Regardless of who gets the nod behind the plate in Toronto -- Rod Barajas , Michael Barrett or Curtis Thigpen -- the winner of that competition should be avoided in Fantasy, except as an endgame pick in AL-only leagues. The best choice among this group is Kenji Johjima , who is due for a mild rebound this season. To be sure, his power went on hiatus in '08, but his .227 batting average -- the product of an inexplicable .233 BABIP -- should climb in '09. He should also manage at least as much playing time as the others on this list, as long as either he or Jeff Clement get their share of DH duties.

The Rest
Player 2009 projection 2008 2007 2006
Michael Barrett 3.5-4.0 N/A 3.24 6.63
Miguel Olivo 3.5-4.0 4.17 3.19 4.03
Rod Barajas 3.5-4.0 3.96 N/A 3.96
John Buck 3.5-4.0 3.41 4.18 3.99
Kenji Johjima 3.5-4.0 2.90 4.31 5.14
Curtis Thigpen 3.0-3.5 N/A N/A N/A
Jeff Mathis 3.0-3.5 2.92 N/A N/A
Jose Molina 2.5-3.0 2.44 N/A 3.12
Glossary
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.

Data Analyst

Al Melchior has been playing Fantasy Baseball since 1994, getting his start in the Southern Maryland Anthropomorphic Baseball League (SMABL). He has been writing about Fantasy Baseball since 2000, getting... Full Bio

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