Reality Check: Early look at catcher
Catcher is a weird position.
By its nature, it's weak. Injuries are more common, and everyday players are few and far between. What results are numbers that, from top to bottom, just don't compare to other positions.
But of equal importance to Fantasy owners are comparisons within the position. How do catchers stack up against each other? Is it a shallow position, which isn't quite the same as being a weak one, or will you like who you draft no matter where you draft him?
After taking the pulse of my Twitter followers and inspecting some of the other early rank lists popping up all over the Internet, I'm more convinced than ever of the latter.
Why? Because the Fantasy Baseball community can't decide who to give priority at the position.
Never does my Head-to-Head bias show more than at catcher, where like at first base, there are no stolen bases to equalize things, but unlike at first base, the home runs aren't so prevalent. While Rotisserie types are quick to distinguish the catchers who hit home runs from the ones who don't, I continue to favor traditional mainstays like Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina , who offer more in the way of batting average.
Part of it's because their peripherals set them apart in Head-to-Head league, but even in Rotisserie, I believe they stand out from pure mashers like Wilin Rosario and Evan Gattis . Home runs are only one category, after all. A high batting average (or to be more exact, a high on-base percentage) improves a player's chances of scoring runs and, especially when attached to a higher number of doubles, is nearly as important as home runs for RBI totals. Plus, it's not like Mauer and Molina are their position's version of Marco Scutaro . They're capable of at least a dozen homers.
A well-rounded hitter trumps a one-trick pony more often than not in Fantasy, and I have a feeling front office types would tell you the same is true in real life (which is part of the reason I prefer Head-to-Head to Rotisserie).
Then again, you could argue Rosario wasn't a one-trick pony in 2013, hitting .291 to finish third in the Rotisserie league rankings, but I say ... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
On with it!
Top 10 catchers for 2014:
1. Buster Posey , C/1B, Giants
2. Carlos Santana , C/1B, Indians
3. Joe Mauer , C, Twins
4. Yadier Molina , C, Cardinals
5. Jonathan Lucroy , C, Brewers
6. Wilin Rosario , C, Rockies
7. Salvador Perez , C, Royals
8. Matt Wieters , C, Orioles
9. Brian McCann , C, Braves
10. Wilson Ramos , C, Nationals
I mentioned Mauer and Molina at the top, but together with Rosario, Posey and Santana actually make for the more fascinating comparison at the position, with Santana being the one who ranked first in Head-to-Head leagues in 2013, Rosario being the one everyone thinks should rank first in Rotisserie leagues in 2014, and Posey being the one I actually rank first in both formats.
The two most common mistakes a Fantasy owner can make -- and I'm in no way exempting myself here -- is to put too much stock into last year's numbers and to always assume the best-case scenario. I think both mistakes have contributed to this debate, first with the underestimating of Posey's potential based on his 2013 numbers and then with the trusting of Rosario to repeat (or perhaps even improve upon) his .291 batting average.
Coming off an MVP performance in 2012, Posey disappointed in 2013. His .455 slugging percentage was his lowest for a full season, and even though he did a fine job getting on base, the shortcomings of the rest of the Giants lineup limited his ability to score runs. But it's not like he's on the decline at age 26. His failures in 2013 don't in any way cheapen his successes of 2010 and 2012. Based on his pedigree and track record, a 20-homer season is still a reasonable expectation for Posey in 2014, making him the one catcher most capable of delivering the best of both worlds and an easy top choice at the position.
What separates him from Santana and Rosario is batting average, mostly, though that wasn't the case for Rosario in 2013. Still, nothing about Rosario's profile suggests he's capable of hitting .290 on a consistent basis. An unsustainable .344 BABIP made up for the same horrible plate discipline that made him only a .267 hitter over six minor-league seasons. That's not to say minor-league numbers are the best indicator of future performance, but everything from peripherals to pedigree to track record points to Rosario being about the .260 hitter Santana has been, only with far fewer walks and doubles, which should ultimately lead to fewer runs scored.
So what of Lucroy? I wouldn't balk at anyone picking Rosario over him in a Rotisserie league, but he was actually second in Head-to-Head formats in 2013. And judging by some of his peripherals, I think he has a better chance than Rosario of taking another step forward. Despite his exceptional contact rate, he was hitting only .229 on May 30 thanks to a .237 BABIP to that point. His BABIP leveled off during the summer, allowing him to make up some ground, but with a steadier performance from start to finish, I think he's closer to being the .320 hitter we saw in 2012.
Perez might be the next in line for that type of production. Like Lucroy, he makes consistent contact, posting the fourth-lowest strikeout rate among regular catchers, and like Lucroy, his luck didn't turn until later in the season, when he hit .367 with eight homers and a 1.021 OPS over his final 34 games. His shortcomings up until then had more to do with his power numbers than his batting average, but for a 23-year-old yet to enter his prime, a big surge to end the season could be the start of a legitimate breakthrough.
Wieters, McCann and Ramos are closer to the Rosario end of the Lucroy-Rosario spectrum in that they're all power hitters who'll struggle to hit much better than .260. Ramos even has Rosario's poor plate discipline down. Sometimes I wonder if they're actually the same player, their names are so suspiciously alike.
But of course, Wieters and McCann are the more proven of the three. McCann keeps his strikeouts low enough to give me some fleeting hope he can get back to hitting better than .270 for the first time in five years, but his playing time isn't as assured as Wieters'. If he ends up signing with an AL team to DH in between catching duties, I'll consider flip-flopping the two.
Next 10 catchers for 2014:
11. Evan Gattis , C/OF, Braves
12. Jason Castro , C, Astros
13. Jarrod Saltalamacchia , C, Red Sox
14. Yan Gomes , C, Indians
15. Travis d'Arnaud , C, Mets
16. Mike Zunino , C, Mariners
17. Miguel Montero , C, Diamondbacks
18. Josmil Pinto , C, Twins
19. A.J. Pierzynski , C, Rangers
20. Alex Avila , C, Tigers
Gattis is probably the trickiest player to rank at catcher. He was the definition of an all-or-nothing hitter in 2013, compiling a .291 on-base percentage to go along with 21 homers in 354 at-bats. But the way he looked for stretches of the year, hitting balls so hard that they'd reach the outfield fence on a line, makes me wonder how high his ceiling goes. Yeah, he had some cold stretches, but doesn't every rookie, particularly one getting sporadic at-bats? Those at-bats won't be so sporadic if McCann signs elsewhere this offseason.
The drop-off at the position comes right after Castro, who was quietly having the biggest breakout of any catcher before missing the last three weeks of September with a cyst in his right knee. Frankly, other than strikeout rate, I'm not sure much separates him from McCann these days. That's good news for owners in one-catcher leagues. You won't be too far behind the competition if you wait until late to fill that spot. It's not like you have to worry about someone drafting a catcher to play utility.
Play in a two-catcher league? Good news for you as well. Plenty of upside remains at the position even after Castro goes off the board. In particular, d'Arnaud and Zunino have a chance to emerge as top-tier players. Neither did anything in 2013, but Zunino was rushed and d'Arnaud missed most of the year with a broken foot. They're the best catcher prospects to enter the league since Posey and Santana in 2010, making them well worth a leap of faith over the eternally frustrating Montero.
Did you know Gomes' .826 OPS in 2013 was sixth among all catchers who got at least 250 at-bats? Did you know he hit .319 after the All-Star break, when he was playing most consistently? Did you know he started 14 of the Indians' final 15 games at catcher? Gomes isn't assured regular playing time in 2013, but Santana's ability to play first base makes the former Blue Jays farmhand a better bet than not for 400 at-bats, which should make him one of the more productive second catchers you could have in a 12-team league.
After an impressive 76 at-bat showing in which he hit .342 with four home runs, Pinto may have a similar role for the Twins next year, keeping Mauer's bat in the lineup by bumping him to first base or DH. Pinto could always hit in the minors but was considered a defensive liability before slimming down in the offseason. He's one of my favorite sleepers for 2014.
I include Pierzynski just for appearances' sake. He has routinely been a top-15 option over the last few years, but nearing his 37th birthday and leaving Texas for who knows where this offseason, I think he finally takes a step back in 2014. If I was in a position to gamble late in a draft, knowing I could find a Russell Martin , J.P. Arencibia or Ryan Doumit type on waivers later, I might instead gamble on a 27-year-old Alex Avila , hoping his .303 batting average and .876 OPS in the second half mean his knees are healthy enough to get him back playing at an All-Star level, a 25-year-old Yasmani Grandal , hoping his surgically repaired ACL heals quickly enough to get him back on the field in spring training, a 24-year-old Jesus Montero , hoping his transition to first base allows him to tap into his awesome potential as a hitter, a 26-year-old Ryan Lavarnway , hoping Saltalamacchia's expected departure gives him a chance to strut his stuff for the Red Sox, a 23-year-old Max Stassi , hoping he can reclaim the part-time DH and backup catcher role the Astros intended for him in late August before a concussion altered their plans, or a 25-year-old Devin Mesoraco , hoping he overtakes Ryan Hanigan once and for all.
With so many intriguing fallback possibilities at catcher, maybe the debate over the top five is irrelevant.
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