Catching Fire: Drafting Your Fantasy Baseball Catcher

It’s a dirty and thankless job, and catchers are often an afterthought in the minds of many fantasy owners. That’s because there’s really no fantasy baseball value that rewards baserunners thrown out, perfectly framed pitches, or “most hitting tendencies studied.”  While no one can doubt their importance on the actual diamond, that importance is lost in translation when the position is viewed from a fantasy baseball perspective. Catchers typically generate less counting stat production than any other among the starting 9, and to put it bluntly, that can render them useless in the opinions of fantasy owners. It’s true that game-changing, seasonal outcome-affecting power catchers like Piazza and Pudge are a rare, if not altogether missing in fantasy baseball these days.

There are no meaningless positions on your roster, you need to take that “C” position into account on draft day just like any other position on your roster. If you focus on drafting a catcher that can win you a head-to-head position or keep you competitive throughout the season in rotisserie formats, you’re putting your fantasy squad in the best position to win. Counterpoint, if you disregard (read: “punt”) the position and draft a slow moving, light hitting catcher who sets up camp at the Mendoza line but continues to get ABs due to his defensive prowess, and you don’t address it by upgrading at the position through free agency or trade? Well, you’re not doing everything you can to beat your opponent and you don’t deserve to win.

In short, every position matters, including catcher, so pay attention and have targets in mind, both pre-draft and in-season as a backup plan. That being said, let’s look at three tiers of catchers that can make an impact on your 2017 fantasy success or failure. In each tier is the player, their respective team, their Fantasy Report Top 30 Ranking,  and lastly their 2017 Steamer Projections in HR/RBI/SB/AVG,  courtesy of Fangraphs. I’ll also include their Consensus ADP, courtesy of FantasyPros, to give you and idea of where they’re going in drafts.

Tier I

Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants, Rank: 1, Projections: 16/71/3/.300, ADP 84

Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees, Rank: 4, Projections: 27/81/6/.268, ADP 43

While I’ve typically never found myself reaching for a catcher this early in the draft, if I were to, it’d have to be for the one I felt would finish the year ranked #1 at the position. For me, that player this year is Buster Posey. That may seem odd, considering he comes off of a career low in HR (14) and an out of form sub-.300 average (.288), but he had little protection around him in the order, and still maintained a near .800 OPS. Posey drew roughly as many walks as strikeouts, and continued to show discipline at the plate, while also posting a career high, 36.1%, in hard hit balls. With Hunter Pence healthy and high expectations on Brandon Belt in the Giants lineup, the 29 year old should return to form. A 20+ HR season and his consistent performance is enough for me to warrant targeting him over the slugging Gary Sanchez, whose ADP suggests a pricey 4th round pick. I anticipate Posey will go earlier than his listed ADP in most league drafts, but considering you’d be getting the potential #1 catcher in fantasy baseball  at year’s end without the 1st/2nd round price often associated with other positions’ paramount performers, it’s worth reaching earlier than that.

*Note: In some leagues, Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber may still have catcher eligibility. He projects at 27/72/6/.264, but be sure to consider the small sample size and injury concerns for him. He’s ranked the #3 catcher here at TFR, but you need to know your leagues positional eligibility on him going into your draft before deciding where to take him.

Tier II

Jonathan Lucroy, Texas Rangers, Rank: 2, Projections: 14/63/3/.280, ADP 107

J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins, Rank: 7,  Projections: 10/50/8/.275, ADP 119

Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers, Rank: 9, Projections: 20/59/2/.237, ADP 131

Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs, Rank: 5, Projections: 13/54/5/.271, ADP 139

Evan Gattis, Houston Astros, Rank: 8, Projections: 21/61/1/.244, ADP 159

If my past drafting practices continue in 2017, this tier would be where I typically consider drafting my team’s catcher. There is some power to be had here, with Grandal and Gattis both likely to finish somewhere between 25-35 HRs, but they both hit for low average and both strike out about 25% of the time. I do believe Contreras is the real deal, but striking out nearly 25% of the time while recording a low contact rate (70%) leads me to seek out better value. That being said, my pick here (and likely in most of my leagues) is Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Simply put, Realmuto does what no other catcher can: provide you with some pop, a good batting average, and has the potential to steal somewhere around 15 bases. Realmuto swiped 18 bags in 2013 for the Marlins’ AA affiliate Jacksonville (Go Jumbo Shrimp!), and has 20 in his first two season in the majors. The SB totals jumped 50% with an increase in ABs from 2015 to 2016, and  that number can only be expected to grow as he develops as a major league hitter. I feel Steamer is a bit low in their projections, he can also deliver with his bat, as he’s hit double digit HRs in both 2015 and ’16, and even elevated his batting average 50 points to .303 last season. While I don’t believe that high of an average is sustainable, he’s proven he can hit. If the 26 year old can improve his K/BB ratio while developing, he’ll deliver well beyond his 10th (+) round price tag at a position where steals are scarce.

Tier III

Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals, Rank: 6, Projections: 19/65/1/.263, ADP 135

Russell Martin, Toronto Blue Jays, Rank: 11, Projections: 16/53/3/.276, ADP 170

Welington Castillo, Baltimore Orioles, Rank: 12, Projections: 13/45/2/.248, ADP 200

Brian McCann, Houston Astros, Rank: 10, Projections: 18/55/1/.230, ADP 204

 

ALRIGHT! I GET IT, STOP SCREAMING! I’m lower than you on Sal Perez. He has, after all, hit 20 HR in two straight seasons. But his average has also dropped from .300+ in 2013, to .260 in ’15 and .247 last season. He was never a disciplined batter, but his K% also crept up to over 20% last season, a career worst for him. Add that to the fact that he’s battling both a knee injury and a hyper extended elbow, and I’m dissuaded from targeting him in my fantasy baseball drafts or ranking him as highly as my counterparts. Of this group, I’ll acknowledge two players I’d happily draft in the late rounds.

Welington Castillo was the best catcher in baseball in terms of  hard-hit ball %, at nearly 40%. Castillo has always been a sneaky source of power at the catcher position, including 33 HR’s in the last two years. He strikes out a ton, over 25% of the time last season, but he should see plenty of playing time in a power hitter’s park, providing some solid upside. Brian McCann, at 33 years of age, is a name that has seemingly disappeared from fantasy owners’ vocabulary this pre-season. It shouldn’t have, as he once again hit the 20 HR mark, a feat he has achieved every season since 2008. His K% did sneak up to the 20% mark for the first time in his career, but he also took more walks and raised his batting average 10 points from 2015 to 2016. Now in Houston and surrounded by power protection, he can be had near the end of most mixed league drafts, and should provide a very solid floor. I draft either Castillo or McCann late knowing that I’ve likely been able to build up the rest of my roster, and can now plug in a dependable source of output from the catcher’s position.

 

Two Catcher or Deeper League Options:

Yadier Molina, St Louis Cardinals, Rank: 14, Projections: 8/55/3/.284, ADP193.  The power’s gone, but he’s one of the better hitters in baseball and consistently hits near or over the .300 mark. Higher value in rotisserie.

Tom Murphy, Colorado Rockies, Rank: 17, Projections: 7/23/1/.259, ADP 276. A broken forearm will shelve him through at least May, but he’s shown the ability to hit for power throughout the minors, and any power hitter playing at Coors is a hitter you want to draft with a reserve spot or add in free agency later this season.

When it comes to one of the most overlooked positions in fantasy baseball, if you’re going to reach early, reach for the very best at the position. If you wait until the middle rounds, focus on drafting a catcher that provides both playing time/regular ABs and performance upside; and if you happen to wait until the ending rounds to fill this spot, look beyond just plugging in any name and consider finding one of the above listed players that can actually help your team in any weak areas you may have.

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