If you look at my rankings that contributed to our Fantasy Top 100, you’ll notice just one catcher made the list. It was Danny Jansen, clocking in at 84. Jansen spent his first 88 games in Triple-A with an .863 OPS, walking nearly as much as he struck out, before earning a call up to the big leagues. At 23, his low-risk profile ensured that for a catcher, he wasn’t going to bomb you in any one category and he was ready to stay in the bigs.
It’s quite impressive what Jansen has done and the type of profile he carries: and it’s about the only catcher profile I’m ever going to rank inside a top 100. I really dislike rostering fantasy catchers, y’all. I will sometimes go out of my way to avoid ranking them in favor of a 17-year-old who has a real chance of flaming out a year later. Allow me to break down my reasoning.
Where’s The Upside?
A minor league catcher has to do a lot to unlock fantasy upside, at least compared to what a top outfield or shortstop prospect might have to do. We just saw J.T. Realmuto get moved to the Phillies and fantasy owners are jumping for joy because… he might hit 25 home runs and reach 85 RBI? And this is the guy who’s now in contention to overtake Gary Sanchez as the number one catcher.
When you’re searching for prospects, whether via trade or free agency, upside has to be at the forefront of your thought process. We’re not out here trolling for guys who’ll do just OK at a position. We want the players who can jump into the first half of a top 100 or can bounce back from injury and remind people why they had a high pedigree (please, Kyle Lewis).
Want to know what it’s going to take for me to rank a catcher high in my list? Guarantee he’s going to hit .275/.340/.475 with 25 home runs. In the last 10 years, only 2017 Gary Sanchez and 2009 Joe Mauer reached those benchmarks. Several catchers hit for more power but a significantly worse slash line. Some had a great slash line but lacked power. The upside simply isn’t there in a position that routinely sits in the high 80s in wRC+ year over year. If you can’t at least be freaking 2018 Eduardo Escobar then I’m not wasting three years on you in my farm.
And I know it goes without saying (but I’m going to anyways!), but even the good catchers aren’t going to rack up a ton of plate appearances. If history is any indication, in 2019 between five to nine catchers will surpass 502 PA (the marker to qualify them for batting titles). That means more likely than not you’re going to roster someone who has a couple of off days a week. Once again, the upside is capped not just by inherent skill, but by statistical counting numbers.
Scarcity Is Not Real
Scarcity is not a real argument, nor should it ever be when constructing a farm system. Don’t fret about rostering 10 shortstops. Half of them will be second basemen and outfielders by the time they reach the majors. By the same token, don’t sweat needing a catcher in your farm system because you feel like you need an eventual heir to your ‘C’ position in your roster.
Every year, there’ll be maybe five or six “good” catchers who return some positive value. This means that only a small minority of your league will own these guys while the majority are riding the post 200 ADP guys who check off only a couple of boxes, usually power. Managers assume this to mean that they have to be in the minority and capitalize on a good catcher. Wrong! You want to be in the majority. If everyone in your league has a good shortstop and you don’t, then you’re at a disadvantage. If only a third of your league has a solid catcher, a position that we know isn’t going to produce well, you’re going to be OK.
Mind The Gap
Why is it OK if you’re not in the Mediocre Catchers Club helmed by President Yadier Molina? Look at the gap between catchers.
Salvador Perez has an NFBC ADP of 111. Steamer projects him to hit .252/.289/.453 with a .201 ISO. Zunino has an ADP of 242 and his projections read .210/.283/.410 with a .200 ISO. I know a lot of it has to do with Perez’s playing time, but Steamer is also underrating Zunino’s. Are you really willing to pass over a Wil Myers, Robbie Ray, Aaron Hicks or Robinson Cano for Perez? Once you get past Realmuto and Sanchez inside the top 100, the gap between catcher around 150 and one around 250+ is not sizable enough to warrant the early draft pick.
So then you ask yourself: will my catching prospect ever be a fantasy player who is worth picking inside the top 100 ADP? Right now, there is no catcher in the minors -- not Francisco Mejia, Joey Bart, MJ Melendez, Ronaldo Hernandez, Danny Jansen -- who has that upside unless there are significant tweaks coming in their profile.
Last summer Ben Carsley from Baseball Prospectus wrote a great piece ($) where he looked back at fantasy viable catchers who lost their prospect status and what they turned out to be. From 2015-2018, he turned up 21 names and of the 21, only four (Sanchez, Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras) were the ones with the best return. And one of those isn’t even a catcher anymore.
The Pool Is Deep
If you’re in a dynasty league that rosters more than 600 or so players, go look at your major league pool. I guarantee a big chunk of names are catchers. It’s a position that’s very easy to fill and names pop up all year round. That’s one of the reasons I dislike having a good-but-not-great catcher in dynasty leagues. You’re almost forced to roster someone even through slumps and can’t capitalize on hot streaks.
Unfortunately, Fantrax won’t let me see the fantasy logs of players on my team last year, but in a 16-team dynasty last year, I rostered Alex Avila, Yan Gomes, Tucker Barnhart, and Mitch Garver in that order and I know I got some good streaks out of all of them. Gomes and Barnhart are the only two catchers going inside the top 300 ADP from that bunch and you know what? I’ll happily try and roster them again because while they won’t provide bountiful returns, they’re virtually free.
I also distinctly recall a moment in the Rotowire Dynasty Invitational last year where I looked at the catcher pool and three of the catchers inside the top 20 for 2018 were unowned...in a 20-team league!
Guys, scarcity isn’t real. It’s by far the easiest position to fill and therefore you don’t have to sweat if you don’t have a good catcher in your minors because the ultimate outcome of your prospect might just be a Yan Gomes.
Look, there are exceptions to every mantra. I’d make an effort to roster a catcher in leagues that are exceptionally deep (for example I’m in a draft that will finish with more than 2,000 drafted players), in deep leagues with two catchers (so that at all times 25 or more backstops are in an active lineup) or deep AL and NL leagues.
In conclusion, if you happen to own a catching prospect that another manager wants, sell him. Capitalize on Daulton Varsho and trade him for a high-risk, high-reward prospect like George Valera. Or if your market won’t allow that, maybe a 2-for-1 of Adonis Medina and Brayan Rocchio.
Point is, reap the rewards now because chances are you won’t when your catcher finally makes it to the major league level.