Fantasy Baseball State of the Union: Catcher
Welcome to the fifth installment of our Fantasy Baseball State of the Union. I’ve been looking back to see if this “new” version of the game we love had any meaningful impact in fantasy. Of course, some of the stuff you can already imagine, like the increase in stolen bases and the higher batting average without the shift, but what does that mean for each position? Did it create more value in certain spots? How does that impact our 2024 draft strategy? These are the questions I’m looking to answer in this State of the Fantasy Baseball Union series.
You can look at my examination of first base here and also check out my breakdown of second base here and shortstop here and also third base here. Today, we are going to turn our attention to catcher. I sorted by players who accumulated 200 plate appearances both this season and in 2022 and looked to see if there was any meaningful change in the standard 5x5 offensive categories (batting average, home runs, runs, RBI, and steals). Then I tried to dive into WHAT that change was, WHY it may have happened, and HOW likely it is that we see it again.
You’ll notice the red box above, which means that catcher has the fewest players at the position who hit over .240. However, 21 catchers hit over .240, and there are only 30 teams, so about a third of MLB teams employ a catcher who won’t hurt your fantasy batting average. That’s not quite the narrative we usually get.
What’s more, there were four catchers who hit .280 or better, seven catchers who hit .270 or better, and 13 catchers who hit .260 or better. If you want to remove Freddy Fermin and Reese McGuire from that list because they were not consistent starters, you’re still looking at 11 catchers who hit .260 or better. That’s 11 catchers who will actually provide a solid floor for your batting average category. In a standard 12-yeam, one-catcher league, that means it’s actually pretty easy to roster a catcher with a solid batting average.
For the purpose of narrowing down our top targets, the four catchers who hit over .280 were William Contreras, Gabriel Moreno, Yainer Diaz, and Freddy Fermin. If you add the players who hit over .270, that includes Adley Rutschman, Ryan Jeffers, and Mitch Garver, so with the exception of Fermin, we’re looking at six catchers off the bat who are names we would likely be happy to have.
Catcher may not be the best position for power, but it had more players with 20 home runs that second base and shortstop, so there’s that. There was only one catcher who hit 30 home runs this year, Cal Raleigh, and Raleigh led all catchers in home runs in 2022 with 27, so it’s pretty clear that he’s the premiere power bat the position.
Those other catchers with over 20 home runs were Francisco Alvarez, Salvador Perez, Yainer Diaz, Shea Langeliers, Sean Murphy, Jake Rogers, Willson Contreras, J.T. Realmuto, and Adley Rutschman. All of Gary Sanchez, Mitch Garver, and Will Smith came just one home run short.
Of the players who hit 20 or more home runs, Raleigh, Perez, Contreras, and Realmuto also did so in 2022 while Murphy had 18 in 2022 and, as we mentioned above, Will Smith just missed in 2023. So we have at least six catchers with consistent power and younger players like Alvarez, Diaz, and Langeliers who seem likely to repeat as 20 home run bats for years to come.
As a result, it seems like we should be able to find power production from our catcher spot, and some names have already given us both power and average (Diaz, Rutschman, and Garver) with Will Smith and Willson Contreras both also hitting over .260 this year, which means we’re starting to see a group separate itself.
Now we get to the categories where we see the value for catchers start to dry up. There simply aren’t too many catchers who hit in the middle of their lineup, so finding ones with consistent RBI value is hard.
Guys like Salvador Perez, Adley Rutschman, and William Contreras hit in the middle of their orders, which helps them make it onto his leaderboard, and then guys like Jonah Heim, and Will Smith hit in strong lineups, which helps. The real surprise was that Elias Diaz had 72 RBI this season, but he does play in Coors and had over 520 plate appearances, which is less of a timeshare than we expected.
If we look back at the first three categories, Adley Rutschman and Will Smith are the only names we consistently see, but William Contreras just missed in home runs, so he’s providing solid in value in each of the three categories. Additionally, some interesting names who just missed the cut-off here are Murphy, Realmuto, Alvarez, Langeliers, Willson Contreras, and Keibert Ruiz. If we include those names, we’re starting to see some pretty consistent repeat players in each of these early categories.
This is all about the quality of the lineup. Catchers aren’t lead-off hitters, and most hit at the bottom of their orders, so their production in runs depends on them getting on base and the top of the lineup (usually) driving them in. That’s why the guys at the top of this leaderboard were all guys in good lineups: William Contreras, Rutschman, Smith, and Raleigh.
We also had Realmuto slide in here as the fifth and final qualifying name, but runs is not a category where we get tons of production out of the catcher spot. If we expand the leaderboard to 60 runs scored, we also get Heim, Sean Murphy, and Salvador Perez, who had 59 because we’re being generous.
So that means William Contreras, Rutschman, Smith, Realmuto, Heim, Murphy, and Perez are all beginning to show up fairly consistently in all of the previous categories.
Considering we’re likely not going to see much value when it comes to stolen bases too, we need to think of catchers as three category players with a small contingent of names that can be four category guys.
I lowered the minimum here to 10 stolen bases because it’s the catcher position and only J.T. Realmuto qualified. That used to be the reason to reach for Realmuto early, but with stolen bases so easy to come by at other positions now, you don’t really need a catcher who can swipe a few bags. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but I don’t believe it should meaningfully impact your draft strategy, especially since Realmuto had about 10 more steals than the majority of catchers and will be 33 next year. Is 8-10 extra steals worth picking a catcher a few rounds ahead of where they should go? I don’t believe so.
A few of other names here who contributed some in steals (let’s say six or more) were Connor Wong, Gabriel Moreno, and both Contreras brothers.
TAKEAWAYS AND RANKINGS
So at the end of the day, J.T. Realmuto remains the only catcher who is on the fringe of being a five-category player. However, despite him helping you in most places, he’s really near the bottom of the qualified names in batting average, runs, RBI, and home runs. What that means is that he doesn’t hurt you anywhere, but his upside at each individual category isn’t as high as some of the other players at his position. As a result, I really don’t believe he’s a lock to be the top catcher drafted. If you’ve planned your strategy so that you don’t need steals from your catcher then I’d rather take one of the players with drastically more value in the other hitting categories.
If we are going to look elsewhere at catcher then Adley Rutschman, William Contreras, Will Smith, Willson Contreras, Yainer Diaz, Jonah Heim, and Mitch Garver are the ones who appear most frequently on the leaderboards. If you’re OK with a catcher who will be on the low-end of batting average then Cal Raleigh, Francisco Alvarez, and potentially even Shea Langeliers are also viable selections. We also have young guys like Gabriel Moreno, Bo Naylor, and Keibert Ruiz, who flashed upside and value in a few categories and we could feel good projecting them for more growth in future seasons.
Right in the two paragraphs above I listed 14 catchers that I would be comfortable taking in a 12-team league. That should tell you that, if you are in a one-catcher league, there’s really no reason to be the first person to take a catcher, unless some tremendous value falls to you. It also means that, in a two-catcher format, it should be fairly easy to find at least one catcher who can provide you value, and then you can rotate the second spot or pick a player who has good value in one category or buy on a bounceback season from a player like Tyler Stephenson, Ryan Jeffers, Alejandro Kirk, or Danny Jansen.
Make sure to check back next week as I go through the final position.