For numerous years, there’s only been one name on the top of catcher rankings — and even just one name in the top-tier. Buster Posey has been a godsend to teams who draft him, and his elite production can’t be matched on a year in, year out basis. His worst batting average in the last five years is .288, his worst HR total is 14, and his worst RBI total is 72. His five-year average is terrific: .309, 19 HR, 88 RBI. Posey certainly earned the title of best catcher.
It turns out 2016 was a down year for Posey. That lowest average and home run total both came in last year. He’s seen his home run total and HR/FB drop for three seasons. His grounders were up, and his hard hit was down a little. For the most part, these are minor quibbles, and I’m not advocating for dethroning him from the top catcher slot; at least not yet. However, there are some youngsters making noise behind him, and there are a lot of relatively good options at catcher for leagues that use a single C slot. Given that Posey is coming off of a slight disappointment, youths like Gary Sanchez and Wilson Contreras are nice gambles, and solid veterans like Jonathan Lucroy and Evan Gattis are available at least one round or two later than Posey, should you still reach and take the top catcher?
The Other Top-5 Options
Let’s take a look at the catchers behind Posey, based on ADP from the NFBC. As it turns out, the two youngsters and the two veterans I mentioned above are the second through fifth catchers off the board. I’ve included their ADP.
Gary Sanchez (45th) is the second catcher off the board, and his draft slot is not too far behind Posey’s 35th overall. That prodigious power has fantasy owners drooling, and I certainly don’t deny his chances at 30 homers. However, you have to temper expectations, and don’t get sucked into the hype, which is made all the worse by the Yankee media factor. He was flailing a bit in September, when he lost 12% off his contact from his hot August debut. A high ground ball tilt means fewer fly balls to turn into home runs. He managed 20 HR in 2016 due to a 40% HR/FB rate. Yes, 40% — which is completely unsustainable. Pujols’ best season was a 23% HR/FB. Even Stanton’s best year was 32%, and at least Stanton pairs it with a fly ball rate over 40%. There are likely some growing pains in Sanchez’s sophomore year, and he’ll have to make adjustments. That said, I can see 30 HR and 80 RBI, but it may come at the cost of average, where he’s far more likely to hit under .260 than over.
Jonathan Lucroy (48th) has been around for a few years as a solid catching option in the tier behind Posey. As it turned out, in 2016 he beat Posey in terms of value, taking the top spot. Not bad for a guy coming off a poor year due to injuries. In Texas, Lucroy should continue to hit, and even if 2016 ends up being a career best, I don’t see a lot of falloff. He’s proven he can hit for high average, and he offers at least average power at the position. The runs and RBI will continue to pile up in that potent offense. I see his floor as what Posey did last year, but Lucroy’s upside is a full 2016 repeat with more AB, so more counting stats.
Next is Evan Gattis (82nd), another huge power threat that qualifies at catcher. Frankly, his profile bears a strong resemblance to what I expect from Sanchez in 2017, though Sanchez has an even higher power ceiling long-term. Gattis had a spike in HR/FB to 24%, but I believe he can maintain most of it, and he hit more fly balls than Sanchez, which means their home run totals may end up pretty close next year. The one concern is a drop in hard hit rate — if that continues, he may not be able to repeat 30 HR, but should still manage 25. Gattis has established himself as a .250-260 hitter, so he won’t help or harm your fantasy team there. The Astros should continue giving him RBI chances in or near the middle of the lineup.
Finally, we have Willson Contreras (98th), managing to stay within the top-100. Frankly, it’s been quite a few years since I’d consider ranking five catchers in the top-100, but that shows the kind of talent there is at the top-tier. He didn’t have quite the splash that Sanchez did, hitting “only” 12 home runs in a third of a season, but he put up a good batting average, and the Cubs will create plenty of runs and RBI chances. His 24% HR/FB rate matched Gattis, but he hit more grounders, at a rate of 54%, so I wouldn’t project more than 25 home runs for a full season. Even so, 25 HR is a solid mark. His contact rate dropped a little in September, but not as much as Sanchez, and he had above average contact in the minors, whereas Sanchez has always had a swing-and-miss approach.
What’s It Mean for Posey?
I still have a hard time taking a catcher in the top-50. There are a lot of above average catcher options that can compete with Posey in most categories. Sanchez and Gattis will beat Posey in power, may come close to matching him in RBI, but will fall short in average. Lucroy profiles as a near duplicate of Posey’s potential production, minus a few points in average, and he comes a full round later. And though it’s partly the Cubs fan in me, I believe Contreras has a bright future as the best all-around catcher. He won’t develop the power of Sanchez/Gattis, but he’ll provide better average and still manage 20 HR. His production may not be fully here in 2017, but when he comes at 98th overall in ADP, I will gladly take that chance over the rest of the top-5.
In the grand scheme of things, Posey should still be the first catcher off the board. His long track record of elite production mandates that. It’s comparable to Albert Pujols in his prime: even if he wasn’t the true #1 player every season, he provided the best chance of a top-10 performance in any given year. For that reason, I can’t fault anyone for taking Posey. Assuming health and neutral luck, Posey should continue to beat the other top-5 catchers in average and RBI. He’s a safe and stable selection. But Posey isn’t fully in a class of his own anymore. At such a high price for his reliability, I’m more willing to take a small gamble. Whether you pick a veteran who’s simply cheaper, or a young phenom with higher risk and reward, don’t overreach for Posey — or any other catcher. You can let the first three or four catchers go off the board and still draft a player who has a chance to end 2017 with the best performance at the position.
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