The Catcher Conundrum

I would like to start this article off by saying that I greatly respect catchers. The job they have to perform defensively is extremely difficult and mostly under appreciated. Whenever I hear someone say that baseball is boring I know that they have no appreciation for the artistry, skill, and savvy it takes to frame pitches. The next time Martin Maldonado is behind the dish for the Astros, take some time and really watch him receive – it’s extraordinary.

Now that I have established that I don’t hate catchers I would like to say this – I absolutely hate catchers. There isn’t a more frustrating position to fill on a fantasy roster than catcher. Season to season, month to month, week to week and even day to day, you can’t count on what you’re going to get out of this group. When I start thinking about who to keep in a dynasty or keeper format I rarely start by considering a catcher.

Certainly league context plays an important role in this decision. In a two catcher league (or AL/NL only), you better find a way to get someone semi-reliable on your squad. In a 10-12 team keeper league, catchers are about as smart of an investment as a Mexican timeshare (really any timeshare). If you pay attention and are willing to move on quickly, streaming catchers can be just as effective as using a high draft pick or setting aside a spot on your keeper squad for one.

Because of the unreliability of the position and the relatively few elite players, it’s tempting to lock up a catcher early in their career if they show any signsof offensive potential. Remember the 2014 season that Devin Mesoraco put together – .273/.359/.534, 25 HR, 80 RBI, 54 R. This breakout performance made him a popular player in keeper/dynasty formats, but then the injuries started: hip surgery in 2015, labrum surgery in 2016, fractured foot in 2017. Not all of these injuries were directly tied to his work behind the dish, but there’s no denying that catching is the most physically demanding position on the diamond. As much as we want to pencil guys in for the same or better offensive numbers year after year, the toll this position takes on player makes it difficult at best.

A similar situation occurred with Wilson Ramos’ breakout 2016 season. A torn ACL cut his season short, but many felt optimistic that he would be a productive player in 2017 (especially moving from the Nationals to the Rays where he could serve as a DH until he was fully cleared to catch). Anyone who invested in Ramos in a keeper league was assuredly disappointed with his 2017 season, and likely did not keep him around for his resurgence in 2018.

Freak injuries happen all the time. I don’t believe that Kyle Schwarber collided with Dexter Fowler in left-center field and tore his ACL because of the games he caught in 2015. It’s also possible for a catcher to maintain fantasy relevance for long stretches. Buster Posey would have been a solid dynasty stash back in 2010. Joe Mauer, whose days as a catcher seem like a distant memory, provided season after season of great numbers before being forced to move to first base because of concussion concerns. But when you are looking for long term fantasy value, the safer options would be elsewhere on the field.

It’s not just injury risk that leads me to be wary of making a long term commitment to a fantasy catcher. The fact of the matter is that this position by and large does not produce elite hitters. Using Yahoo standard 5×5 scoring, not a single catcher finished as a top-100 player (J.T. Realmuto was highest at 147 with Yadier Molina as a distant second at 260). The most popular keeper option at the position this year, Gary Sanchez, was able to surge in September to crack the top-1000 players with an 896 finish. Again, I say there are more stable options available.

It’s hard to say definitively that the precipitous drop in production for Sanchez from his amazing 2017 season (.278/.345/.531, 33 HR, 90 RBI, 79 R) to his abysmal 2018 season (.186/.291/.406, 18 HR, 53 RBI, 51 R) was a result of catching, but I believe it contributed. Constantly hearing about how poor of a defensive player he is and how lazy he seems behind the plate can’t possibly have made it easier to stay comfortable in the batter’s box.

Another player who had trouble living up to expectations in 2018 was Willson Contreras. While catching a career high 133 games Willson had a career low 10 HR. It’s not a good sign when a player entering his physical prime is regressing in the power department, although this was his second full-season so maybe that was just a sophomore slump.

These are just a few examples of catcher investments that could have gone awry, and by no means would I say you should never lock up a catcher in a keeper or dynasty format. However, as you dream about the future of players like Francisco Mejía, Jorge Alfaro, Danny Jansen and Carson Kelly, make sure that you do your homework. Don’t get caught up in the idea of finding a diamond in the rough at a difficult position to fill.

Jake Blodgett

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Like most of you I am addicted to fantasy baseball. Since I spend most of my time talking about it, I figured I would write some of my thoughts down. I am a shameless promoter of Mike Trout and an even more shameless Shohei Ohtani apologist.