Catcher Tandems: the next change in fantasy

Over the years we’ve had to adjust to a number of things in fantasy. One of the more recent adjustments would be the closer committee strategy more and more teams are rolling out. Another would be shorter outings for starting pitchers, making quality starts hard to come by which puts more emphasis on drafting an ace. Well, there is another change we need to discuss, and it involves one of the least favorite positions in fantasy – catchers.

I know, you hate catchers – most of us do. The fact is they are a necessary evil and you have to own one, just like you need to own a tight end in fantasy football. There are two strategies when it comes to drafting catchers. You either reach to make sure you have one of the top options (and even then there is no guarantee) or you can wait and take what’s left and play the waiver wire throughout the season. In the past I would have been one of those reaching, but over the last few years of I have gone with the latter, and the results over the past few years may surprise you.

Let’s start with the top finishers from 2017 compared to the tandem I owned in several leagues.

H/AB Avg R HR RBI SB
Gary Sanchez 131/471 .278 79 33 90 2
Buster Posey 158/494 .320 62 12 67 6
J.T. Realmuto 148/532 .278 68 17 65 8
Yadier Molina 137/501 .273 60 18 82 9
Suzuki/Flowers 167/593 .282 79 31 99 0

Now it didn’t matter if you ponied up for Posey or Sanchez, or if you went a round or two early to secure the next best thing, the simple fact is my waiver wire combo outperformed all the top dogs. The combination of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers tied Sanchez for first in runs scored, came in second behind Sanchez in home runs, finished first (ahead of Sanchez) in RBI, and among qualifiers finished second in batting average. Not bad for a pair of catchers owned in well under 50% of all leagues.

This worked so well I tried it again last year, going back to the well with Flowers & Suzuki, and even found a suitable alternative where those two were rostered.

H/AB Avg R HR RBI SB
J.T. Realmuto 132/477 .277 74 21 74 3
Yasmani Grandal 106/440 .241 65 24 68 2
Yadier Molina 120/459 .261 55 20 74 4
Salvador Perez 120/510 .235 52 27 80 1
Diaz/Cervelli 158/584 .271 72 22 91 2
Flowers/Suzuki 151/598 .253 79 20 80 0

While the batting average for Suzuki/Flowers was acceptable (by catcher standards), they did lead in runs scored and were ranked in with the top-tier in regards to home runs and RBI. The same can be said for Elias Diaz and Francisco Cervelli except swap the runs and RBI in the previous sentence. Suzuki and Flowers may have had a few lights on them coming into the season, but Cervelli and Diaz were free to whoever acted first.

So, who are this year’s tandems to target? I’m glad you asked

    • Brian McCann & Tyler Flowers: Braves

For those that thought all was lost when Kurt Suzuki left for Washington – enter Brian McCann. Say what you will about the man, but prior to 2018 he managed (despite a sub-par average) to finish in the top-10 in R, HR and RBI on an annual basis. Through Monday the pair is batting .292 (40/137) with 6 home runs, 21 RBI and 13 runs scored. At this pace they should easily finish among the top-5 catchers come September.

For those that are wary of McCann, he is posting his best K% (11.1), hard hit rate (43.6%) and contact rate (88.8%) of his career. Even if the current average declines the early indicators suggest it shouldn’t go below his .263 career average. Flowers may actually be the weak link to monitor with a scary high K% and BABIP just under .400. He’s also not walking much and the contact rate ticked down a few percentage points. Yet, he is still batting .276 (better lucky than good).

If I had to put my money down now on a pair it would be these two. Highly recommended for those that rolled the dice on Buster Posey.

    • James McCann & Wellington Castillo: White Sox

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. McCann is not going to hit .382 this year – not even north of .300, but Castillo will not hit .186 all year either. With an average career rate of .252 we get an approximate floor to work with, which isn’t half bad as far as catchers go. Their 7 home runs, 20 RBI and 20 runs scored would put them right behind the current league leader Willson Contreras.

McCann is posting the best ISO and hard hit rate of his career so he might be able to hit for a higher average than normal and show a little more power, but he is showing poorer contact, specifically in the zone, and the BABIP is due to come crashing down. Between these things I think we’ll get an average just north of .260 – anything more is a bonus. Castillo’s improved (and career high) contact rate and unfortunate BABIP (.217) suggest a turnaround, but with a drop of 10 percentage points in his hard hit rate, I would not get my hopes up for a 20 HR season.

Worst case scenario you get an average between .220 and .240 with top-10 numbers in the three essential categories. Best case you get an average over .250 with 20+ home runs and run and RBI totals that rival the top-5. That said: with the White Sox still in rebuilding mode it would not surprise me if one or both these men are traded before the deadline. Keep that in mind come mid-season as you’ll want to be up on what’s on waivers before that day comes.

    • Jonathan Lucroy & Kevan Smith: Angels

Lucroy is just under or just over the 50% mark depending on the site you play on. If he is available this is another tandem to consider. The reason to be optimistic on Lucroy is he is showing more patience and selectivity at the plate. His Zone% (23.3) is six percentage points below his career average with just a minimal drop in O-Contact. His zone contact is improved even with a drop in swings, the F-Strike% is a career best, and while we’re not seeing more walks he is striking out less. The rest of his numbers are somewhat static suggesting he could improve some, but I don’t see him falling much lower (average or power wise) than what we see right now.

As for Mr. Smith, he’s a batting average, off-day replacement. Smith hit .283 and .292 the last two seasons as a backup so it’s not unreasonable to think he can’t hold his current .293 average. Like Lucroy, Smith is being very selective at the plate (a drop in both Z and O contact), yet his contact in both these areas have shown improvement. He was never one to strikeout much, and this year his improved F-Strike% has led to an increase in walks and a BB/K ratio of 1/1. He doesn’t have much power, but the average and additional counting stats are a welcome addition.

This tandem comes down to how well Lucroy produces; he was basically worthless the past two years but an asset prior to that. If Lucroy falls off you can move on. If he gets injured Smith could still have value depending on who comes in. That’s future speculation. For now I would have no issue using these two, and I actually am in one league so I am not just throwing random names out there – so you know.

Honorable Mention

    • Kurt Suzuki & Yan Gomes: Nationals

Suzuki’s success is well documented above. He has continued where he left off in Atlanta and is currently batting .254 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI. A spike in strikeouts and drop in contact will limit his batting average, but a spike in hard hit and ISO and soft contact below 10% means the bottom won’t fall out. View his as you have the past few years.

If Suzuki were paired with a different catcher I might give him a bump, but with an average of .233 or lower in four of the past five years it’s hard to trust him. Then again, maybe that’s my bias coming through as some of the players above aren’t exactly poster boys for consistency. Gomes has shown power in the past, but his ISO and Hard hit this year are below replacement level. And he is striking out at a career rate, and his soft contact rate ranks in the top-20, or bottom-20…, whichever, it’s unacceptable. That doesn’t mean he will do this all year (see, I can be optimistic).

Currently Suzuki and Gomes have combined for 13 runs, 25 RBI and 7 HR. If you don’t mind a .240 average they are worth combining in larger leagues, but just something to consider and monitor in 12 teamers.

Future considerations: combo’s to keep an eye on.

    • Russell Martin & Austin Barnes: Dodgers

Like Lucroy above, Martin has been an albatrose the past few seasons. Prior to that he was a player you could look to for 20 homers along with 70+ in each of the run and RBI categories. Some of the changes we’ve seen this year is he has abandoned all hope of hitting anything outside the zone so he’s stopped trying (10.8 O-Swing%). He is swinging and making better contact in the zone, his K% is below 20% for the first time since he left Pittsburgh, the walk rate is still strong, and he is hitting the ball harder than anytime in his career. The only negative is his ISO resembles what you’d see from a replacement middle infielder (.103) and his soft contact is over 20% so you’ll be lucky to see double-digit HR, but he hits the ball hard enough the other times to suggest an average north of .250.

Barnes hit for a strong average in the minors and teased us in 2017 with a .289, but his average last year and currently is far from what we expected. Can Barnes get back to being a .280+ hitter? Yes. When will he get there is the question. If Barnes finds his stroke: he already has a hard hit rate of 37.7%, solid contact skills, patience, and enough power to hit at least 15 home runs (he has 4 right now).

Combined, these two have scored 25 runs. If Barnes can hit 15 home runs and Martin can throw in a handful you’ve got 20+. The RBIs will come will come with the power. However, none of this really matters if Barnes can’t hit. Keep an eye on him and be ready to make the move when he starts to roll (and Martin is still doing what he’s doing now).

    • Austin Hedges, Francisco Mejia & Austin Allen: Padres

Hedges was supposed to be the man in San Diego. Then the Padres acquired Mejia setting up a position battle. Both players have shown power, but neither one has been able to hit his weight in the majors (I mean that literally). Enter Austin Allen, a little talked about catcher (probably because he is consider weak defensively) who has done nothing but hit in the minors and is coming off consecutive 20+ home runs seasons. The Padres recently promoted Allen and he started Sunday at Colorado. Will Allen stick. Will Mejia be shifted to the outfield or be sent down? Will Hedges be sent down? So many questions, but so much power potential that you need to monitor the situation as it unfolds. I can see myself owning two of these catchers in the second half, but I can also see a scenario where I ignore San Diego catchers all together.

*****

I did not mention Minnesota’s Mitch Garver due to his ownership rate, but if you are a Garver owner I’d like to point out that if you also owned Jason Castro and subbed him in when Garver was off you’d have 5 more home runs, 12 more RBI, and 11 more runs scored than you currently do. Castro did hit for a similar average his first year with the Twins, and this year he is hitting more fly balls, showing way more power (48.6% hard hit, .367 ISO). His average is slightly capped by a drop in contact, but a .233 BABIP suggest he shouldn’t revert back to being a .200 hitter. If you own Garver then I’d consider adding Castro if you have the room.

*****

Is this a growing trend among major league teams, or is this more a result of there not being enough talent at the catcher position forcing teams to temporarily adapt? I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is this is strategy that can work now and pay dividends come season’s end. If you are looking for a potential top-10 catcher, the answer may be just a click (or in this case two clicks) away.

 

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Jim Finch

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The self proclaimed Grand High Exhausted Mystic Ruler of Fantasy Baseball. While I am not related to Jennie or Sidd Finch, I will attempt to uphold the integrity of the Finch family name as it relates to baseball.

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