Deep Auction League Strategy: Drafting Catchers & Replacement Value

Ezra Shaw

A discussion on the valuations and drafting strategy of the weakest position in your lineup: catchers.

As everyone knows, catchers are the weakest hitting position in your lineup. Many owners don't know that how you fill your lineup throughout an auction and your approach to drafting catchers can really matter when it comes to the last player or two you'll take for $1, which can often be a catcher for many owners. At the end of every auction owners are finishing out their lineups on the weakest available hitters, and we've all been in the position where we need to take a $1 player with nobody desirable to take. Does it matter who that player (or players) could be?

So let's look at a scenario. The following are currently my twenty projected $1 players in my 12-team AL 4x4 league*: Robert Andino, Quintin Berry, Mike Carp, Pedro Florimon, Sam Fuld, Johnny Giavotella, Anthony Gose, Elliot Johnson, Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina, Daniel Nava, Jayson Nix, Brayan Pena, Austin Romine, David Ross, Scott Sizemore, Geovany Soto, Chris Stewart, Danny Valencia, and Jemile Weeks. If you had to take two of those players as your $1 hitters, who would you choose? Who would you avoid? Note that a disproportionate number of $1 players - seven of the twenty - are catchers, and I would definitely avoid them, especially those that are the backups. Here's why:

They aren't good hitters. Most often backup catchers are backups because of their defensive ability, not because of their hitting and they are also usually the worst hitters on every major league team. There are some instances where a decent hitting $1 catcher can be found like David Ross or Hector Sanchez, but this is often the exception to the rule.

They are not going to get at-bats. As I've stated before the goal for your offense is to get as many at-bats as possible. In many cases the backup catcher is there as an emergency for the starting catcher; he is not going to play much, maybe 40 percent of the time but more often every fifth day. The only pathway to playing time is if one guy - the #1 catcher - gets injured. If your $1 player is, say, a utility infielder or a fourth outfielder, there are multiple players ahead of him in the team depth chart where if one gets injured that can open up a spot for him.

They do not play another position other than catcher. If we were to use the 20-game position requirement from last season, there are only five players who qualify at catcher (Ryan Doumit, Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana and Buster Posey) who also qualify at a fielding position outside of catcher, and all are worth much more than $1 in deep leagues. In comparison with the next weakest hitting position(s) - middle infielders - there are thirteen middle infielders who will qualify at a position outside of second base and shortstop that can help a team get more at-bats.

They are not easily replaceable. In a typical AL- and NL-only league where there are twelve owners, if we assume that fifteen MLB teams have one primary catcher and one backup, then three owners in those leagues will have two full-time catchers while the other nine will need to take a backup. Those nine owners are generally going to be stuck with that second catcher because 1) the available free agent catchers are just as undesirable as the backup that owner has, and 2) if a top catching prospect does come up from the minors, say, Travis d'Arnuad or Mike Zunino, then all nine teams will be gunning for those guys if they're not already on a reserve squad.

In deep leagues, the replacement value of any $1 catcher is somewhat similar - maybe a little less - to hitters in other positions, meaning that the free agent pool of players not taken in the draft all provide similar production regardless if they are a catcher, shortstop or outfielder. So while the replacement value of a $1 catcher in a deep league might be in line with other $1 players, you are forgoing the reasons I stated above - the possible flexibility and higher potential value you might get with, say, a $1 outfielder.

When the type of league drifts into shallower territory, catcher valuations become more negative because among the universe of hitters chosen, the average offensive production of non-catchers deviates farther away from the production of the catchers. Also, unlike a deep league where the replacement value of a catcher is somewhat similar to a free agent of any position, in a shallow league the value of a free agent catcher is much, much worse than a free agent non-catcher.

Taking a look at a shallow league's results - the recent Fangraphs mixed league mock auction - there were 14 owners bidding on players from all 30 MLB teams. Here are both my projections as well as the results of all catcher bids in that auction:


Projected

Dollar Value

Actual

Dollar

Value

Price

Overbid

Buster Posey

24

33

9

Joe Mauer

15

25

10

Yadier Molina

15

18

3

Carlos Santana

13

20

7

Matt Wieters

12

21

9

Victor Martinez

11

12

1

Mike Napoli

10

13

3

Wilin Rosario

8

10

2

Jesus Montero

7

11

4

Brian McCann

3

9

6

Jonathan Lucroy

2

11

9

Miguel Montero

2

14

12

Ryan Doumit

1

5

4

Salvador Perez

1

0

14

14

A.J. Pierzynski

1

0

4

4

Carlos Ruiz

1

-1

6

7

Alex Avila

1

-2

6

8

Russell Martin

1

-3

2

5

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

1

-6

3

9

J.P. Arencibia

1

-6

6

12

Chris Iannetta

1

-9

1

10

Rob Brantly

1

-10

No Bid

John Jaso

1

-10

6

16

A.J. Ellis

1

-12

No Bid

Wilson Ramos

1

-13

1

14

Welington Castillo

1

-13

1

14

Jason Castro

1

-13

No Bid

Derek Norris

1

-15

1

16

Yasmani Grandal

-

-18

7

25

Travis d'Arnuad

-

-19

1

20

Mike Zunino

-

-23

1

24

Owners in the auction spent 68% of their budgets on offense and drafted 29 $1 hitters, so the first column are my projections based off those numbers. Out of a pool of 196 total hitters, I projected the least valuable 13 hitters should all be catchers, many of which are team's #1 starters. The values in the second column are the actual values for those catchers whose $1 bid would be an overbid since their actual values are zero or negative. Note the extreme negative valuations as this is what will happen in a shallow 2-catcher league.

The third and fourth columns are the actual auction prices of the catchers, and how much each was an overbid. Note that every catcher went for an amount greater than either his projected value or his actual value (if less than $1). So while you think that a $25 bid on Joe Mauer might be an overbid of $10, it is as similar of an overbid to getting Chris Iannetta at $1, whose value is -$9. Just because you bid $1 on someone does not mean that is their approximate value. I should note that the extreme negative valuations can be highly sensitive to the projections - a few more at-bats/hits/home runs/RBI can easily change Chris Iannetta's negative value higher.

Since the degree of replacement value of catchers varies depending on the deepness or shallowness of a league, there will some degree of overbidding on catchers, because no owner wants to (or shouldn't want to) be stuck with a $1 backup. So to what degree do you overbid for a catcher in a deep league? Here is where it is important to know the actual negative valuation of those $1 catchers so that you can approximate what the overbidding could be.

Personally, I like to focus on the "middle round" catchers because they are everyday catchers who will get the needed at-bats, and I've minimized my spending. If this was a 4x4 league, I'd avoid the most expensive catchers simply because I do not like to spend a lot of money on guys who, typically, will not steal bases. This is less of a case for 5x5 leagues. So if I had taken part in the Fangraphs draft, I would have focused somewhere in the Wilin Rosario-to-Miguel Montero range of catchers although if anyone was available for only a $1 or $2 more than his projected value (i.e. Victor Martinez), I would have bid on him as well.

Next up: Drafting Infielders versus Outfielders

* The list of 20 guys is just based strictly on raw projections without any adjustments, so for now ignore the fact that the two main guys battling for Oakland's second base job are both on the list - whoever wins the job will definitely not be worth $1.

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