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Daily Fantasy Strategy: Catchers

Detroit Tigers v Toronto Blue Jays
This is James McCann, lefty-basher.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It has been as exciting a start for positional weeks as we could make it here at Fake Teams. Really, you try talking about catchers for seven days straight. For me, sifting through some data with an eye on future MLB DFS lineup construction is an exciting end to this cursed position. Even if I am talking catchers, at least I can be dreaming of MLB DFS and the lineups to come.

Expect to see an overview like this one at the end of every positional week, and make sure to click back in on Monday for the start of first base week. Now let’s see what the backstops have to offer us, eh?

Catchers Can’t Hit

Catchers in the MLB have not compiled a cumulative batting average greater than .250 in any year since 2009. I know batting average isn’t an advanced metric, but that is nine years worth of data that we can’t ignore. Here are batting averages for catchers over the last five years, beginning with 2013 and ascending to 2017: .245, .244, .238, .242 and .245. If you marry that against the average of all MLB hitters over the same timeframe, you can deduce that catchers hit for less average, comparatively: .253, .251, .254, .255, .255. You can also deduce that big leaguers in general aren’t hitting for average, but that’s a point for another day.

Catchers Don’t Get on Base

In 2009, catchers managed a .322 on-base percentage, a threshold they have never reached since then. MLB hitters as a whole posted a .333 OBP in 2009 and are generally about 10 points higher than MLB catchers. For all MLB hitters, last year’s .324 mark and 2016’s .322 mark are well above the .315 and .310 marks that catchers posted.

Catchers Strike Out a Ton

In 2009, catchers struck out 17.7% of the time. Since then, that rate has increased every year except for 2015 (when it matched the 21.2% strikeout rate from 2014). The 22.3% strikeout rate of 2017 is the worst rate of strikeouts for catchers of all time. It is worth noting that MLB hitters also strike out a ton, though slightly less than catchers do. MLB hitters also set their own record last year, with a 21.6% strikeout rate. Still bad, but not quite as bad as catchers.

Catchers Don’t Run

Across 21,134 plate appearances in 2017, catchers stole a whopping 80 bases. In the years prior, catchers stole 82, 57, 46, and 73 bases (that’s all the way back to 2013). The other terrible position for stolen bases is first base, but first basemen have doubled the output of catchers over the years. Here are the last five years from first basemen: 175, 179, 159, 158 and 118. So, first basemen are bad at stealing bases, but catchers are terrible. Generally.

Catchers Have Some Power

Catchers have become more powerful over the last two seasons, mirroring the power surge of the MLB at large over that time. Last year’s .161 ISO from catchers is the highest mark of all time for backstops, and 2016’s mark of .150 is seventh-best all time. Over the same two-year stretch, MLB hitters as a whole managed marks of .171 and .162. Again we see that catchers are a solid 10 points behind MLB hitters as a whole.

Catchers Only Hit Home Runs?

I did find it a little curious that the slugging percentage for catchers from last year was only the ninth-best mark for catchers of all time—so apparently more strikeouts has a negative impact on total bases...who would have thought? All of this considered together just continually points me to one conclusion: with catchers, it’s a “home run or bust” affair.

You Should Play Cheap Catchers in MLB DFS

When I consider this large view of the catcher position, it is logical to discern that punting catcher in MLB DFS is a viable stratagem. Compared to the average for all MLB hitters, catchers hit less, get on base less, strike out more, steal considerably less bases, and have slightly less power. All of that is a generality, though. Splits are where we truly gain an advantage. And in the case of MLB DFS, that advantage is twofold since backups in good splits are generally priced much lower than starters.

The Cheap Splits

If you forego paying up for a low-power guy like Buster Posey, you can pay way down for a catcher in a good matchup/split/situation. Last year, MLB catchers slashed .245/.315/.406 with a .309 wOBA and .161 ISO. Uninspiring numbers, to be sure. Now consider a few less popular guys who crushed it in 2017 against southpaws:

Catchers vs. LHP in 2017

Player Name PA BB% K% OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+
Player Name PA BB% K% OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+
Kurt Suzuki 65 6.20% 9.20% 0.415 0.776 0.431 0.486 204
Robinson Chirinos 82 13.40% 22% 0.451 0.662 0.296 0.465 193
Chris Iannetta 94 13.80% 22.30% 0.404 0.563 0.263 0.409 148
James McCann 116 8.60% 13.80% 0.371 0.558 0.26 0.391 145
Austin Barnes 129 13.20% 15.50% 0.372 0.514 0.257 0.377 136
Travis d'Arnaud 97 10.30% 17.50% 0.371 0.523 0.221 0.37 132
Christian Vazquez 56 3.60% 14.30% 0.304 0.444 0.167 0.318 93

Those are only a few guys. There will be more who pop up in 2018. With catchers, the path is clear. Outside of paying up for a Gary Sanchez double-dong day or a J.T. Realmuto combo meal (HR/SB day), there are simply not many viable options worth paying up for. Just like I will in my season-long leagues, I will completely ignore Buster Posey. I will, however, consider Willson Contreras if the price is right.

Other than considering those high-end options, I will be punting catcher as often as I can in 2018. When you consider the variability of baseball (i.e. that even Mike Trout has 0-for-4 days) and the ownership those name-brand catchers will command, it makes even more sense to consistently punt them with a cheap guy in a good split.

I would love to hear any feedback or ideas for the future if anyone wants to share. The goal of this exercise and future efforts is to simply get better at a difficult daily fantasy game. Cheers.