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State of the Position: Catcher

A survey of MLB catchers with a fantasy baseball slant.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

2019 brings a lot of uncertainty behind the dish. This position offers only a pair of elite options, ones you will need to pay up for. And there seems to be a clear-cut eight guys, then after that proverbial hell breaks loose. For my part, I encourage you to wait a bit on a catcher. Try not spend a top 100 pick on a backstop. Instead, wait for a guy like Grandal, who is powerful and in a prime hitter’s locale (and currently sporting an NFBC ADP of 156). But let’s get into the overview, eh? The sooner we do, the sooner it will be over, after all—and all this catcher business can be behind us.

Basic Stats

.232/.304/.372 triple slash

8.0% walk rate, 23.5% strikeout rate, .140 ISO

.296 wOBA, 84 wRC+

As you can tell, catchers aren’t generally a quality source of offense. The above numbers represent the league totals for all MLB backstops in 2018. Thankfully, there are a few starting options that outperform the above numbers.

The Elites: J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez

J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez each have an ADP of 57 according to recent NFBC data. They are the 1A and 1B options for 2019, and despite Sanchez’s struggles in 2018 there is hope for a rebound. Sanchez slashed .186/.291/.406 with 18 home runs a year ago, but his .197 BABIP was the worst of any catcher I reviewed after 2018 ended. Of those catchers I reviewed, Sanchez had the highest discrepancy in actual batting average versus expected batting average (xBA) a year ago. I think with a little better luck he’s at least giving us a .225 average—something well above last year’s mark.

Realmuto doesn’t offer the same sort of power, but he comes with more of a floor and the added potential of likely being traded away from the atrocious hitting environs of Marlins Park. For what it’s worth, in 2018 Realmuto had a .175 ISO and eight of his 21 homers at home, but a .236 ISO and 13 home runs on the road. Let’s hope Miami lowers their trade expectations enough to allow another team to wrangle Realmuto away sometime soon. But even if they don’t, Realmuto’s floor in Miami is still worthy of top billing as the best fantasy catcher in the game.

The Middle (Veteran Tier)

After the top two, there is a glut of names that could fly off the board at any order. I’m calling it the “veteran tier,” since it contains some pretty familiar dudes. Perhaps someone feels strongly about a Buster Posey rebound, or prefers the consistent power of Salvador Perez. Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal, Yadier Molina, and Willson Contreras are other names that one could argue as being deserving of the No. 3 spot among backstops. For my part, I lean towards Grandal in Milwaukee as my preferred third option. You’ll sacrifice some batting average for sure, but you’re doing that with most catchers already. Meanwhile, the hitting environment in Milwaukee is prime and Grandal is an elite power source. Over the last three years (2016-2018) only Salvador Perez (76) has more home runs than Grandal (73) among catchers. Gary Sanchez checks in at third with 71, and Mike Zunino’s anchor of a batting average checks in a distant fourth with only 57. Note: I omitted Evan Gattis’s 69 homers due to the fact that he was a full-time DH in 2018 (only one at-bat as a catcher).

The Sleeper: Jorge Alfaro

There are many names that I could have mentioned, but this is meant to be a brief overview so I picked the guy I like. You’ll have plenty of time for more hot takes as we continue chatting about catchers all week! Anyway, I like Alfaro’s defense to keep him on the field, as only J.T. Realmuto and Yan Gomes bested Alfaro’s 1.94 average pop time to second base in 2018. That, and Alfaro’s 90.8 mph arm strength was tops in the Majors last year. The Phillies have publicly stated their confidence in Alfaro’s receiving and framing abilities, so all there’s left to do is hit...

Alfaro struck out 138 times last year, or a whopping 36.6% of the time. But he also managed to bat .262 with 10 home runs in limited duty. His .406 BABIP was fortuitous, but he hit the ball well (37.7% hard%) and had a healthy 23.2% line drive rate. He also has some wheels, period. I don’t even have to say “for a catcher.” Alfaro’s 28.3 ft/sec sprint speed was only a hair behind the speediest catcher, J.T. Realmuto (28.6 ft/sec) and solidly above the MLB average (27 ft/sec). So while the BABIP will most likely come down, the hard contact and the wheels give Alfaro something of a floor in the batting average department. Lastly, Alfaro trimmed his strikeout rate in every month of 2018, and if he can offer something in the low 30% range he should surprise us all with some solid production at a horrible position. I’m really into him as my second catcher in two-catcher formats, but I think he can be a Top 12 guy, too.

The Guy to Avoid: Tucker Barnhart

This isn’t really a knock on Barnhart as a big-leaguer. It’s more of a knock on his profile, a la why I dislike Eric Hosmer at the first base position. I want power from my catcher, much like I want power from my first baseman. Barnhart doesn’t offer that (yet) despite hitting the ball hard. He can get on base, but he doesn’t generate enough loft (around a 30% fly ball rate) and his ability to generate barrels is well below the MLB average (only 3.5% last year). For reference, Jorge Alfaro hits a similar amount of fly balls but boasts barrel rates of 9.5% and 10.6% over his first two MLB seasons—well above the 6.1% average for all MLB players. I want some power upside from my backstop, and Barnhart hasn’t shown that ability.

The Prospect to Watch: Danny Jansen

Here is what Dave said about Danny Jansen in his Top 50 MLB Prospects piece:

“Double-digit homers and a neutral batting average from a catcher is surely an asset in a 14-team league. Jansen nearly walked as much as he struck out in Triple-A and has a nice floor in addition to a high ceiling (for a catcher). He should garner the majority of the starts behind the plate this season and would see his stock tick up even higher if the Jays unloaded Russell Martin.”

Welp, the Blue Jays just unloaded Russell Martin to the Dodgers last week, so Jansen is the most obvious catcher prospect that is a “riser” in 2019. It doesn’t take much to be an impact backstop, and with Jansen’s opportunity and ability to make contact he has a great chance to finish as a starting-caliber option this year.

Lastly, @zackwaxman made a great point in our staff Slack chat last night, regarding chasing some upside in the form of youth—Carson Kelly did receive three Top 30 votes from our group of rankers, but he didn’t get votes from everyone. The overall point is, once you reach the really ugly tier of backup catchers, it is advisable to ignore those guys and chase some upside. Kelly is one such name, one you will hear about as Catcher Week continues!

Stay tuned for more this week and feel free to let us know in the comments or on Twitter if there is a specific catcher you’d like to hear more about!