It’s never too soon to plan for next year, so we might as well get catchers out of the way. Okay, maybe it is a wee bit too soon, as the World Series isn’t even finished yet. But I’m trying to individually dig into every player that I rank, and this is how soon I need to begin. I’m hoping to make it through every position before New Year’s...wish me luck.
Major shouts to the catcher position in 2019, which actually rebounded a bit power-wise in 2019. Check this out:
2017: .245/.315/.406, .161 ISO
2018: .232/.304/.372, .140 ISO
2019: .236/.308/.405, .168 ISO
That’s the highest ISO mark in recent memory, and I scanned as far as 2009 (10 years). So, at least 2019 wasn’t as worthless as 2018...right? Right. Just how much that can be attributed to the bouncy ball of 2019 remains to be seen. Next year will be interesting with regard to power—for all players, not just catchers.
We had six 20-homer backstops in 2017, five in 2018, and eight in 2019. And the eight was despite losing perennial 20-homer threat Salvador Perez. Gary Sanchez (34), Yasmani Grandal (28), J.T. Realmuto (25), and Willson Contreras (24) were the obvious guys. Okay, maybe Contreras wasn’t obvious heading into 2019, but he’s an obvious guy heading into 2020. Mitch Garver (31), Roberto Perez (24), Christian Vazquez (23), and Omar Narvaez (22) were the surprise additions...so perhaps we could be a tad leery of those guys given the bouncy ball. But we’ll see what the underlying numbers tell us before rushing to quick opinions.
Another Mariners backstop, Tom Murphy, banged out 18 homers in part-time duty. James McCann (18) had a torrid (BABIP-fueled) start and then cooled down, Carson Kelly (18) pushed for the 20-homer plateau in his first stint, and Jorge Alfaro (18) and Will Smith (15) had solid seasons as well. Other than these guys, we’ll probably start ascertaining which young guys could make a splash in 2020. I’m a fan of boring veteran production to a point, but there does come a point when that production is just too boring (Posey is the embodiment of this for me in 2020).
1 Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Age: 26 (27 in December)
Best trait: Career .271 ISO
Prodigious power at a crummy position is worth paying up for. Sanchez topped all backstops with 34 dingers in 2019 and his average rebounded to .232. You can pin the 62 runs and 77 RBIs on only 396 plate appearances. Sanchez’s 11.7 Brls/PA % ranked second in all of baseball among hitters with at least 50 batted ball events in 2019. Only Nelson Cruz (12.5%) was better. For a guy who qualifies at CATCHER, that is astounding.
2 J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
Age: 28 (29 in March)
Best trait: Career .278 hitter, annual 8+ steals threat, tons of volume
If you are in a weekly format and want to guarantee yourself the floor of at-bats that Realmuto can provide, you can settle for him instead of Sanchez. I’d rather take the pop of Sanchez and make do in the event of an injury, but Realmuto is coming off of what most would describe as an underwhelming 2019—and he still finished as the top catcher in the fake game. He’s the rare guy who can offer speed at this position, as his nine swipes from 2019 shows (he was 9-for-10). Statcast data backs that up, as Realmuto’s sprint speed is in the 89th percentile for the MLB—not just among catchers. Again, that a catcher can be that elite in a certain area is fantastic. Realmuto seems to have settled in with regard to a few areas, with back-to-back years of a 14.4 degree launch angle and expected batting averages of .278 and .274 over that stretch. The career .278 batting average is not a mirage and contributes to Realmuto’s floor, which is the highest among all catchers.
3 Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
Age; 27 (28 in May)
Best trait: A mix of batting average and power, tons of volume
A big jump in hard hit rate sticks out, from 33.3% in 2018 to 41.5% in 2019. If you like raw data, Contreras had 30 barrels in 2019, four more than he had in 2018 (26). However, Contreras posted those 30 barrels despite having 135 less plate appearances and 97 fewer batted ball events. A .249 XBA is pretty ordinary, but a rebound in XSLG in 2019 now makes Contreras’ anemic 10-homer campaign two years ago look like the outlier. Consider these XSLG marks by year, 2016-2019: .459, .494, .370, .461. One of those is not like the other. Contreras reads like a 20-homer threat in a quality lineup, one who should receive a ton of playing time. He wasn’t in my circle of trust heading into 2019, but he is now.
4 Yasmani Grandal, Milwaukee Brewers
Age: 30 (31 in November)
Best trait: Career .205 ISO, switch-hitter
Grandal will be 31 years old in 2020, but we can’t write off a guy who annually bashes 20+ homers. Grandal has totaled 27, 22, 24, and 28 homers from 2016-2019. In 2019, he posted the lowest strikeout rate during that four-year stretch (22.0%), as well as his highest walk rate (17.2%). So you can definitely trust the power. However, you can also trust the low batting average (career .241 hitter). Grandal’s XBA marks since 2015: .226, .238, .217, .222, and .236. Grandal is also way down in the 10th percentile for sprint speed, so we can trust his career .280 BABIP, too. A .240 average with .20+ homers seems like the floor, but give Grandal a solid boost in OBP leagues.
5 Mitch Garver, Minnesota Twins
Age: 28 (29 in January)
Best trait: Last year’s .357 ISO
Garver was in the 97th percentile for hard hit rate in 2019, as well as 94th percentile for xSLG. For reference, Gary Sanchez was 65th and 92nd, respectively. Garver’s power is outstanding, as he slugged 31 homers in only 311 at-bats and finished as the No. 2 catcher in the fake game. Also, Garver ranked 12th in the MLB with 9.7 Brls/PA% in 2019. Again, a catcher being this elite with regard to barrels is just epic. Depending on Grandal’s landing spot (and format) I may bump Garver up a spot.
6 Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
Age: 24 (25 in March)
Best trait: Athleticism could mean 5+ steals, solid power
Smith has some strikeout woes, checking in at a 26.5% rate during his 2019 debut. However, he also posted a .318 ISO and 132 wRC+, and was a 10% strikeout hitter in college. The spike in strikeout rate as a pro can be attributed to adding a good bit of loft—for instance, Smith’s 23.7 degree launch angle is more than double the MLB average of 11.2 degrees. And while the batting average might be on the lower end, Smith’s ability to draw a walk will buoy his final stat line. Think Yasmani Grandal lite.
7 Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
Age: 29 (30 in May)
Best trait: Power, and generally tons of volume
It’s a shame we didn’t see Perez—coming off of back-to-back 27-homer seasons—with the juiced ball in 2019. If he’s healthy, he should be a lock for a .245+ batting average and 20 homers, with upside for a little more.
8 Wilson Ramos, New York Mets
Age: 32 (turns 33 next August)
Best trait: Above-average contact rates, high batting average (career .275)
I compared Ramos to Contreras prior to 2019, as the two were pretty close in ADP. Ramos read like the better pure hitter, but was obviously older (and much slower). In 2019, Ramos chipped in with a .288 batting average, the highest mark of any catcher in the MLB last year (minimum 250 PA). He also finished as the 8th best catcher in the fake game, while the aforementioned Contreras finished sixth. Ramos only had 14 homers—or one more than the year prior, despite 108 more plate appearances in 2019. The culprit was likely the career-worst 19.2% fly ball rate (and corresponding worm-killing 62.4% ground ball rate). Ramos is still above-average in exit velocity, hard hit rate, and xBA...but apparently that doesn’t matter when your launch angle is ZERO. That’s right, a 0.0 degree launch angle. Ramos won’t go away totally in 2020, as his 13.2% strikeout rate ranked inside the top 9% of the league, and his 407 batted ball events ranked 73rd in the league (which is a really solid mark for a catcher). For reference, only J.T. Realmuto was better, at 423 (ranked 61st). But this is a sum-of-all-the-parts sort of play. Don’t draft him expecting a breakout at age 32. Instead, he’s boring/cheap/veteran production—and maybe you catch a few more homers if he hits a few more fly balls in his second year in Philly.
9 Omar Narvaez, Seattle Mariners
Age: 27 (28 in February)
Best trait: Career .276 BA and .317 BABIP
Narvaez is a bit of a conundrum. For starters, he banged out 22 homers and finished as the 9th best catcher in the fake game. He was sixth in hits among catchers, with 119...and he did this by ranking fifth in games and plate appearances among backstops. Also among catchers, he ranked fourth with a .353 OBP, despite a three-year low in BABIP (.306). That was the good. Now for the bad...his Statcast numbers are pretty damning. He had only 18 barrels this year on 339 batted balls, a rate of 5.3% (below the 6.3% MLB average). He set a career-high with an average exit velocity of 85.4 mph, but the issue is that that mark ranks inside the bottom 8% of the league. He did hit the ball a bit harder in 2019, and he raised his launch angle from 13.0 degrees to 17.8. This shows up in his batted ball profile, as Narvaez’s fly ball rate rose from 29.0% in 2018 to 40.5% in 2019...a marked change from any of Narvaez’s three previous years. Lifting the ball that much and getting tons of opportunity are good things. I like the volume we can project, as his fellow backstop (Tom Murphy) should play mostly against lefties. I just don’t trust him quite as much as I do Ramos—who has the longer track record.
10 Carson Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks
Age: 25 (turns 26 next July)
Best trait: Bashes southpaws, Grandal-esque walk rate
I didn’t have Kelly on any of my teams, so I’m purely rolling off of the numbers. Kelly’s line against lefties really propped up his overall line, as he slashed .356/.462/.667 in that split—compared to .203/.303/.405 against righties. Sure, he’ll face far more right-handers, but that lefty-mashing skill is pretty bankable. Any growth at all against righties, and Kelly should dramatically improve upon 2019’s finish as the 17th best catcher in the fake game. His 18 homers in 2019 were tied for 9th among backstops, and his 13.2% walk rate was second only to Yasmani Grandal (min. 250 PA). Kelly’s .232 ISO ranked 5th among all catchers (again, min. 250 PA)...and Kelly’s 21.6% strikeout rate was better than all four of the catchers who ranked ahead of him in ISO (Garver, Sanchez, Murphy, and Contreras). The arrow seems to be pointing up.
11 Travis d’Arnaud, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 30 (31 in February)
Best trait: Low K-rate (career 17.9%) for a free-ish swinger (50.3% swing rate)
What an unlikely story for 2019: d’Arnaud gets released by the Mets on May 3 after being DFA’d in late April. He went to LA to catch one game for the Dodgers (as their third option at backstop) and was then sent to the Rays for cash. Taking over primary catching duties for the injured Mike Zunino, d’Arnaud turned in a stellar season as the 11th best catcher in the fake game, slugging 16 homers and posting 69 RBIs (only five catchers had more RBIs despite d’Arnaud ranking 15th among catchers in plate appearances). I have no complaints with his Statcast data, as d’Arnaud is above average with a 7.7% barrel rate and 14.6 degree launch angle. He’s also above-average in exit velocity, in the 69th percentile. I like that he beefed his walk rate up to 8.2% and kept his strikeout rate at a tolerable 21.7% rate while hitting the ball much harder (a 41.5% hard hit rate per Fangraphs, despite a career 33.6% rate). I’ll be interested to see what happens to his playing time situation, but I’m in on this skill set again in 2020. He’s a candidate to move up ahead of Narvaez and Kelly in my opinion, but right now I’m holding off a tick to see where he’s playing in 2020.
12 Jorge Alfaro, Miami Marlins
Age: 26 (27 in June)
Best trait: 90th percentile for speed, inflates his batting average (offsetting his high K-rate)
The 26-year-old rapped out 18 homers and swiped four bags in 2019. He was caught stealing four times, too. That may not sound like a big deal, but Alfaro is speedy and this Marlins team is the same one that used to let Realmuto run. The Marlins have to manufacture runs somehow...right? Only Realmuto (9), Yadier Molina (6), and Yasmani Grandal (5) had more steals than Alfaro in 2019—and Alfaro had more attempts than everyone except Realmuto, who had 10. Alfaro’s sprint speed puts him in the 90th percentile for major leaguers, or one tick ahead of Realmuto. That sprint speed contributes to his high BABIPs, as the last two season-long marks for Alfaro are .404 and .364, respectively. This helps him outperform his XBA marks of .233 and .246 over the same two years—so a career .266 batting average seems indicative of his full skill set. Alfaro only needs to continue trimming his bloated strikeout rate, and we might have something special.
13 Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics
Age: 25 (26 next October)
Best trait: Plus defense means he’ll get a long leash
Here’s a great read from SB Nation’s own Athletics Nation site. Murphy outperformed expectations in his call-up at the end of the season, slashing .245/.333/.566 with four homers. It’s a small sample, but a healthy 27.0% line drive rate and studly 56.8% pull rate are nice. He’s a defense-first sort of guy, so we’ll have to pay attention to his bat in the early going. But he should get enough opportunity to be relevant if he can keep it up with the stick.
14 Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays
Age: 24 (25 in April)
Best trait: Power (lot of hard%, pulled balls, and fly balls)
Jansen was pretty solid during the summer, posting BA marks of .246 (June), .240 (July), and .245 (August) over that time. He also had 10 homers over that stretch. Problem was the REALLY SLOW start, with marks of .182 (Mar/Apr) and .143 (May). The other problem was the slow finish, at .182 in Sept/Oct. The final problem is fellow Blue Jays catcher Reese McGuire, who was really solid in his call-up (.299/.346/.526). So there are definitely some concerns for Jansen heading into 2020. However, he’s still young, and the horribly slow start last year can be attributed to that youth. He pulls a lot of balls, hits a lot of fly balls, and makes a lot of hard contact...which we know is a recipe for success, generally. Among all backstops with 250 PA, Jansen ranked 7th in hard hit rate (42.4%) and first in pull rate (53.5%). Add in that he has a career 20.0% strikeout rate (not bad) over his short stint in the Majors, and I’m intrigued. This competition with McGuire is one that I will pay attention to heading into 2020. And even if McGuire siphons away at-bats, Jansen could slug enough homers to stay relevant at a historically thin position.
15 Francisco Mejia, San Diego Padres
Age: 24 (25 next October)
Best Trait: Hit tool
Mejia could slug his way into relevance, as his .297/.349/.494 line over his last 60 games of 2019 shows. Austin Hedges will still have a role due to his defensive prowess, but Mejia has the tools to be a top-12 asset despite being a part-timer. If we get clarity on Mejia logging the lion’s share of at-bats in San Diego, he’s a candidate to somersault up this list, even into the top five or six options. Stay tuned.
16 Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox
Age: 29 (30 in August)
Best trait: Making contact, playing time
Vazquez beefed up his barrel rate, from an anemic 1.9% in 2018 to a right-at-average 6.2% in 2019. His exit velocity of 88.7 mph is a hair above average (87.5) and his 12.9 degree launch angle is as well (11.2 degree average). Vazquez is 70th percentile in pop time and 74th percentile in framing...but he’s below average in exit velo, hard hit rate, xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG. This seems pretty damning given the bouncy ball of 2019. Anyway, he’s pretty solid at making contact, so there’s that. But it’s tough to get excited about him for 2020. If he gets a ton of playing time with Boston, he will probably fall into usefulness in two-catcher leagues.
17 Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Age: 37 (38 next July)
Best trait: High contact rates, plus in batting average
Think Wilson Ramos lite, and you’ll know what you are getting into. It’s tough not to be ageist, but Molina keeps producing at a decent level...and his playing time is a bit more assured than some of the guys who come after. However, last year’s power outage has me looking elsewhere. Molina is ranked this high based on volume alone.
18 Kurt Suzuki, Washington Nationals
Age: 36 (37 next October)
Best trait: Low strikeout rate, solid power over the last three years
Suzuki is devoted to his fitness, and it shows up in his game. In part-time duty over the last three seasons, he has posted home run counts of 19, 12, and 17. He has been a plus in batting average over that stretch, with marks of .283, .271, and .264. He doesn’t strike out much, with a career 11.7% strikeout rate. Suzuki has increased his fly ball and pull rates during these last three years, and has settled into a 23% line drive rate over the last two seasons. He has also posted the three highest swing rates of his career over these three seasons, and that coincides nicely with his three highest zone swing rates—and Suzuki set a career-high with a 75.4% Z-Swing% in 2019. He reads like a veteran whose eye has become pretty advanced. He may not log 400 plate appearances, but as someone you can manage in your daily lineups (or as a second catcher) he should be pretty sneaky in 2020. And for the Statcast heads out there, his AEV marks are average, but his launch angle has risen (and held steady) right around 18 degrees over the last three seasons. Again, he reads like a guy who has refined his approach and his swing at the plate. I’m sold on Suzuki as a second catcher in 2020.
19 James McCann, Chicago White Sox
Age: 29 (turns 30 next June)
Best trait: Hits it hard!
McCann’s .390 BABIP in the first half tailed off, and the resulting .273 batting average on the season is a bit misleading. However, McCann’s xBA of .252 isn’t too shabby (for a catcher) and is believable due to an above-average 9.2% barrel rate, 67th percentile mark in exit velocity, and 76th percentile in hard hit rate. McCann set a four-year high with a 13.5% swinging strike rate, but he also finished a hair above-average in Z-Swing% at 68.9%. He’s a useful power bat and a thin catcher spot, in my opinion. Even if Zack Collins breaks camp with the team, his defense is suspect and there’s an idea floating around that he may wind up as a DH or first baseman. If I get clarity on this situation, McCann could easily be a top-12 catcher in my ranks. I’ll stay tuned on this catching situation, for sure. Give me all this power in that Chicago home park.
20 Robinson Chirinos, Houston Astros
Age: 35 (turns 36 next June)
Best trait: Power, good team context
A lot of swing-and-miss, but a healthy walk rate makes him viable in your fancy OBP leagues. He’s logged home run totals of 17, 18, and 17 in his last three seasons. His swinging strike rate has risen every year since 2012, so that’s a concerning trend. You’re getting power here, but that’s about it.
21 Tom Murphy, Seattle Mariners
Age: 28 (29 in April)
Best trait: Lefty-bashing, plus defense will keep him in a defined role
There’s no reason for Seattle to alter what they have at backstop, as Narvaez (22) and Murphy (18) combined for a whopping 40 home runs at the catcher position. In fact, Narvaez and Murphy combined for the highest wRC+ for a catching crew in all of the MLB in 2019. Nutso. Murphy slashed .347/.408/.695 against southpaws, with a .347 ISO and .450 wOBA. Against right-handers he posted an anemic .211/.252/.401 slash and .190 ISO. So it should be Narvaez in that split. But Murphy’s ability to frame and to throw out runners will keep him in the lineup on a consistent basis. His ghastly 31.0% strikeout rate means he won’t be a plus in batting average, though. And he’s not historically been an OBP asset, though his .324 mark in 2019 was tolerable. I’d like him best in a daily format with a deep bench where I could manage him and maximize his at-bats against lefties.
22 Tucker Barnhart, Cincinnati Reds
Age: 28 (29 in January)
Best trait: Identifiable change in approach that we can rest on
Barnhart had a lousy first half that culminated with a stay on the IL due to a strained oblique. He returned at the end of July, with a change in his hitting approach—he was focusing on reading the ball longer and on being more selective. The numbers support the new approach, as Barnhart slashed .191/.290/.315 with a 26.7% strikeout rate in the first half and .273/.367/.448 with a 18.6% strikeout rate in the second half. His overall Statcast numbers don’t look great, but at a weak position I like the idea of Barnhart as a dart-throw for my C2 position in 2020. He’s young and he’s in a great park—if he sustains some of this production he’ll be a viable C2.
23 Roberto Perez , Cleveland Indians
Age: 30 (31 in December)
Best trait: Ability to barrel, hit for power (when he hits it)
Can he duplicate 2019’s power, or was he a product of the bouncy ball? Put differently, he’s coming off of his most useful season ever, but in that season he had a .222 xBA, which ranked inside the bottom 6% of the MLB. The 11.0% barrel rate was elite, but the issue is the 28.3% strikeout rate. He’s a career .216 hitter, and he’s had some truly barren seasons with regard to batting average. If you think he can sustain an average around last year’s .239 mark, then by all means let his power fall to you. In my book he is an uninspiring C2 option, though.
24 Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Age: 32 (turns 33 in March)
Best trait: Low strikeout rate (traditionally)
Posey hit 24 homers...over the last three seasons combined. Posey is 9th percentile in sprint speed, 38th percentile in exit velocity, and 34th percentile in hard hit rate. He’s well above average in framing (80th percentile) but at this stage of his career and in the unfriendly home park environs, he’s a really boring option. Even his strikeout rate ballooned last year, from around 11% in the previous three seasons to 16.0% in 2019. His expected batting average was at an all-time low last year, and that xBA mark has worsened every year since 2015 (when Statcast became a thing). We can’t count on him for speed, power, or batting average...and we don’t get points for framing...so you know what to do.
25 Pedro Severino , Baltimore Orioles
Age: 26 (turns 27 next July)
Best trait: Lefty-masher
Severino is another part-time lefty-basher, along the same lines as Tom Murphy. Difference is, Severino’s platoon partner is Chance Sisco, who will likely have to fight for a roster spot. So why isn’t Severino ranked higher? Well, I imagine the Orioles bring in another catcher to try to make that spot better. I’m pretty much banking on Severino being a part-timer. If, however, Baltimore stands pat—Severino would move up this board quite a bit based on 2019’s power surge and his home hitting environs. He had a .273/.323/.490 slash and .217 ISO against lefties in 2019.
Who did I miss? Who am I too high or low on? Remember, it’s only November and this is the first pass. These ranks are sure to be different by the time we roll into positional week coverage. Let me know in the comments below!