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State of the Position: Catchers in 2021

Heath surveys MLB catchers with a fantasy baseball slant.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Two years ago, J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez were the 1A and 1B options atop the catcher ranks. Last year, Realmuto was the undisputed top man, while Sanchez and Yasmani Grandal were 2A and 2B (I told you to nab Grandal). In both years, there was a clear-cut top eight or nine batters. 2021 looks a little different, and mostly in a good way. I think there’s a bit more depth at this position than in recent years.

The Elite: J.T. Realmuto

At the time of the State of the Position heading into 2019 and 2020, JTR’s ADP has been 57 and 54, respectively. Entering 2021, it’s now 36.78 (per January NFBC data). He has a min. pick of 28 and a max pick of 54 this month. So his max pick this year is where he was being taken on average last year. I don’t have any qualms about the player, but the ADP is tough to stomach, if I’m being honest. I like him best in two-catcher formats, and hopefully into Round 4 instead of as my third pick. For reference, I landed him at pick 42 in my most recent 12-team NFBC draft. I’m happy with him in that format and in that spot. I’m also a fan of JTR in any large overall competition, such as the Draft Champions format at the NFBC or The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational (TGFBI). In your run-of-the-mill one-catcher formats, though, I’m likely out on Realmuto. It’s pretty brutal to watch quality starting catchers lounge around on the draft board some 150 picks after Realmuto gets drafted. Don’t do that to yourself in those formats. Instead, pay up for some five-category stud and/or another stud pitcher in Rounds 3 and 4. You can draft Sean Murphy waaaaay later.

The Core Four: Salvador Perez, Will Smith, Willson Contreras, Yasmani Grandal

Within this group of four, I think people are overlooking Perez’s fortuitous .375 BABIP from 2020. Last year’s .333 BA is a mirage. If you’re drafting him based on his power, fine. But don’t expect him to be a plus in batting average. And anyway, I don’t see why you’d need to pay for Perez around pick 80 when the other three catchers in this tier are available after.

Of the three, Smith honestly gives me the most pause. He slugged 35 homers across Triple-A and the majors in 2019, and then popped eight in the shortened 2020 season (a 30-homer pace). But the platoon-happy Dodgers love Austin Barnes, who totaled 238 PA in 100 games in 2018—which meant Yasmani Grandal had 518 PA (140 games) instead of a mammoth season of opportunity. In 2019—the year of Smith’s call-up—it was Russell Martin (249 PA), Barnes (242 PA), and Smith (196 PA) essentially “thirding” the time. And in 2020, the split between Smith and Barnes was a lot closer to 50/50 than anyone would care to admit. Smith (37 G, 137 PA) bested Barnes (29 G, 104 PA) but not by as much as we’d like to see. Compare that to Willson Contreras seeing more volume than any other catcher in 2020 (he had 30 more PA than JTR) and Grandal now free from the legitimate bat of James McCann off the bench...I just don’t see why I’d pay for Smith. I love the skill set, but why not wait 30 picks later for Contreras or Grandal? For reference, last year we were drafting Grandal around pick 100. This year you can land him in the 120-140 range. My preference is to draft either Contreras or Grandal in this area if I miss out on Realmuto.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Murky Middle: Daulton Varsho, Travis d’Arnaud, Christian Vazquez, Sean Murphy

Okay, so it’s more murky recently given Varsho’s meteoric rise through the NFBC ADP ranks. He began the year as a low-end C1 option in the rankings sets that I saw, and now he’s being drafted far more aggressively. His January ADP even has him ahead of d’Arnaud, who has been the consensus sixth catcher off the boards for most of draft season. This group of four is being drafted from pick 150 to pick 167 on average, and I’m again happy to wait until the bottom of the grouping to land my guy. It sounds like Varsho isn’t viewed as a primary catcher by the Diamondbacks brass, and I’m wary of the price I’ll have to pay to land him. I like him in a large overall competition given the potential for speed, which is why you see his Draft Champions ADP skyrocketing. But in most formats I’m going to be boring and wait until the bottom of this tier if I need a catcher at this juncture. I dig Travis d’Arnaud in fantasy baseball and as a Braves fan, but his .411 BABIP from 2020 is only going to go down, and Atlanta could add another veteran backstop to eat into his playing time. The real gems here are Vazquez and Murphy, though...

Vazquez is about as boring as they come, but he has very quietly been a quality source of steals within the catcher ranks over the last couple of years. Over the last two seasons his eight steals trail only Realmuto (13). And if you go back three years it’s Realmuto (16), Vazquez (12), Yadier Molina (10), and Austin Barnes (10). Additionally, Vazquez’s four swipes in 2018 came in only 80 games. He stole seven bags in 99 games (2017), and stole four bags last year (47 games). Over the course of a full season, I don’t see why he couldn’t chip-in with 6-8 bags, and that feels conservative given his historical production and Boston’s probable need to manufacture runs.

As for Murphy, I’ll get more in depth on him as the week wears on. But he’s my seventh-ranked catcher off the boards, as I have him slotted just ahead of Vazquez and Varsho. In 2020, he ranked inside the top 10% of the league in hard hit rate and exit velocity, and was inside the top 3% of the league with a whopping 17.1% walk rate. In last year’s State of the Position, Murphy was the “prospect to watch.” Known as a solid defender even before the call-up, it’s his prowess with the stick that has been a nice surprise at the big league level. He’s slated to bat fifth in the Athletics lineup, which looks extremely top-heavy currently. I expect him to play a ton, so give me all of his skill set and volume in 2021.

The Sleepers: Buster Posey, Pedro Severino, Omar Narvaez

I’m employing a loose definition of the word “sleeper.” Mostly, these are guys I like to outperform their ADPs. Posey (273.22) is being drafted just ahead of the Toronto timeshare (Kirk and Jansen), as well as the yet unsigned Yadier Molina. But he’s been described as “a lock” to start behind the plate for the San Francisco Giants, after notably sitting out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns and choosing to stay home with his adopted twin daughters. He’s now over a full year removed from major hip surgery, and early reports on his physical shape have been encouraging. I’m just fine banking on the year away being the tonic Posey needed to make it through the last year of his nine-year deal with the Giants. Posey may not offer mammoth power, but I like him for batting average and counting stats, which is saying plenty at the catcher position.

I like Severino in an upstart Baltimore offense as the better offensive asset than Chance Sisco. While Sisco has slashed .211/.345/.389 with 12 homers over the last two years, Severino has hit .249/.321/.409 with 18 homers and four steals. The catching duo in Baltimore is pretty steady, and Severino would likely need an injury to Sisco to morph into a league-winning play. But as is, I think he’ll give us adequate power that makes him a reliable second catcher. With an ADP of 346.42, he’s the 23rd catcher off the boards per January NFBC data. I’ll easily take him over Yan Gomes, who is being drafted ahead.

Omar Narvaez was known as a strong batting average asset heading into 2021. And then the move to Milwaukee meant a renewed focus on his defense behind the plate. He was in the 100th percentile for framing in 2020, for reference! But one of these xBA marks is not like the other: .255, .266, .256, .262, and .173. For a guy who has historically outperformed his xBA marks and been a batting average asset, I’m banking on a return to form for Narvaez in 2021, and taking shots on him as a third catcher in draft-and-holds given his bargain ADP of 369. Manny Pina has generally been a platoon stick against lefty pitching, and he’ll probably reprise that role. But if Narvaez gets the lion’s share of at-bats in Milwaukee, he’ll be useful in comparison to where he’s being drafted.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Prospect to Watch: Tyler Stephenson

Stephenson is the No. 9 catcher prospect per MLB Pipeline, and was already a trendy draft-and-hold guy last year. The difference this year is we expect him to be a part of the Reds roster from the jump, as the backup to Tucker Barnhart. Former backup Curt Casali has moved on to San Francisco, so Stephenson will get his chance to make an impact in 2021. He’s improved his defense enough to profile as a guy who could be a starting MLB catcher, and has shown an ability to hit to all fields, as well as some power from the pull side. I’m excited to see if he can wrestle the lion’s share of opportunities away from Barnhart in 2021.