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State of the Position: Catchers in 2022

A survey of MLB catchers with a fantasy baseball slant.

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Most years you can count on a clear-cut top eight or so batters at the catcher position before the questions begin, and 2022 is no different. Three guys are being drafted inside the top 70 picks (Salvador Perez, JT Realmuto, Will Smith) and another three before pick 125 (Daulton Varsho, Yasmani Grandal, Willson Contreras). After that we start getting into the weeds, so we’ll start moving on with an overview of what to expect from catchers in 2022 fantasy baseball.

The Elite: Salvador Perez

He’s only entering his age-32 season, which is remarkable given that it feels like he’s been around forever. Perez managed to play in 161 games last year, an impressive feat given the tread on his tires and the fact that we were coming off of an abbreviated 2020 season. Perez’s 665 PA were a career-high by FAR. Betting on that happening again seems like folly.

Perez also posted an obscene 18.4% swinging strike rate, an ugly union with his career-high 58.9% swing rate 48.3% chase rate. It’s no secret that Perez is a free-swinger who isn’t interested in free passes, but in general the approach works for him. Last year’s 68.6% contact rate is ghastly, though, and something to monitor. In general, this is not the profile of a “safe” hitter.

That said, Perez’s 4.2% walk rate was the best of his career since his rookie season (4.4%). His .273 BA was in line with career norms and not BABIP-fueled like his banner 2020 (.375 BABIP, .333 BA). And in 2021, his .276 xBA coupled with another year of excellent batted ball quality help assuage some of my concerns about his free-swinging nature.

Here’s a fun fact: Perez’s barrel rate has ascended every single year since Statcast became a thing. Check out his marks since 2015: 5.3%, 6.3%, 9.4%, 10.8%, 13.9%, and 16.3%. Furthermore, last year he ranked inside the top 10% of the league or better in barrel rate, average EV, max EV, xSLG, XWOBACON, and hard hit rate. In short, he may not always make contact...but when he does, a baseball is getting obliterated.

In summation, I think Perez is a safe enough commodity at the catcher position. But I don’t like paying up this high for a catcher. I don’t like Perez’s free-swinging nature, though I admit that his historical ability to succeed despite being so aggressive means I have to accept that he can repeat. But I also don’t like missing out on a premium Round 3 pick who can offer me power AND speed, and I don’t like paying for a guy coming off of a career year. Maybe Perez won’t sink your team(s) in 2022, but he definitely won’t sink mine, as I won’t be targeting him aggressively.

2A and 2B: J.T. Realmuto vs. Will Smith

This isn’t really a debate, as the profiles are pretty different. Mostly I’m curious if Smith belongs...I didn’t roster him last year so it’s time to dig in.

Smith slugged 35 homers across Triple-A and the majors in 2019, then cracked eight in the abbreviated 2020 (roughly a 30-homer pace). Last year, he hit 25 homers in only 130 games, and he did so while batting .258 with a healthy 11.6% walk rate and only a 20.2% strikeout rate. He’s a little Muncy-esque in his approach, with last year’s 41.9% swing rate and 24.7% chase rate both well below league average. However, he did raise his swing rate by 3.7% from 2020—a positive trend given that his contact rate was still above average at over 80 percent. He looks like a really, really safe bet for 25 homers and a batting average that won’t destroy you. If I miss out on Realmuto, I’m just fine with Smith (if paying up for catcher is your cup of tea). It’s not mine, in general. The next guy, though...

As for Realmuto, I think the power and the chip-in speed is kind of silly given his ADP of 61.17 over the last 18 NFBC 50 drafts. Drafting a guy who plays a ton and gives you arguably every category at the catcher position is silly. As I see it, Salvador Perez had a career year, and now everyone has Realmuto fatigue? What is wrong with people? If you’re on the clock after pick 60 and JTR is there, to me that’s a safe pick in any format. And even in NFBC 50s, you still have to roster two catchers. I’ll take all the JTR in Rounds 6 and 7 this year, thanks.

The Unicorn: Daulton Varsho

Varsho’s “unicorn” asset is his speed. If he gets enough playing time, he could swipe 15+ bags as a catcher, while offering double-digit power. And when you look at it that way, drafting him around pick 100 looks pretty darn sweet. The Diamondbacks are starved for offense, and I happen to think there’s rebound potential if Ketel Marte, Christian Walker, and Carson Kelly are healthier. However, that still leaves room for Varsho to play every day. He’s currently slated to bat third in this lineup as a center fielder (while Marte returns to the keystone). But the ability to spell Kelly behind the plate and to play all three outfield positions makes Varsho enticing. I’d imagine we’d see him off the bench as a pinch runner on days when he isn’t starting, too. So even if he doesn’t start a game, he could swipe a bag and score a run. Varsho will have a chance to live up to his ADP this year. I don’t hate this pick, especially in any competition with an overall component.

5A and 5B? Yasmani Grandal (110.94) vs. Willson Contreras (119.89):

Grandal’s gift is his power and his ability to draw a walk, so he gets a huge boost in OBP leagues. But for leagues that still use batting average, you’re taking a hit if you go that route. Grandal is a career .240 hitter, and he batted .240 last year with a .259 xBA. That’s an anomaly, though. Only twice since 2015 had Grandal posted an expected batting average above .238, and there are some ugly marks in there. Grandal is also 33 years old and hasn’t stolen a base since 2019.

Compare that to Contreras, who is 29 years old with a career .259 batting average. He also swiped five bags in 2021 and slugged 21 homers (only two fewer than Grandal). Contreras’ expected batting average last year was only .239, but he’s had a more consistent floor in actual and expected marks than Grandal. He’s also 64th percentile in sprint speed (27.6 ft/s) compared to Grandal’s 23.5 ft/s mark (bottom 7% of the MLB). Steamer projects 24 homers and six swipes for Contreras, with 140+ runs and RBI. For Grandal, it’s 26 homers and one swipe, with two less points on BA (.238 to .236) and 140ish runs plus RBI. I’m not really seeing Grandal as a much safer pick here. I’m happy to take the floor of Contreras after Grandal goes, and enjoy five more steals with (probably) more batting average and similar power output. I really like letting the last guy in a tier fall to me, especially when I think he’s as good or better than the players in his tier.

7A and 7B: Tyler Stephenson vs. Keibert Ruiz

Stephenson is a 25-year-old former first-round pick, a catcher whose bat has finally caught up to his plus defense. I assume the Reds had seen enough after last year’s .286/.366/.431 slash with 10 homers, a 111 wRC+, a double-digit walk rate (10.2%), and a shiny 18.7% strikeout rate. So gone is Tucker Barnhart (to Detroit), much like Curt Casali the year before. In house options to back up Stephenson are Andrew Knapp and Aramis Garcia, as well as defense-first prospect Mark Kolozsvary (who is old for a prospect). I’m not quite sure why Steamer seems a little bearish on Stephenson’s playing time, projecting him for the 10th most plate appearances among all catchers (429). And much less PT than Ruiz. As others have noted, Stephenson could see time at DH if the NL adopts one. Always a bonus.

Ruiz is a contact-maven, so in the batting average regard he and Stephenson are similar. That said, we’ve been waiting on the power output from him for some time, and while he managed 16 dingers over 52 games at Triple-A last year, he hit just three in his 29 big league games. That said, Steamer projects a robust 21 homers for Ruiz over 118 games played in 2022 (484 PA). My lean is still towards Stephenson given his home park environs and the power output we already saw in 2021. However, the Nats are going to need to generate offense somehow, and I think that gives Ruiz a safe enough floor. I don’t know if I’m buying 20+ homer output, but I could see him compiling 15 over the course of a full season, with a batting average that won’t sink you. That’s noteworthy for a catcher.

The Overrated: Alejandro Kirk, Toronto Blue Jays

I can’t pay up for Kirk (232.17 ADP) when his battery mate, Danny Jansen, is sitting there around pick 335. That’s quite the discrepancy. Steamer has this as a mess of a timeshare, with Jansen (361 PA) pegged for more playing time than Kirk (334 PA). The projection system does have both guys slugging 15 homers, though, and Kirk’s .281 BA is superior to Jansen’s .239. For me it’s an ADP thing—I can snag Elias Diaz at pick 250 if it’s batting average help I want...and Diaz has the Coors Field boost as well as (arguably) a safer handle on playing time. There’s also the lefty-hitting Omar Narvaez—a guy who consistently outperforms his expected batting average marks—if it’s that BA profile and a timeshare that I want. Narvaez has the right-handed Pedro Severino lurking around, but at least that’s more of a discernible split than we have with Kirk and Jansen—as both are right-handed hitters. And did I mention that the Jays still have Reese McGuire on the roster? What a cluster.

The Sleeper: Elias Diaz, Colorado Rockies

I’m surprised his ADP hasn’t crept further north than the current 259.89 average. He signed a three-year deal with Colorado in mid-November, he’s still just 31 years old, and he should get the lion’s share of playing time over backup Dom Nunez, who struggled mightily in 2021 in his second stint as a big-leaguer. No, Diaz’s Statcast page doesn’t strike fear into the heart of opposing pitchers. However, that’s the beauty of Coors Field—you don’t need the highest-end of batted ball velocities in order to be successful. Diaz has begun to elevate the ball more over his time in Colorado. His last two years in Coors have given us his two highest barrel rates (11.3% and 7.9%). Also, his two highest average launch angles (12.9 degrees, 14.7 degrees). Diaz accomplished this in 2021 while posting an 8.1% walk rate, the best mark of his career. He also made some gains from ‘20 to ‘21 in swinging strike rate, chase rate, contact rate, and strikeout rate. I think Diaz can pop 20 homers in 2022, while batting over .245 and being a plus in runs and RBI (at least compared to other catchers). His ADP confuses me. I’d consider him 50 picks earlier, in that Travis d’Arnaud-Christian Vazquez-Alejandro Kirk grouping. Diaz is one reason I doubt I have any of that grouping.

The Prospect to Watch: Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles

Rutschman’s debut could depend on service-time manipulation rules that may or may not come out of the current MLB lockout. Maybe we see him on Opening Day, or maybe it’s sometime in April or May. Or maybe, just maybe, the Orioles decide he needs more seasoning at Triple-A. The last option is unlikely, however. Rutschman was drafted first overall in the 2019 draft, advanced two levels that year, spent the Covid year of 2020 at the alternate site, and then mashed at Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. In Double-A, he hit 18 homers and drew an impressive 55 walks against 57 strikeouts. At Triple-A it was 24 walks against 33 strikeouts. Those are double-digit walk rates and strikeout rates below 18%, folks. Add that to his defensive skills, and the fact that he’s a switch-hitter, and it’s easy to see why this guy is soon to be the face of the franchise.

In short, Rutschman left college as one of the best prospects in recent memory, and his production at the highest levels has been encouraging. Steamer projects 14 homers with a slash line of .258/.338/.439. That’s over only 95 games, though. The Orioles’ in house options at catcher are Jacob Nottingham and Anthony Bemboom...I could see Rutschman easily exceeding that level of playing time. At a crummy catcher position, he’s worth taking a shot on at his ADP in the 180s (though I will confess to preferring him on the higher end of his range). His max pick recently is 223...I can definitely live with anything close to that for a guy with this upside.

What sticks out to you at backstop? Other names I like for various reasons are: Sean Murphy, Joey Bart, Carson Kelly, Max Stassi, Danny Jansen, and Jonah Heim. How about you?