Thursday, March 19, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at Catchers

There's a very large difference between actual Major League Baseball and the fantasy version that so many of us anticipate with analysis-viewing pandemonium.

Fantasy baseball is probably one of the primary reasons I found my way onto Bleacher Report—I've always loved sports and discussing them, but only after I had been plumbing the depths of online resources for baseball insight did I realize how large the market for sports journalism really is.

Clearly, I'm as hooked as most of America and this is coming from someone who once hated the very mention of fantasy baseball.

Back in those days, the fact that fantasy value skews some perceptions of the real thing got under my skin and laid eggs. It still bothers me when I see the stat-driven arguments for one player over another, but not so much in MLB since the sabermetric community has developed some numbers that paint a pretty accurate picture.

However, they still don't tell the whole story, some need a lot of work (the fielding metrics particularly), and most fantasy leagues don't use them anyway. They use the standard categories like average, runs, runs batted in, home runs, stolen bases, wins, saves, earned run average, WHP, strikeouts, etc.

The two leagues I'll participate in this year use the historic stats. Regardless, I still can't wait. If it skews my perception (hopefully not) or others (already has), oh well—it's worth it.

That's basically a long-winded explanation for why my fantasy assessments might not be congruous with the real-life ones that popped up in the previews I wrote for each team.

For instance, an enormous whiff rate for a hitter doesn't really matter for fantasy purposes as long as he still fills categories like HRs, RBIs, or some other counting category. So I might still like, say, Adam Dunn for fantasy purposes.

Or the make-believe Brian Wilson might not be as valuable as the real one because the method for evaluating closers is far different in fantasy. As a San Francisco Giant fan, I couldn't care less what Wilson's ERA or WHIP is as long as he doesn't blow a bunch of saves. As a fantasy owner, I probably don't care too much about blown saves as long as he keeps his peripherals down (which he doesn't).

The other thing about fantasy is that all positions are not created equally.

This piece will deal with catchers primarily because the position is so thin. It allows me to get the introduction out of the way while still knocking a position off the list—there are only 10 or 12 guys that need examination.

Outfielders, starting pitchers, closers, and even first basemen will require a considerably longer list.

One final caveat, I'm approaching these as if I'm in a standard league i.e. AL/NL, 10-12 team league, head-to-head, five or six hitting categories, the same number of pitching categories, no transaction limits, and traditional statistical categories like those mentioned.

If you're in an exotic league, the outlook could be considerably different. Reader beware.

Without further ado, here's how I approach the backstops in the world of make-believe:


There are two basic schools of thought.

You can view the spot in a head-to-head context, in which case you want to use a high draft pick to grab a top tier catcher. If you grab Brian McCann, you're probably gonna win the catcher battle pretty handily most weeks. Consequently, you'll have a wider margin of error for the other slots where the outcomes of positional battles are harder to predict on a weekly basis.

On the other hand, if you view the catcher in a rotisserie context (still an appropriate mentality even in head-to-head leagues), it makes little sense to grab an elite catcher for two reasons: (A) even elite catchers produce about as well as an above-average outfielder so (B) if he goes down you're screwed.

If you've burned a top draft pick on a guy just for the margin he alone provides and he hits the shelf, you've just dug yourself a considerable hole. You've given up substantial value drafting an elite catcher over his counterpart at basically any other offensive position (I'll cover pitchers when I get there) and now you're plan is out the window.

In two seasons of fantasy baseball, I've taken the head-to-head approach and had it work to perfection with Victor Martinez in 2007 then blow up in my face with Jorge Posada last year. My team made the playoffs both times, but I plan on taking the rotisserie approach because I think I got lucky when my league slept a bit on Ryan Doumit.

Furthermore, the rotisserie approach to the overall draft makes sense for another reason.

In a 10-12 team league with opponents who have even a vague notion of what they're doing, you're not gonna get an elite player at every position. If that's the case, then why not forfeit the weakest one right away?

Baseball's so unpredictable that, while the positional tete-a-tete approach makes logical sense, it makes far more sense to collect as many high-end pieces as possible to protect against the inevitability of one going down.

With that in mind, here are the draftable catchers (in descending order):


1. Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves—68 runs, 23 HRs, 87 RBI, 5 SBs, .301 average

The biggest stud in the catching game illustrates the problem right off the bat. This it the best bet at a grueling position. McCann's only 25, hits for good average/power, and will probably flirt with 100 RBI in a stronger lineup this year.

But he still finished 2008 as the 94th rated player in fantasy baseball according to Yahoo. That means the best catcher available finished '08 behind such luminaries as my boy Randy Winn, Michael Young, Joey Votto, and Melvin Mora.

Those are nice hitters, but not a single fantasy player would DREAM of grabbing one of 'em with the 44th pick in a draft. And, yet, that's where McCann's going.

I'm not saying it's totally unwise because he's as good a gamble to stay healthy at an impossibly vulnerable position and McCann's as reliable as death/taxes. Combined, those could make him worth the premium you'll pay.

And his numbers should be even better this year with the acquisition of Garret Anderson, better years from Jeff Francoeur (it can't be worse), and his own growth in the batters box as well as that of Casey Kotchman (26), Kelly Johnson (27), and Yunel Escobar (26).

Make no mistake, though, you WILL be paying a premium for McCann. Aramis Ramirez finished '08 as the 44th ranked fantasy player last year and he put up considerably better numbers.

2. Geovany Soto, Chicago Cubs—66 runs, 23 HRs, 86 RBI, 0 SBs, .285 average

By the time '09 is over, fantasy might have a new champ donning the Tools of Ignorance.

Consider that Soto basically put up the same numbers as McCann less about 15 points from his batting average. He's also about a year older than the Braves' backstop. However, last year was Geovany's first full one in the Show and that's no meager qualifier considering it means he also had to adjust to defense at the most difficult professional position.

Despite the acclimation, he still managed to keep pace with arguably the most complete (offensive) catcher in the game. Not too shabby.

Like McCann's Atlanta lineup, Soto figures to benefit from the presence of some new blood (Milton Bradley if he can stay on the diamond) as well as a rebound from a key teammate (Derek Lee, who's hurt right now apparently). Those two pieces combined with another year of maturity/experience on Geovany should give his numbers a boost.

The only question is whether it will be big enough to propel him passed McCann and into the throne.

3. Russell Martin, Los Angeles Dodgers—87 runs, 13 HRs, 69 RBI, 18 SBs, .280 average

This guy poses a special problem for me.

For one thing, I refuse to draft Bums—I just won't do it. Since there are arguably only four top tier catchers and Martin's definitely one of them, 25 percent of the group is untouchable for me.

For another (really an extension of the first), Martin may represent a critical little wrinkle at the position.

Most fans know that catchers don't put up shiny offensive numbers because the physical exertion and beating behind the plate is profound. It drains MLB's squatters faster and drier than any other position on the field so, if you can get a guy who qualifies as a catcher without actually playing there, yahtzee!

Russell Martin played several games at third base in '08. With Casey Blake on the roster and no scintillating option behind Martin, a move to the hot corner doesn't seem likely. But the guy has serious speed at 26 and LA may be equally serious about trying to protect it.

Regardless, last season was a bit of a lateral step for the Dodgers' young catcher. Look for a step forward in 2009.


4. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins—98 runs, 9 HRs, 85 RBI, 1 SB, .328 average

Mauer actually finished 2008 as the highest rated catcher in baseball (according to Yahoo) so why are there three names ahead of him? Especially considering he's a catcher who hit .328?

Easy, he's already got a ding going.

Like I said, catcher is brutal physically and even more so mentally. It is simply impossible for a guy to last 162 games without losing a substantial amount of edge from both aspects of his game—it just ain't happening.

So entering the season with a bite in a muscle or a tweak in a tendon or whatever is Bad News Bears for anyone, but infinitely more so for a catcher.

And Joe Mauer sounds like he's got something serious a-brewin'.

I want NO part of that. In fact, I might have him lower on this list by the time my drafts roll around. If the news doesn't start getting better on him quickly, I'd go so far as to drop him down to Victor Martinez.

Major League catchers don't recharge on their days off—they just deteriorate a little more slowly. If you're not starting Opening Day at 100 percent, you're screwed.

5. Chris Ianetta, Colorado Rockies—50 runs, 18 HRs, 65 RBI, 0 SBs, .265 average

That line doesn't look particularly impressive so why does Ianetta rank up with last seaon's (dented) best model?

Because he put those numbers up in only 333 at-bats and he plays his home games at Coors Field in Denver. Plus he's scorching the ball in the World Baseball Classic against some high caliber pitching and he scored from second (although the ump blew the call) on a ground ball to first. All he needed was for the pitcher to argue the call.

If you even think about doing something like that, you've gotta have good speed or not much rattlin' around the ol' coconut. Since backstops have to be baseball smart, that tells me the bagel in the stolen bags column will not be there in 2009.

Even if it is (maybe he's a bad base stealer), the dude will only be 26 in several weeks and the job is entirely his this year. Ianetta should see about 200 extra ABs and that may result in around 30 bombs with the bump in peripherals such would entail.

Granted, the Colorado lineup has lost a lot of oomph with no more Matt Holliday. But it's got some young kids that could come around and Holliday's absence should mean more runs to drive in for other RBI Ianetta.

If he comes through, he could hop into the top tier. If not, he could fall and fall.

6. Ryan Doumit, Pittsburgh Pirates—71 runs, 15 HRs, 69 RBI, 2 SBs, .318 average

Doumit would be above Ianetta if he were younger. He's still not old at 28 (in a couple weeks), but those may be significant years when measuring the life of a catcher. Doumit also got more ABs (431) in '08 so, although he should see a full slate this year barring another injury, his numbers don't figure to see as great an inflation as Ianetta's.

There's also the matter of the lineup.

I think Pittsburgh will surprise a lot of people this year, but it's still not a fearsome collection of hitters. The Bucs have some nice potential, but it could be slim pickin's if that potential doesn't arrive on time.

The bottom-line is that Doumit can rake and he's probably the best combo of power/average you'll get outside of McCann.

He could hang in the top tier if he can stretch those '08 numbers out over 100 more ABs this campaign, but he doesn't figure to fall below the second tier since a .300+ average over 400 ABs is usually a good indication the wood is for real.


7. Victor Martinez, Indians—30 runs, 2 HRs, 35 RBI, 0 SBs, .278 average

Only six players in and we're starting to wobble.

Martinez leads off the third tier despite losing essentially the entire '08 campaign to injury because of that aforementioned wrinkle to the catcher position. Victor sees regular work at first base and that (in theory) keeps him fresher longer. It's also supposed to keep him healthy.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

In truth, Martinez' versatility could move him up this list except he's already 30 and coming off serious injury. Although early reports coming out of Spring Training indicate that he's got his power stroke back, exhibition pitching is not real pitching and that's even truer this year with so many key arms at the WBC.

Of course, there is the matter of a decently extensive track record that shows Victor to be a reliable bet for an average around .300 and close to 20 tater tots.

If he can return to those heights, it would launch him right back into the catching stratosphere.

8. Kelly Shoppach, Cleveland Indians—67 runs, 21 HRs, 55 RBI, 0 SBs, .261 average

Shoppach had a very nice 2008 by catchers' standards. So nice, he figures to see more than 352 ABs in 2009. So why does he get left behind when more ABs for guys like Ianetta and Doumit bump them into the second tier?

More at-bats are only a good thing if the production stays consistent or nearly so. If the production declines, then more chances hurts the overall body of work as the ratios decline faster than the counting stats increase.

With catchers, that's a considerably larger problem because only the better backstops can continue to produce at the April/May status quo in August/September.

In other words, I don't expect Shoppach to add a ton of counting stats (HRs, RBIs, etc.) in those additional plate appearances. I do expect them to bring his average down, though, so I figure his '09 campaign to closely resemble his '08 version in overall value.

9. Mike Napoli, Anaheim Angels—39 runs, 20 HRs, 49 RBI, 7 SBs, .273 average

Napoli put up pretty incredible numbers in just 227 ABs. But he slides down here because he is also already banged up and, like Shoppach, I don't expect his production to last over 162 games.

It might look odd because Napoli would seem to have a better mix of average, power, and speed. However, he's also got three years of basically the same production. That makes the lack in increase of AB's most troubling.

Napoli's numbers did increase in 2008 more drastically than in previous years so look for him to see some extra time. But only if he can stay healthy and, even then, it doesn't seem to be a lock.

10. Benjie Molina, San Francisco Giants—46 runs, 16 HRs, 95 RBI, 0 SBs, .292 average

It kills me to do this to one of my guys, but even I wouldn't draft Big Money.

I'm actually being generous keeping him this high. Molina is probably the Giants' most threatening hitter, but that's more a statement about the rest of the team than it is one about Benjie.

He put up arguably the best year of his career at the age of 34 and he finished as the 195th ranked player in the Yahoo game. Molina finished 2008 behind Jose Guillen, Mike Aviles, Ryan Theriot, and Christian Guzman.

And that's your best case scenario. Ugh.

11. Jorge Posada, New York Yankees—18 runs, 3 HRs, 22 RBI, 0 SBs, .268 average

I have to include Posada as draftable simply because he hits in the New York Yankees' lineup. That alone should be good for some big numbers if he can stay healthy (see a common theme?).

Of course, Jorge will be 38 in August and that's old for almost any position. For catcher, it's freakin' ancient.

With Mark Teixeira aboard at first base and Hideki Matsui unable to play the field for at least the first half, there wouldn't seem to be any place to put Posada to spare him the abuse of catching.

And what if his shoulder doesn't rebound? What if he physically can't play behind the plate? Then his only ABs will come in a platoon with Matsui at designated hitter while spelling Tex on occasion.

Not great circumstances under which to try to recapture the glory of youth for anyone.

Fliers—Matt Wieters (Baltimore Orioles), Taylor Teagarden (Texas Rangers), Jared Saltalamacchia (Rangers), Pablo Sandoval (Giants), Jeff Clement (Seattle Mariners), Dioner Navarro (Tampa Bay Rays)

The fliers at catcher are the defintion of the term. As my fliers will tend to be, they're mostly young guys with little or no track record and a ton of potential. Any name on that list (with the possible exception of Navarro) could become a 20 homer/.300 hitter if you believe what certain scouts say.

The string attached is they're trying to learn the toughest gig in the Show and Major League pitching all at once. Salty and Clement have both shown it's a difficult thing to do.

Wieters seems to be a lock to do it eventually, but this is his first year and he may be kept in the minors to delay arbitration. Sandoval is the other intriguing name because he sprays frozen ropes all over the yard plus he'll be playing mostly third (or first if Plan A falls apart).

Next up...first base.

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