April 17, 2013
Beware of Young Catchers
“Matt Wieters beat cancer… literally, with his bat. There is no more cancer.”
“Even atheists believe in Matt Wieters.”
Those are quotes from the summer of 2009, when the Matt Wieters Facts page was launched to celebrate the number-one prospect in baseball. Even Keith Law got in on the action. Wieters had torn through High-A and Double-A in 2008, and he was in the midst of mocking Triple-A pitching when he was finally called up on May 29, 2009. Immediately, the hysteria hit fever pitch, as the chosen one was now here to save us all.
But the saving never happened.
Not for the fantasy managers who stashed Wieters on their rosters, and not for the Orioles. The O’s were 23-26 when they brought their phenom up and, a month later, they found themselves at 35-42. It wasn’t his fault, exactly, but his .247/.297/.388 triple-slash line with two homers and seven RBI over 91 plate appearances wasn’t helping their cause, either. It got better: He closed with a .301/.354/.420 run from July on, and wound up with a .288/.340/.420 line in 385 plate appearances. It wasn’t exactly transcendent, but it was something to grow on.
Except 2010—his first full season—was actually worse, and markedly so, as he posted a 695 OPS in 502 plate appearances. Fast-forward another two average-to-slightly-above seasons, and we are still waiting on Wieters’ first .300 TAv campaign. Meanwhile, atheists no longer believe and sliced bread has reclaimed its spot atop the coaches’ poll (mixed sports metaphor, ftw!). His career hasn’t exactly been a failure, especially given his defensive value, but Wieters needs to more than double his current 12.8 bWAR to move up the ranks of top fifth-overall picks ever and get near Jack McDowell and Vernon Wells.
Remember Jeff Clement? If you have been playing fantasy baseball since the mid-2000s, you definitely do.
The USC product was drafted third overall in 2005, behind Justin Upton and Alex Gordon, slotting just ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun. He wasted little time popping six homers in a 34-game post-draft stint at Low-A in the Mariners organization. He sputtered a bit in 2006, needing 82 games to match that six-home-run output while splitting time between Double- and Triple-A. Then, he torched the Pacific Coast League in 2007, posting a 20-80 season with an 867 OPS in 530 plate appearances, and earning himself a brief, nine-game call-up, during which he raked to the tune of a 1.286 OPS. The Mariners gave him about a month of Triple-A seasoning to start 2008 before promoting him on April 30.
It did not go well.
He was essentially the everyday catcher for the first half of May, and he hit .167/.286/.250 in 56 plate appearances before the M’s sent him back down to Triple-A. The sample was small and he certainly wasn’t the first prospect to flounder during his first extended opportunity. He came back almost exactly a month later, on June 18, and was up for the remainder of the season. He was better, but how could he not have been after that start? Clement hit .248/.298/.394 with five home runs and 21 RBI in 168 plate appearances. That was the beginning of the end of his Seattle tenure.
He spent all of 2009 in Triple-A, turning in an 850 OPS with 21 bombs and 90 RBI, which wasn’t bad, but probably not as good as you would expect from an uber-prospect in a hitter-friendly league with over 1,000 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt. He was traded to Pittsburgh near the deadline in a deal in which Ian Snell was the principal return for the Mariners. That spoke volumes about Clement’s diminished stock, as Snell was a once-solid arm who had shown promise back in 2006-2007, before completely falling off the table in the subsequent year-plus preceding the deal. Clement delivered 178 plate appearances of 576 OPS work as a Pirate, and he no longer played catcher.
Remember when Texas was stocked to the gills with catching talent? They had homegrown Taylor Teagarden, super-prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and another top-100 prospect in Max Ramirez whom they acquired from Cleveland for Kenny Lofton. As of 2008, the Rangers were set at catcher for the next decade, and they could probably trade one to plug another hole! None of them are with the Rangers any longer, and Salty is the only one close to having panned out, thanks to a late-20s power stroke.
Just last year, we saw Reds farmhand Devin Mesoraco being drafted at an average of 146th overall in NL-only leagues, ahead of outfielders like Dexter Fowler and Alfonso Soriano. Fowler didn’t exactly kill it in 2011 (796 OPS), but he had three full seasons of experience under his belt and was headed into his age-26 season. Soriano, meanwhile, was an established veteran who was still good for a guaranteed 20-80. Even if you move off of a position like outfield, where a one-to-one comparison is tougher, Mesoraco was still taken ahead of Jonathan Lucroy, Ramon Hernandez, and Carlos Ruiz.
It doesn’t take revisionist history to be critical of that slotting. First off, Mesoraco wasn’t guaranteed a starting job with Ryan Hanigan onboard (Hernandez was dealt to make room for Mesoraco as a backup). Additionally, all three were coming off of solid, full major-league seasons, while Hernandez was moving to Coors Field. In fairness, he flopped while Lucroy and Ruiz surged, but they were all MVPs compared to Mesoraco and his 640 OPS in 184 disappointing plate appearances.
It was worse in the American League, where Jesus Montero was the 82nd guy off the board in AL-only leagues, according Mock Draft Central data. I’ll spare you the time, but I’ve got names for days of players who should have gone ahead of him, considering that Montero had just 69 big-league plate appearances to his name, a terrible defensive reputation, a move to a pitcher-friendly park, and DH-only eligibility at some outlets. He responded with a below-average 685 OPS with 15 home runs and 62 RBI in 553 plate appearances. The state of American League catchers a year ago was such that his slotting among the position wasn’t nearly as egregious as his overall slotting, whereas someone Mesoraco was inappropriately slotted in both realms.
That brings us to today. The fantasy community has learned exactly nothing, as players eagerly await the arrivals of Mets prospect Travis D’Arnaud and the man set to supplant Montero behind the dish in Seattle, Mike Zunino. Neither was drafted to level of Mesoraco and Montero from last year because we knew they weren’t going to break camp with their clubs, but that doesn’t mean that any fewer hopes and dreams are being pinned to them for when they do arrive, which could be later this season for both. The pair isn’t guaranteed to fail, but history says overwhelming success would be an upset. Zunino is just 22 years old and not yet a year removed from leading the Florida Gators. Plus, the Mariners don’t exactly have awesome luck with third-overall-pick backstops out of college. D’Arnaud is a 24-year old high -chool product, but he has just 346 plate appearances at Triple-A, and they have all come in Las Vegas, as his original team—the Blue Jays—flipped affiliates with the Mets this offseason. Vegas is a ridiculous hitting environment, which makes it hard to take his 985 OPS there too seriously. If you believe Minor League Equivalency calculators, it translates to about a 755 OPS in New York (769 if he were still a Blue Jay).
There has been just one rookie-eligible catcher since 2000 to come up at age 22 for more than 300 plate appearances. That was Joe Mauer in 2005, and he posted a .294 average and a 783 OPS in 554 plate appearances. And while he was rookie eligible, he did have 122 plate appearances the year before, as he ripped the cover off the ball in a 35-game stint during the summer, posting a .308 average and 939 OPS with six homers. He would need four-and-a-half times as many plate appearances to thwart that home-run mark by a whopping three the following year. Zunino, of course, is coming in completely fresh and in a much tougher environment for hitters; the Metrodome had a 104 park factor for runs that year while Safeco Field has been at 82 the last two years. Even the newly moved-in fences won’t push it to the Metrodome’s level.
There have been five 24-year old rookie-eligible catchers that posted 300-plus plate appearances since 2000, and their results have been thoroughly underwhelming. Mike Napoli (2006) led the charge as the only one to top 100 in OPS+, with a 110 mark (815 OPS and 16 home runs) in 325 plate appearances. A.J. Pierzynski, in 2001, was fine with a 98 OPS+ for the Twins, but that’s it for 700-or-better OPS totals, as Francisco Cervelli (694 OPS, 87 OPS+), Miguel Olivo (646, 68), and Chris Snyder (598, 56) did more harm than good for their own ballclubs—let alone the damage they inflicted to fantasy squads. None of them had near the acclaim of D’Arnaud, but even if you remove the age filter and simply look at the rookie-eligible backstops with 300-plus plate appearances since 2000, the results leave a lot to be desired and should definitely have you questioning how much of a savior Zunino or D’Arnaud will be when they come up.
And the outlook of that group is inflated by Johjima, who is nothing like the rest of the bunch, as he spent 11 seasons in the Japanese Pacific League before crossing the Pacific. The most recent success is one of the best fantasy seasons on the entire list: Wilin Rosario’s 2012. However—*Paul runs to get his wet blanket again*—his numbers were heavily inflated by Coors Field, an environment that is essentially the direct opposite of what Zunino and D’Arnaud will enter.
In the last four years, there have been 40 catcher seasons of 100-or-better OPS+, which isn’t a fantasy measure, but is a passable enough catchall for value that excludes defense. Let’s be honest, if these hot catcher prospects aren’t posting better than a 100 OPS+, they aren’t fulfilling your expectations. Anyway, of those 40 seasons, the average age was 28 years old, the median age was 27, and the mode was 26. Just four of the entries came from catchers who were 24 years old or younger: Salvador Perez (22), Rosario (23), Wilson Ramos (23), and Alex Avila (24). Perez and Avila came out of nowhere, too.
Do yourself a great favor and stop drafting young catchers; it’s not working. I’ve never understood the fascination anyway. Even if they were to pan out at a more frequent rate, catchers play far less than all other position players, with guaranteed off-days, and they are more susceptible to injury behind the dish, which will only further cut into their playing time. Fantasy baseball is a game of accumulation. Sure, position scarcity matters, but at what cost?
One more: Hank Conger has been a four-time top-100 prospect here at BP, charting in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. All four rankings were in the 80s, but that still makes him a highly regarded prospect. He is only 25, so he isn’t completely washed out in terms of potential, but he has logged just 253 plate appearances the last three years entering 2013, and he still doesn’t have a full-time job, with Chris Iannetta serving as the primary catcher for the Angels. I’ve watched Conger get over-drafted for so long that I almost didn’t believe he was only 25.
Full disclosure: I was over-drafting Iannetta as a Rockies up-and-comer in many of those drafts, so who am I to talk? But, I learned, and now, I simply sit peacefully when any rookie-eligible catcher gets drafted. They don’t even make my list anymore in redraft leagues.