August 6, 2008
Mid-season Retooling, Catchers
This week we'll wrap up the individual looks at each position by reviewing a few catchers, and seeing what we can expect from them going forward in these last two months of the season. With the trade deadline in many leagues set for later this month, there's still time to sell high for this year or next year, or make deals for that final push in the standings. With catcher, as usual a weak offensive position (.251 average EqA), it's important to find a backstop who is going to produce and give you that extra edge in your fantasy lineup.
Dioner Navarro has been a solid option for fantasy owners this year, thanks to a .304/.361/.416 showing. He doesn't drive in many runs (38 RBI on the year) or score very man runs (just 28, surprising given his OBP and the Rays' offense) but his .300+ batting average makes him worthwhile in many leagues, especially with so few other catchers racking up counting stats. Considering that he hit .254 in 2006 and .227 last year though, can you count on him to maintain the batting average that has made him a productive fantasy player? /p>
Navarro's BABIP this year is .331, well above his .294 mark from '06 and a very below-average .253 figure in 2007. His 22.5 percent liner rate is at the root of this year's BABIP bump, but given his track record it's not a number that's out of the ordinary. His career liner rate is 21 percent, and that includes last season's 17 percent figure. In 2006 he was at 23.5, and in 2005 at 23.2 percent, so this year's figure isn't really out of the ordinary for him. As a result, Navarro's batting average is pretty legit, especially since he's managed to cut his strikeouts down from 17.3 to just 11.6 percent of all PA. With more opportunities to put the ball in play-and fewer strikeouts factored into his batting average-Navarro has been able to improve his production at the plate. The 24-year-old is around his 90th-percentile PECOTA forecast, though with less power; despite the lack of pop, he's worth it for the singles and occasional doubles, and if your league counts OBP or walks, you're even better off if you have him.
Chris Snyder is one tough catcher, considering he made it back from his unpleasant injury rather quickly. For the year, he's at .245/.356/.437, but if you picked him up after April you've been treated to a much better line than that, as Snyder bounced back from a poor start and has hit a very productive .259/.357/.470 since the calendar flipped to May. That line resembles his 75th-percentile PECOTA forecast, and he's hit just as well outside of Arizona during this time frame (.260/.368/.469) as he has at his home park, unlike most of his lineup mates who serve you better as platoon options in leagues with daily changes.
The reason Snyder's batting average is low is something he has in common with his teammates though, as he's struck out in over 28 percent of his plate appearances. Despite a .303 BABIP and line-drive rate of 19.3 percent, Snyder's slash stats are held back by his lofty strikeout total, though he's still a valuable player regardless, especially for his position. In leagues where BB, OBP or OPS are a factor, his plate patience is useful for the times when he can't put the ball in play, especially this year with a career high walk rate of 14.6 percent. In 2008, Snyder is a valuable catcher behind the plate, but if he can manage to cut his strikeouts down to '07 levels while retaining the positive strides he's made since May of this year, he's going to be one of the best catchers around in 2009.
With Victor Martinez on the DL, Kelly Shoppach has taken over as the everyday catcher in Cleveland, and the team has been surprisingly better for it. While Martinez hit just .278/.332/.333 during an injury-plagued and ineffective first half, Shoppach has busted out the lumber with a .281/.349/.535 showing, building on the power he flashed during last year's campaign as a part-timer. His HR/FB is 18.8 percent, a new career high that bests last season's 17.1 mark, and he's hitting more fly balls as well, currently 44.1 percent of balls in play, against last year's 38.7 figure. With 36 runs and 35 RBI in just 217 at-bats, he's racking up the counting stats at an excellent rate, especially for a catcher in an average lineup. Despite not playing regularly all season, he's sixth in VORP among catchers, which should tell you something about how good Shoppach has been, as well as how poor the catcher position is at present.
There are problems with his production though. For one, his BABIP is .371, which is 65 points above the expectations set by his 18.6 percent liner rate. Adjusting for that difference would put Shoppach closer to .233/.291/.468, a significant change in production that makes more sense when you realize he's punching out in nearly 34 percent of his plate appearances. The small sample (217 at-bats) mixed with striking out in one-third of his plate appearances has allowed Shoppach to attain a BABIP he shouldn't be able to reach consistently, and has him looking like a better hitter than he is in the meantime. Granted, he's still a massive source of power at the catcher position, as his adjusted ISO of .235 shows, but he has a sub-.300 OBP, which isn't a good thing in leagues that count some form of walks or OPS. If your league ignores plate discipline but you need help in power categories, Shoppach is the Pedro Feliz of catchers right now. Sell high on him if you already have help at catcher, but if his OBP isn't hurting you, then there's no sense in ditching him, since he's helping out in plenty of other areas.
The days when Yadier Molina was the Molina brother who couldn't hit seem to be behind him. Last season he posted a solid .275/.340/.368 season that was in line with BABIP-derived expectations, and he's followed that up with an even better season this year by hitting .309/.355/.388, fine production for a catcher. In fact, Molina is ranked 13th in VORP at catcher (minimum 100 plate appearances) with 12.2 VORP, and isn't that far behind names you hear much more often, like A.J. Pierzynski, Gerald Laird, and Ivan Rodriguez. He's still devoid of power (.079 ISO), and actually has less this year than during any previous in his career. His 3.7 HR/FB percentage is another career low, and he's hitting fewer fly balls overall this year than in any other besides 2005, when he managed just 30.3 percent. The key to his improvement has simply been more singles that allow him to prop up his batting average and on-base rate, along with more walks the past two seasons than what we are used to seeing from him.
Again, at other positions, you may be disappointed by developments like this, but at catcher, you take what you can get. Molina's BABIP is .323, roughly 20 points above the league average, but right in line with his 20.3 percent liner rate-a career high for Molina. The BABIP should be sustainable, because his strikeout rate has dropped below his walk rate: Molina is punching out just 6.7 percent of the time, almost half of last year's rate, and 0.3 percent below his walk rate. Though he hasn't developed the power that PECOTA thought he would if he were to reach these marks for batting average and OBP, he's still having the best offensive season of his career with a .266 EqA, 15 points above the average at the position.
Molina's entering his peak years and has become a better hitter during the last two seasons; there's still time for him to develop at least some semblance of power, but if he keeps up with his low strikeout/high single rates, he won't need the power to be able to help your team out. Granted, he's not exactly tearing things up in the run or RBI categories, but if you've miss out on the big guns at catcher, all you need is someone who isn't going to hurt you. Molina is turning into that guy, so if you're in need of a band-aid at season's end, snag the St. Louis backstop.