The Big Question: What should fantasy owners expect from Gary Sanchez?

There was never a doubt concerning whether Sanchez possessed the offensive potential necessary to make a significant fantasy impact. We knew the talent was there. It just took him forever to reach the major leagues. Sanchez made his first appearance on a Baseball Prospectus prospect list during the Kevin Goldstein era back in 2011. My colleague Ben Carsley expertly labeled him as the “poster boy for prospect fatigue” last offseason. Lingering questions about his defense behind the plate, and the presence of veteran Brian McCann (who was jettisoned to Houston earlier this offseason), relegated him to Triple-A until early August. He became an overnight sensation upon arrival. This is the part where we would cut to a montage of Sanchez obliterating baseballs in rapid succession, like David Ortiz most recent commercial, but his raw stat line will have to suffice: .299/.376/.657 with 20 home runs in 229 plate appearances.

“My hope is the expectations aren’t so large that no matter what he does, he can’t reach (them),” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters in early October. “I think you can expect a talented, good player to go out there and produce.”

When the Yankees take the field on Opening Day, the 24-year-old will be starting behind the plate and batting third in the lineup. It’s going to be extremely difficult to tamp down the expectations that come with those roles, especially in New York. In the last 15 years, only six catchers (age 25 or younger) have batted in the heart of their respective teams lineup (third or fourth) more than 100 times: Joe Mauer (435), Buster Posey (208), Brian McCann (169), Victor Martinez (109), Carlos Santana (106), and Salvador Perez (104). There are no minnows in that pond, and Sanchez is poised to become the next member of that exclusive club. I heard a rumor they’ve got monogramed jackets and everything.

While it may be tempting to draw parallels to the decision fantasy owners faced regarding Kyle Schwarber a year ago, the Sanchez situation is unique for several reasons. Not only are there are only a handful of offensively gifted catchers, but ones that are tend to move off the position to either protect their long-term health, or get their bat in the lineup more often. He’s also burst onto the scene during an unprecedented era in Yankee history where there is no high-priced free agent middle of the order bat to push him further down.

Currently being selected in the third round (47th overall), three spots ahead of Jonathan Lucroy in 2017 NFBC average draft position, Sanchez looks like an incredibly risky investment. It’s a completely fair statement. However, it’s easy to envision Sanchez eclipsing the 25-home run mark, a feat only 10 catchers have accomplished in a single season over the last decade. Sanchez’ sprodigious power potential in tandem with the runs and RBI he racks up batting third should insulate the majority of the risk involved with selecting him that high. He won’t come close to replicating a .300 batting average in his first full campaign, but he also doesn’t need to perform like a five-category monster to finish as a top three catcher in 2017.

The Landscape

The phrase “positional scarcity” has gradually faded from the fantasy lexicon with middle infield becoming more palatable in recent years. Catcher remains the lone exception. In 2016, catchers posted a paltry .242/.310/.391 slash line. Compared to the overall major-league average line .255/.322/.417, it’s pretty bad. While league-wide run scoring, fueled by a massive home run spike, has bounced back dramatically over the past two seasons, catcher production hasn’t experienced a similar rise. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The divide in batting average alone is enough to illustrate the weak state of the position.

Average catcher production vs. Major-League batting average (2002-2016)

Veteran stalwarts Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy still anchor the position. Posey is pretty much the fantasy equivalent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia at this stage in his career. Some seasons are clearly better than others, but regardless it remains an iconic show that you never have to worry about consistently delivering. Lucroy blasted a career-high 24 home runs, and hit .292 over 142 games, to finish as the top catcher in fantasy baseball last season. He’s pretty, pretty good. The same cannot be said for the rest of the position.

Per Mike Gianella’s retrospective player valuations, only six catchers earned more than $10 in 15-team standard mixed leagues in 2016. Lucroy and Posey, who earned $17 and $16, respectively, spearheaded that elite group. Sanchez earned $7 in just 53 games and certainly would’ve joined that group had he been called up sooner.

Of the remaining four elites, only J.T. Realmuto and Yadier Molina are guaranteed everyday at-bats in 2017. In addition to inking a two-year deal in Tampa Bay, Wilson Ramos underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in October, and will start the upcoming season on the disabled list. Meanwhile in Houston, Evan Gattis is likely relegated to platooning against left-handed starters after the influx of veteran talent via trade and free agent signings this offseason.

To put in perspective how relatively shallow the position is right now, Welington Castillo hit .264/.322/.423 (.266 TAv) with 14 home runs, 41 runs scored, 68 RBI and two stolen bases to finish as the 10th-best fantasy catcher last season. Once again: not great.

How bad the catching situation really is depends on your specific league context. In standard mixed leagues that use just one catcher spot, it’s not so bad. However, in deeper leagues, and traditional two catcher formats, the back end of the position is a dystopian wasteland. Trust me, you don’t want to know what Tony Wolters is up to on a daily basis.

The optimal draft strategy in two-catcher formats is to avoid extending yourself on the second catcher this season. For the most part, they’re all interchangeable and not worth sinking anything more than $1 at the end of the night. The best argument against investing in a second catcher in deeper formats is the recent example of Sandy Leon. Despite not making his first start in Boston until June 7, he still finished as a top 15 catcher. Trust me, nobody drafted him last year. Nobody.

Mixed League Strategy

For the second straight year, the strategy remains unchanged in standard mixed leagues. Unless you’re willing to reach for a member of the elite trio (Posey, Lucroy, Sanchez), the best alternative is to wait as long as possible to fill the position.

Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras are easily the most attractive options in the next tier below. However, the gap between them and the veteran options at the position like Perez, McCann, Molina, and Russell Martin (who figure to come at a cheaper price) isn’t wide enough to make it worthwhile to reach for them on draft day in single-catcher formats.

Embracing risk is a key component of any successful fantasy strategy, but Evan Gattis seems extremely unlikely to return the value of his current NFBC average draft position as the fourth catcher off the board (90th overall). Barring an injury, it’s almost impossible to forecast El Oso Blanco for more than 300 plate appearances in 2017. There are zero questions about the power, but there are serious playing time concerns that could impact his value.

The Unexpected Breakout Candidate: Travis d’Arnaud

Fantasy analysts (myself included) use a wide range of highly subjective terms like breakouts, sleepers, and busts to effectively summarize our views on players. We’re all guilty of it and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just like MVP voting, there aren’t specific criteria to determine which players those descriptions should be applied to. They’re based solely on individual opinion. Without infringing on Jeff Quinton’s area of the store (he’s the best process-oriented fantasy writer I’ve ever read), each week this space will touch on a “breakout candidate” that doesn’t fit the traditional mold, because we hardly ever see them coming.

As Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky were quoted in Michael Lewis’ latest novel The Undoing Project, “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible, because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is our imagination.”

The obvious that comes to mind is Tom Murphy. Without question, he’s an intriguing target, especially in deeper mixed leagues. It’s easy to imagine the narrative of his success. The 26-year-old will be given an opportunity to take over the everyday catching duties in Colorado this season. Sure, he’s primed to generate enough wind power with the swing and miss in his game (24% strikeout rate in Triple-A last season) to power a small metropolis, but the plus power is very real. Also it’s Coors Field. Given his current NFBC ADP (15th overall) it’s clear that savvy fantasy owners and the pre-season hype machine have already begun inflating his value. He’s not the droid we are looking for.

d’Arnaud on the other hand, doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional breakout pick. He wasn’t selected by anyone on our fantasy staff as a potential target. In fact, he was actually tabbed by one staffer as someone to avoid altogether. He endured a nightmarish, injury-marred campaign, missing nearly two months with a strained rotator cuff, and hitting just .247/.307/.323 with four home runs in 75 games. d’Arnaud’s health and playing time are major risk factors that shouldn’t be ignored. However, if he can stay on the field there is certainly no shortage of talent. Let’s not forget that he will be only 28-years-old and hit 25 home runs in 689-combined plate appearances from 2014-2015.

Currently going outside the top 300 picks (21st at the position) in early NFBC ADP, he’s exactly the type of investment that will cost virtually nothing on draft day, and could provide just as much value as a catcher taken much earlier. It’s undisputable that Murphy has the opportunity and the talent to fulfill his breakout potential. Yet he’s not a sure thing, especially given his contact issues. I’d rather wait another 75 picks and gamble on d’Arnaud at a reduced price instead.

Long-Term Forecast

Losing both Kyle Schwarber and Blake Swihart, considered among the handful of impact young catchers in the game entering last season, to position changes and subsequent season-ending injuries, has a considerable impact on the long-term outlook at the position. Especially if neither logs enough time behind the plate to re-gain catcher eligibility. The Red Sox decision to discard transition Swihart to left field was perplexing at the time and looks even more incredulous in retrospect. He should get another opportunity, but could spend the vast majority of the upcoming campaign in Triple-A purgatory. On the heels of a major knee injury, Schwarber’s catching gear is destined to become like that old suit in the back of the closet everyone hangs onto because they “might be able to fit into again one day.”

Sanchez and Contreras provide a much-needed injection of impact young talent at the position. However, from a dynasty perspective, catcher remains the bleakest position from an offensive talent standpoint. As Posey and Lucroy make the turn onto the metaphorical back nine of their respective careers, it remains to be seen whom they will pass the torch off to. A year ago, it would’ve been Schwarber.

Prospect Pulse

Catchers are weird. Philadelphia’s Jorge Alfaro is the most obvious candidate to evolve into an impact fantasy contributor in 2017. Despite looking more overmatched than Connor Cook staring across the line of scrimmage at Jadeveon Clowney in his major-league debut (eight strikeouts in 16 at-bats) the 23-year-old possesses an intoxicating blend of athleticism and elite raw power. While that power hasn’t translated into tangible in-game results, it’s definitely there. If he can maintain a tolerable batting average, he has the talent to become mixed league relevant right out of the gate.

Further on the horizon is Zack Collins, the 10th overall selection last June, who cobbled together an encouraging debut at High-A for the White Sox. The former Hurricane hit .258/.418/.467 with six home runs and displayed a propensity to take free passes with 33 in 153 plate appearances. Francisco Mejia grabbed headlines with a 50-game hit streak between two levels in last summer. The 21-year-old finished the season with an impressive .342/.382/.515 line with 11 home runs in 443 plate appearances and should move to Double-A this season.

Chance Sisco belted a home run in the Futures Game and reached Triple-A by the end of last year. His close proximity to the majors, juxtaposed by the long-term question mark at the position for Baltimore make him someone to keep on your radar in re-draft leagues. There are also contingents of believers in the long-term futures of Reese McGuire, Carson Kelly and Andrew Knapp. Finally, Dodgers backup catcher/utility infielder Austin Barnes, who swiped 18 bases in Triple-A last year, is either the most interesting man in baseball, or he can’t hit big-league pitching. It depends who you ask.

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Buster Posey is great. He has been great, he's still great (as a catcher) but what I'm wondering is... can he get better at hitting? If Posey gets pissed during the offseason (unlikely) and decides to work on his hitting, what areas could he/should he work on to become an even better hitter or to recapture some of his past glory? Or are we satisfied with watching a slow grind to league average with Posey?
He's a lifetime .307 hitter (.311 career TAv) who has never been below .280 in a full-season in seven years. He even stole a career-high six bases last year. I mean, how much more can you really ask for from Posey? He definitely hit fewer fly balls last season, which would explain the dip in home runs. Unless that trend reverses, which is entirely possible, a return to 20-plus homers seems unlikely. Also, San Francisco is a tough place to hit. Posey's fantasy value is really tied to the stellar batting average over a huge number of plate appearances, combined with the volume of runs and RBI he contributed. Only three catchers (Posey, Lucroy and R. Martin) finished with at least 60 in both runs and RBI last year. Posey had 80 runs and 82 RBI. You shouldn't be worried about Posey. He's still only 30-years-old.
Looking back, my initial comment seemed negative about Posey, but that wasn't my intention. He's great. I just meant, do you think there's anything in the numbers that shows he might have a place for improvement. It was just a curiosity thing, not a complaint about him.
I think a tick back up in FB% will net him more power, which could help out.
Schwarber is not going to be C-eligible in a lot of leagues. So the question is, do you draft him relatively early thinking he'll get it by mid-May? Or is it maybe going to be July or never that he gets 5 games behind the plate?
Thanks for the question. It's something I covered in the piece, but it really depends on your leagues position eligibility requirements. We base our coverage on the most common industry standard, which is 20 games. Given that he's coming off a major knee injury and the Cubs already have Contreras and Montero at the position. I would put the odds at around 95-99 percent that he doesn't log even a single game behind the plate in 2017. That could change the further away we get from the knee injury, but Chicago's biggest priority is keeping him healthy. They have zero incentive to risk putting him behind the plate even for a handful of games.
Yas Grandal tops the catcher charts this year. What say ye?