The NFL playoffs have started, which means you have no reason not to start preparing for the 2017 fantasy baseball season. The Baseball Prospectus fantasy staff will analyze each position on a weekly basis, kicking it off with catchers starting yesterday. Every Tuesday I'll bring the Tale of the Tape: a category-by-category breakdown of two similarly ranked players resulting in a verdict toward one or the other. Behind the dish, Brian McCann and Welington Castillo fared comparably in 2016 and project to do so again in 2017 — as low-end options in standard mixed leagues.
Once a perennial threat to hit .270, McCann would now be lucky to crack .230, a plunge fueled by opposing defenses gobbling up his pulled grounders. McCann's pull-happy approach and aging body have made low batting averages on balls in play an occupational hazard, but random fluctuations (such as those experienced in 2013 and 2016) bake in some "upside." If his strikeout rate continues to decline, however, the powers that be may have to rename the Mendoza line. Conversely, Castillo, a righty who makes solid contact and pulls the ball less often than McCann, is shielded from the perils that plague his contemporary. Inferior contact skills lower his ceiling and increase his volatility, but Beef should at least produce a league-average batting average and is a virtual lock to outproduce McCann in this regard. Advantage: Castillo
On the surface, McCann makes up for a deficient BABIP with superior selectivity, walking 4 percentage points more often than Castillo. Yet digging deep into each hitter's pitch count splits, Castillo sees just as many pitches per plate appearance as McCann and works into deep counts just as often, at least in 2016. What gives? The latter's contact skills enable him to fight off more pitches both in and out of the zone, but it's hard to rationalize a better walk rate because of it. Yet, it's a thing, and it has been a thing for years. It pulls him almost dead even with Castillo — perhaps a hair or two ahead. But the difference is practically indistinguishable. Alas, a hair or two not worth splitting. Draw
Normally, I'd wait until the end to bring up something like this. But the way teams use their backstops creates dramatic variations in playing time and, thus, value. It's worth noting up front, then, that McCann has played in fewer than 120 games only once since 2005, whereas Castillo has never appeared in more than 113 games. McCann's counting stats will benefit accordingly. Advantage: McCann
Castillo's home run pace fell to a three-year low in 2016, but even his best single-season pace was a mere impersonation of McCann's typical self. McCann's worst isolated power mark in a full season exceeds Castillo's career ISO. There's little reason to believe he won't extend his 20-homer streak into double digits — something Castillo, one three years his junior, has yet to achieve. Advantage: McCann
RBI and Runs
Even considering his edge in playing time, McCann now bats in the middle of arguably the American League's most prolific offense. Castillo, while on a better team, might be part of only the fourth-best offense in his division. Pair the Astros' offensive aptitude with the team's positional versatility and McCann should not only 500 plate appearances but also post some of his best counting stats in the last half-decade. He should collect 10 to 20 more of each statistic than Castillo. Advantage: McCann
Castillo's current average draft position (ADP), per National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) data, makes him the more affordable option of the two, but not by much. He has dropped as low as 233rd overall but has been drafted, on average, a mere 17 spots after McCann. A one-round discount does not really justify the wait unless he slips well into the 200s.
Although his triple-slash line leaves something to be desired, McCann is the superior hitter with more opportunities than Castillo. His superior power coupled with a relative abundance of playing time make up for any deficiencies in his batting average, and his consistency makes him one of the safer catcher options come draft day. Given each hitter's current ADP, there's merit to drafting Castillo instead of McCann to fulfill batting average needs, but his tenuous contact skills (or lack thereof) make a better batting average far from a guarantee.
The Verdict: McCann
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