Hello everyone, and welcome to our annual State of the Position series! We officially kick off preseason coverage with Catcher Week.
Our schedule will remain identical to last year’s. After an emotional footrace with backstops this week we’ll move through the infield, pivot to relievers during the short week in February, hit the outfield after that, and round things out by going deep on starting pitchers.
Last season, fervor at catcher early on created a unique market. Enthusiasm can drive people to do wild, crazy things. Things like staying up past your self-imposed bed time to watch one more episode of your new favorite show even if it means you’re going to hate the world when you wake up tomorrow, or eating pizza-flavored Combo snacks until your taste buds and soul sour on them forever. Did that early interest in the top catcher(s) yield the desired results through the 2023 season? Did it help inform this year’s market?
To brace ourselves for those questions, we have to first dig into another:
Last year in this space we talked about more guys getting more playing time than usual, which culminated in 10 catchers reaching at least 450 plate appearances. That was the most since 2016. In 2023, 12 catchers reached that mark. In fact, they all registered at least 490 trips to the dish, and when considering who did it, it’s hard to think of it as a coincidence. The group consists of Adley Rutschman, William Contreras, Salvador Perez, Cal Raleigh, Keibert Ruiz, Will Smith, J.T. Realmuto, Elias Diaz, Tyler Stephenson, Jonah Heim, Willson Contreras, and Shea Langeliers.
It’s not just that they’re good enough—a diverse term when it comes to backstops—but that, collectively, they’re offering more viability than we’ve seen in some time. It’s different than it was in 2016. Like, in 2016, I was word-vomiting a wedding invitation to a colleague. (It was my brother’s wedding.) (I didn’t say that right away.) (I wasn’t trying to be sneaky, I was just nervous.) (It worked out, we’re married now.) The top-15 backstops by playing time–a group that included Realmuto and Perez, among others like Brian McCann, Buster Posey, and Evan Gattis–combined for 267 home runs. The top 15 guys at the position by playing time last year combined for 288 long balls, which was even more than we saw in the year of the rocket ball in 2019 (281).
In addition to that, the power was spread out pretty evenly. When all was said and done, 12 of the top-15 catchers by playing time had at least 17 homers. The only exceptions were Elias Diaz (14), Stephenson (13), and Alejandro Kirk (8). In a standard roto league, they created an unusually high floor for the position. We can at least partially thank the universal DH for that, even if catchers aren’t being used there as much as we might have expected
Like the way a fresh leaf on a plant slowly unravels next to ones that have already announced themselves, this particular look doesn’t even account for everything that’s new. Francisco Alvarez should have a clear-cut hold on a regular spot in the lineup in 2024. Logan O’Hoppe is on track to return from (gulp) shoulder surgery, but looked like a legit Dude before getting hurt. And Yainer Diaz is currently the fifth catcher being taken.
Diaz smashed 23 bombs in 187 plate appearances. The only other rookie catchers in the last 30 years to slash anything like his .282/.307/.538 line are Mike Piazza, Geovanny Soto, and 33-year-old Christ Coste. Diaz won’t take a walk and he hit about 50% more homers-per-fly-ball than league average, providing sound reasons to think he won’t be a 40-bomb guy. However, DRC+ thought his output was earnest, tabbing him for a 124 mark.
A considerable amount of these guys might have their warts. Perez doesn’t walk and his contact rates have been slipping. Ruiz makes what might be a counter-productive amount of contact. Diaz cratered in the second half last year. Langeliers is an Oakland A, for God’s sake. But the offensive skill across the board is hard to argue with, and given where you end up in your draft and what other manager starts a run, you could talk yourself into just about any of them. Given the difficulty in playing catcher, and what it takes to play this much, you’ll take a baseline that sprinkles in useful contributions elsewhere but almost certainly includes lots of pop, and which is going to be important.
MIXED-LEAGUE DRAFT APPROACH
A knock-on effect of having so many viable options at catcher is that it means you don’t have to sweat grabbing one quite as early as you might have in the past. After a couple of years in which drafters pushed top options into the top 40 and then the top 30, we’re seeing a course correction. Some of this has to do with the top catcher being taken, Adley Rutschman, coming off an incredible year in which he still only slashed .277/.374/.435. That speaks to how hard it can be for even the brightest, most encouraging stars at the position to manifest a top-flight season. His OPS still only amounted to a disappointing campaign from, say, Paul Goldschmidt (.810), or an exciting one from Jeimer Candelario (.807). It’s also important to note that the top 15 guys by plate appearances at the position last year are not the top 15 guys being taken this year, given the youth at the position and the dreamy-eyed disposition with which drafters operate.
Ultimately, on average, no one is taking Rutschman until the fourth round is under way. Then they’re waiting another 20 picks to take Realmuto, and another 10 or 15 after that before getting frisky for Williams Contreras and Smith. After that bunch, early drafters have been active and created a clear second tier, taking seven backstops between the seventh and 10th rounds, and third tier with four players going in the 11th. If you’ve been planning on being more conservative than this after relative disappointments in the last couple years, you’ll have to recalibrate.
This is how the natural tiers created by drafters this season played out in 2023 production, on average:
|Grouping by ADP
First, as a disclaimer, the point here isn’t to say that what these guys did last year is what they’ll do this year. There are actually distinct splits within these groupings that are instructive. The top tier is about as steady as it gets and universally make contributions across the board.They act as buttresses in their teams’ real-life lineups and plenty of fake ones. The middle tier is split pretty evenly. Raleigh, Perez, Sean Murphy, and Willson Contreras offer confidence while Diaz, Alvarez, and Gabriel Moreno offer projection. Naturally, the third tier carries the most variance. Heim and O’Hoppe carry injury questions, while Naylor is splitting time with a guy who tends to play 80 games a year or so (Austin Hedges).
You’re going to have to ask yourself two things. The first is what tier you want to draft from, and understand what it’s going to cost. The early fourth round is where the last of the most reliable pitchers will be taken. If you happen to grab a top arm before that and don’t like the way the catcher crop could diverge, it could be worth saving yourself the trouble. Beyond that, you’ll have to assess whether you want to bet on a skill jump from a young guy or take someone whose skill set is impressive for the position but limited overall. A guy taking a big step is exciting to think about but generally happens less or slower than expected.
The future is now when it comes to catcher. We’ve already mentioned a host of exciting young players. You’re already familiar with them because they’ve been carving out roles and moments over the last calendar year. One warning: Be wary of the guys who make extremely high amounts of contact but haven’t worked in a power stroke on a regular basis. The league is littered with those types who have made long careers without making much offensive impact, despite the promise they appeared to carry when breaking in.
Sometimes looking forward means not looking very far off because what’s immediately in front of you is too big to ignore. Last year JT Realmuto ended with nearly identical stats in key categories as he did in 2022 (homers, runs scored, ISO), while ultimately being far less effective. His .252/.310/.452 line was his worst since becoming a full-time starter all the way back in 2015.
He still stole 16 bases, which was at least twice as many as any other catcher and helps explain why he’s still being valued as a top option. His home and road splits were wild. On the road he was a monster, hitting .306/.364/.587. At home he was a monstrosity, hitting just .198/
.257/.320. Typically these types of extreme seasons aren’t anything to read into. However, he had bunches of at-bats last year that were uncompetitive and nearly predictable, and ran less effectively than ever. After a slow start in 2022 this is now two seasons in a row that Realmuto has shown some cracks.
The 2024 season will be his age-33 campaign. In the last 15 years, there have only been 11 seasons in which a catcher his age or older registered at least 450 plate appearances. Yadier Molina and A.J. Pierzynski accounted for seven of them. Salvador Perez did it last year. The others were Russell Martin (2016), and Jason Kendall and Bengie Molina (2009). It takes a special player to rack up as much playing time as Realmuto has by this point in his career (1,140 games). The track record of guys who played at a high level after that point, even going all the way back to 1993, is hit or miss. He’s good enough to come down on the right side of the ledger but carries more risk than expected. Whether he’s going to remain the cream of the crop moving forward should be floating somewhere in the back of your mind.
MARY OLIVER POEM OF THE POSITION
Oliver, who passed away in 2019, wrote a poem called “I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly” in her 2015 collection, titled Felicity. It goes like this:
I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.
But, bless us, we didn’t.
Its length endears itself to a position that often features men shaped like fire hydrants. Its key sentiment—think about thinking more, but don’t think too much or too hard—is what you’re almost certainly going to do when determining what sandbox you want to play in when it comes to drafting a catcher. It bids adieu with a rascal’s salute, relishing the way humans want to do a small task one way but can’t help doing it another, more instinctual way. Participating in this capacity might not make an art of honoring the small task but prioritizes the big picture, allowing you the chance to build the space you need.
Bless your heart. Bless your roster.
Thank you for reading
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