Although the league-wide narrative following the 2015 season was that offensive numbers positively bounced back from a prolonged decline, we cannot extend that argument to the catcher position. Production from MLB catchers at the plate has taken a nosedive. It has fallen for three consecutive seasons:
- 2012: .247/.319/.399
- 2013: .245/.310/.388
- 2014: .244/.309/.379
- 2015: .238/.302/.376
Injuries certainly played a part in this decline. Jonathan Lucroy, the no. 2 fantasy catcher in 2014, endured multiple stints on the disabled list with various ailments. Devin Mesoraco, the no. 3 fantasy catcher in 2014, only managed 51 plate appearances while dealing with a hip injury. Finally, Yan Gomes, the no. 4 fantasy catcher in 2014, missed the better part of two months with a knee injury.
The position also suffered due to Carlos Santana officially losing his catching eligibility. Some may not think that’s a massive deal—as he only hit .231/.357/.395 with 19 home runs—but he would’ve been the third-best fantasy catcher in 2015. Granted, the double-digit steals helped his overall ranking, but it should still highlight the overarching ineptitude the 2015 catching class showed.
All in all, it was the Buster Posey Show. He more than doubled the value of the second-place catcher, Evan Gattis, in ESPN leagues. In terms of raw production, Posey was the only catcher to finish within the top-180 players for overall fantasy value. That concept is slightly misleading, as it doesn’t take things like positional scarcity into account, but the generalized point is valid and speaks volumes about the state of the position.
THE LEAGUE BREAKOUT
No young catcher is getting more fantasy hype than Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber, who launched 16 homers in just 273 plate appearances in his compressed rookie season. It’s not merely his prowess at the plate that should endear fantasy owners to him, though. Savvy owners should recognize his positional flexibility and the value that bonus plate appearances from the catcher position is worth its weight in gold. Thus, not only is Schwarber a good bet for 20-plus homers in 2016, but he’ll accumulate extra counting stats due to his ability to play extra games in the outfield.
Granted, the 22-year-old seems worthy of the hype, but there’s no chance that he flies under the radar on draft day. He’s the breakout candidate that isn’t likely to be available in the mid-to-late rounds. If you’re enamored with Schwarber and believe in his projected production, you’ll be forced to pay accordingly.
Staying in the National League, Yasmani Grandal remains a popular breakout candidate. He cut his strikeout and swinging-strike rates in 2015, which could help his batting average rise to the .250 plateau. Mix that with 15-plus homers, and fantasy owners may finally the top-10 catcher they envisioned.
Travis d’Arnaud, however, is perhaps the best breakout candidate in the senior circuit. He displayed impressive power in his injury-shortened campaign, hitting 12 homers in 268 plate appearances with a .218 ISO. Fantasy owners are left wondering what he could accomplish over 450 PA. Another positive sign for d’Arnaud believers is that his walk rate ballooned to 10.5 percent in the second half of the season. He swings at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than the league-average player, but it was nice to see that translate into more free passes in 2015. A higher on-base percentage should translate to increased run totals and a better batting average, as he’ll hypothetically be making fewer outs on weakly-hit balls at which he shouldn’t have swung.
In the American League, it’s difficult to identify from where the true breakout performance will come. Salvador Perez is what he is at this point. Stephen Vogt slid backwards after his brilliant, yet unsustainable, start to the year. Mike Zunino firmly remains a backup. The catching landscape just isn’t great in the AL.
The obvious place to look is Blake Swihart, but I’m not sure what the ultimate upside looks like in 2016 here. Is it a .280-plus batting average with 10 home runs? That’s not really a breakout performance and is a fringe top-10 catcher. He’s never hit more than 13 homers in a season, and even though we can reasonably assume a 23-year-old catcher hasn’t finished maturing offensively, it seems dubious to expect much more than that in this upcoming season.
I don’t really know, to be honest. Maybe Gary Sanchez carves out regular playing time in New York. That’d be crazy interesting, but he’ll have to show massive improvement defensively to take regular plate appearances away from Brian McCann, who (offensively) is a shell of his former self. Maybe we can consider Matt Wieters or Yan Gomes an injury breakout of sorts, but that feels like a stretch.
THE STRATEGY IN MIXED LEAGUES
The strategy shouldn’t be too complicated. Either pay up to nab Buster Posey or Kyle Schwarber, or simply wait. There’s a clear gap between Posey/Schwarber and the remainder of the catching class of 2016.
But, fortunately, the next tier is somewhat crowded and should be a situation in which fantasy owners can wait to see which guy falls through the cracks. Jonathan Lucroy, Yan Gomes, Devin Mesoraco, and Matt Wieters are a quartet of injured veterans who individually have a real chance to re-establish themselves as top-five fantasy catchers. Salvador Perez, Russell Martin, and Evan Gattis were all top-five catchers in 2015, yet all three are perceived by fantasy owners to have huge question marks (and Gattis is unlikely to have catcher eligibility at all). Even Nick Hundley could be mentioned in this same breath. This discussion doesn’t even include the “breakout candidates” discussed in the previous section, such as Yasmani Grandal, Travis d’Arnaud, and Blake Swihart. There isn’t a significant difference between many of these players; thus, it seems utterly reasonable to sit back and wait —just see which mid-tier catcher falls into your lap and handcuff him with a boring, safe option (Wilson Ramos, Stephen Vogt, A.J. Pierzynski, Francisco Cervelli, etc.) later in the draft.
THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
Just like it will be to begin the 2016 season, the long-term outlook at catcher has Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber as the cream of the crop. However, there are legitimate concerns that one (or both) of these catchers could be moved out from behind the plate, in an effort to preserve their offensive value. For now, though, it appears that the Giants and Cubs won’t permanently be moving Posey or Schwarber from catcher in the near future. They’re still numbers one and two.
After that, though, is anyone’s guess. I think the fantasy community hopes Gary Sanchez and/or Jorge Alfaro grabs a starting role in the big leagues within the next two years, as their bats would immediately separate them from the middle of the pack. Sanchez hit 18 homers in 400 minor-league plate appearances last year, while Alfaro is just 22 years old and is a year removed from launching 17 between High-A and Double-A. That type of power isn’t exactly rare, but the only catchers who hit 15-plus homers with a batting average above .260 were Buster Posey, Salvador Perez, and Stephen Vogt—and the latter is 31 years old.
Sanchez and Alfaro are the dream, while guys like Blake Swihart, Travis d’Arnaud, Perez, Grandal, Mesoraco, and J.T. Realmuto represent the more concrete mid-tier catcher options in the next four-to-six years. Andrew Susac would probably be included here, if he ever gets the chance to catch everyday.
Down in the minors, don’t be surprised if Max Pentecost and Justin O’Conner receive lavish amounts of attention by the middle of summer. Pentecost could fly up prospect lists with a big offensive season—he was the 11th-overall pick in 2014, after all—while O’Conner should benefit from double-digit power potential and proximity to the big leagues.
THE CLOSING HAIKU
Craving the finer things.
Posey and Schwarber cost how much?
Take the bargain bin.