Evaluating the C landscape for 2021 fantasy baseball


Today we’ll be getting behind the dish for a jump through the outlook for the catcher position for fantasy baseball in 2021. Since I love you so much for following, I’m attaching a free sortable sheet for all catchers with more than 300 PAs since 2019, broken into baskets (check the link at the end of this piece). I encourage you all to click the link and play around with the different columns to validate those final decisions.

(Check out the other positions so far: first base | second base | shortstop | third base outfield Pt. 1 | outfield Pt. 2)

It’s warm outside, the sun is shining, and the birds are chirping (metaphorically at least). Without getting too far into the weeds regarding the usefulness of spring training stats, please do me a favor: Take nothing from this week. Let’s all just be glad we’re on track for a full baseball season, one that may even have fans attending for a good portion of the season. Once things start to kick into high gear, we will eventually be paying attention to certain stats — things like fastball velocity, lineup order and even stolen base attempts, to names a few. 

Tier 1

The current catching landscape is a wasteland. As we’ve progressed into the age of committees and personal catchers, it’s become an increasingly difficult problem to solve. There are those who preach the need for drafting early catchers, taking J.T. Realmuto in the third or fourth round. His consistent contributions can’t be ignored (especially relative to the position). I have him ranked as my undisputed C1. Nonetheless, the health risks associated with catching plus the lack of an N.L. designated Hitter makes it tough for me to pay the freight. Add in a recent hand injury that could all but eliminate those precious steals that make him so valuable, and it’s just too risky for me.

Tier 2

There’s a pretty sizable gap in draft price between Realmuto and second-tier catchers like Salvador Pérez, Yasmani Grandal and Will Smith. A quick note on Smith that will apply throughout our exercise: As of now, there’s no designated hitter in the National League (Sorry to the DH truthers out there). That has to impact our perception of playing time, particularly with impactful hitters like Smith. He would otherwise be in the lineup every day that he wasn’t catching. The major projection systems do not currently reflect this. Almost every one has at least seven of the top 10 catchers in plate appearances coming from the National League; I’m not buying it. The counter to my assertion is going to be player quality, but I think context prevails. I’ll get to those catchers I anticipate surpassing PA expectations in a bit. This second tier is a fine place to start your shopping, especially when playing in two-catcher leagues. In general, I punt the position in single-C leagues and churn the roster spot until someone sticks. Two-catcher leagues are different, so getting at least one established backstop is recommended. I like Smith in a vacuum, but I think without the extra PAs at DH, he falls to third in the tier. The choice is categorically based for me — Pérez will hit for a better batting average, while Grandal will offer more power.

Tier 3

The next catcher tier is pretty tightly grouped together, both by skill and ADP. Once catchers start to come off the board at this point, the run usually isn’t far behind; a fair warning to wheel players. I like Christian Vázquez the most here. He provides the total package of skill (including steals) plus context, including the DH option for days off. That’s easily enough to put him ahead for me. He’ll play every day, likely hitting for average in the middle of the Boston lineup. This will keep the door open for solid cross contributions in runs and RBIs. Next up is Willson Contreraswho will see regular at-bats cleaning up for a good lineup as well and isn’t a bad consolation prize. He plays almost every day, but again that power potential will inevitably be capped without those extra appearances as DH. Keep in mind that Chicago brought in Austin Romine, who would start for some teams. He’ll definitely be getting some playing time to keep Contreras fresh. Travis d'Arnaud is clearly the starter in Atlanta and will get the majority of playing time. The lineup is strong, and d’Arnaud’s power metrics are legitimate. What I’m not buying is the .321 batting average last season that some have pointed to as a selling point. My explanation is simple: A career .250 hitter with a .280 BABIP had a 184-PA sample with a .410 BABIP (he’d never topped .293 before), artificially inflating the batting average. At the very least, the poor discipline opens a door for a much lower average in the future. We could implement the same exact analysis for James McCannThe steady role is a plus, but the batting average doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; nothing changed in his profile except for some batted ball luck. Plus, without a DH, he’ll have zero lineup protection. These last two players are still considered C1s based on the playing time, but I don’t advise reaching for them in drafts. Their likelihood of getting jumped in the final standings is a bit too high for me.

Tier 4

My favorite aisle to shop in at the fantasy catcher superstore is this last one. I’ve addressed some prior concerns already, but to summarize, I hate to pay premiums for backstops when there are still quality position players available. It’s very hard to predict where catchers ranked 8-13 will finish. This might translate into a price discrepancy of several rounds, so you can patient. On the other hand, if you’re too cavalier and miss this tier altogether, you are in trouble. It’s nearly impossible to put a specific round target on these players; the narrative in every draft room is unique. My best advice if you don’t have a catcher at this point is to stay aware of this tier. Once it starts to go, don’t be foolish. There are 10 backstops in this tier, enough to get two if you must, so don’t be greedy.

My usual analysis is statistically centered, and this isn’t that. Of course, you should draft the catcher that best fits categorically with your current build. If you’re punting batting average, Gary Sánchez may fit. If you have HRs but need to compete in average, you may want to draft Buster Posey. At the same time, you can essentially rank Posey, Sánchez, Austin Nola, Jorge Alfaro, Yadier Molina, Omar Narváez, Wilson Ramos and Elias Díaz by flipping coins. The limited opportunities with generally poor lineup placement are a recipe for uncertainty and mediocrity. The bright side here is at the first signs of a slump or loss of playing time, you can drop them immediately. Also, any teams that spent significant capital on a catcher on draft day will not be in the market for one early. This will lessen the competition for a replacement through waivers or bidding.

A quick example from last season: I drafted Jason Castro and Austin Romine from the back aisle, practicing what I preach. Romine was good, Castro was not. Meanwhile, Pedro Severino was looking like the majority shareholder in Baltimore, and I jumped on him early. I wound up with two backend C1s for almost nothing — easy as a Sunday morning.

As I mentioned at the top, now it’s time for some cool stats. I have a little trick up my sleeve for you guys and gals to get that extra edge on draft day. For those of you looking to dive deeper into catchers, I put all catcher stats since 2019 (with at least 300 plate appearances, plus Salvador Pérez, since he missed 2019) into a free, sortable sheet below, I encourage you to play around with it and let me know what you think @MLBMovingAvg.

Sortable Catcher Stats, 2019-2020 (+300 PAs)

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