Kyle Schwarber and the Value of Catching Prospects
Much has been made about the fact that Chicago Cubs 2014 first round draft pick Kyle Schwarber might not stick behind the plate and could ultimately be moved to outfield full time. How is this going to affect the slugger’s fantasy value? Should we move him down the rankings if he is not a catcher? Is it better for us as fantasy team owners for Schwarber to remain a catcher or move to the outfield? Let’s keep in mind that there have been a lot of players who were catchers as amateurs who “failed” to remain at catcher through their minor league years. Bryce Harper, Pablo Sandoval, Joey Votto, Dale Murphy, Craig Biggio and many others began their careers as catchers and went on to stardom at other positions. The bottom line is that if a guy can hit it doesn’t matter too much what position he plays. Positional scarcity should not be a major issue when ranking prospects.
We have all heard the case for positional scarcity and how it affects a player’s fantasy value. If you have two players who both have the exact same statistics, the one who plays the rarer position is a lot more valuable. Clearly, catcher is a scarce position and there are only a small handful of legitimate hitters who wear the mask. If you are starting Buster Posey or Jonathan Lucroy at catcher then you will have a large advantage over teams starting Jason Castro or Miguel Montero.
Just How Scarce are They?
That is all true without question, but in terms of fantasy baseball that is often overblown. In most leagues, teams only need one catcher. There are 30 major league starting catchers. If your league has 12 teams then less than half the starting catchers in baseball are needed to start in your fantasy league. Compare that to outfielders. There are 90 starting outfielders on MLB teams. Most fantasy leagues are configured for 3 or 4 outfield slots plus one or two utility slots in starting lineups. Outfielders are frequently used in UTIL slots. So if we conservatively estimate that each team will need 4 outfielders to start each day that means we would need a total of 48 starting outfielders in a 12 team league. So your fantasy league uses a higher percentage of starting outfielders than catchers (12/30=40% for catchers, 48/90=53% for outfielders). That means outfield is actually a scarcer position than catcher!
The same is true for 2B and SS in leagues with a middle infield starting slot. There are 30 starting shortstops and second basemen in real baseball. In 12 team leagues with an MI slot we would need 36 middle infielders. 36 divided by 60 yields a fantasy starting rate of 60%, again much higher than the 40% for catchers and 53% for outfielders. The math for corner infielders, first basemen and third basemen, is the same as for middle infielders if a CI corner infield starting slot is used. These players can also be used at UTIL.
All this combines to show us that contrary to popular belief catcher is not really a scarce position in fantasy baseball unless you play in a 2-catcher league. You should not make it a priority to draft a catcher early because you will be handicapping yourself in the other positions. You should do the math using the lineup settings in your league to determine which positions, if any, are truly scarce.
Another factor working against catchers as valuable fantasy properties is the fact that they don’t play as many games as other hitters do. The average number of games played by the 30 starting catchers last year was 114, and they averaged 443 plate appearances. The average for the 30 starting first basemen was 142 games played and 563 PAs. Catchers get 25% fewer at-bats than players at other positions, meaning they have 25% fewer opportunities to score points for your fantasy team. And that includes the rare catchers who play first base or outfield when they are not catching. In general, catchers just don’t get enough playing time to generate the same fantasy value that players at all other positions do. Similarly, catching prospects are less valuable than other prospects because catchers in general make poor fantasy commodities.
That is why it will actually be a good thing if and when Kyle Schwarber is moved to the outfield permanently. Not only will Schwarber get more at-bats as an outfielder than he would if he remained a catcher, he will also reach the major leagues faster. Catchers take much longer to develop in the minor leagues. They need to learn to play a very demanding defensive position while also learning how to handle a pitching staff. Frequently catchers fall behind with the bat while they are devoting so much of their time and energy developing their catching skills. Not only do catchers reach the majors at a later age than the outfielders from their draft class, they also tend to spend a couple of seasons as a backup or part of a timeshare once they do reach the major leagues. They are also more likely to suffer injuries that cause them to miss time or play hurt (with a corresponding drop in production) and their careers are likely to be shorter.
The Wieters Factor
One more factor is the dismal record of elite catching prospects. Matt Wieters, Jesus Montero, Buster Posey, Mike Zunino, Yasmani Grandal, Gary Sanchez and Travis d’Arnaud have been the big shiny names in catching prospects the last several years. Only Posey has become a fantasy stud. You may remember that Wieters was considered a super-elite prospect, a once-in-a-generation talent, the next Johnny Bench. Montero was also an elite prospect whom most people assumed would move out from behind the plate. Was the extra responsibility of catching the reason he failed at the plate? On the other hand, the guys that did become fantasy studs were not considered good prospects: Jonathan Lucroy, Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez and Yan Gomes were non-entities as minor leaguers and didn’t become valuable fantasy commodities until they were well-established major leaguers. Buster Posey is really the only catcher in recent years who was an elite prospect and actually met those expectations. Perhaps Devin Mesoraco will be the next. Catcher prospects rarely live up to the hype, and flame out at a higher percentage compared to other hitting prospects.
Still want Kyle Schwarber to remain a catcher? I don’t. Want to invest a valuable draft pick on any catching prospect? I wouldn’t. Catching prospects are the worst type of prospect, with the possible exception of relief pitching prospects. Good catchers are critically important in real life baseball and I love to watch a master of the craft at work, but I avoid spending my resources (draft picks, auction dollars, minor league roster slots, FAAB budget, etc) on catching prospects.
One thing we know for sure is that Kyle Schwarber can hit. He projects as a guy who will hit both for average and power. He is the type of bat you want in your fantasy lineup every day, not 5 times a week. He might help the Cubs more if he can become a quality defender behind the plate, but he will help your fantasy team more if he moves to the outfield full time very soon. If he is an outfielder we are looking at a September 2015 major league debut and a mid-2016 role as a fantasy-worthy player. If he sticks at catcher it will delay his timetable at least a full year if not two. Given the fact he can play outfield on days when he does not catch, he could be the rare catcher who plays nearly every day a la Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Santana or Evan Gattis. The catcher eligibility would be a nice bonus and would improve his value, but if it causes him to spend more time in the minors and stunts his growth with the bat then it simply isn’t worth it. Move him to the outfield Epstein!
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