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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.

Opportunity Knocks

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!

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nick Doran also writes for Fake Teams and Redleg Nation. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @BlazingFastba11.

 

The Author

Nick Doran

Nick Doran

10 Comments

  1. Dave Sorenson
    March 21, 2015 at 9:52 am — Reply

    Our fantasy league (keeper, AL and Brewers and Cubs, 10 teams) allows up to 5 minor leaguers on a farm roster. If given the opportunity to select Schwarber or Swihart, whom would you choose?

    • March 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm — Reply

      In real life Swihart is the better all-around prospect, but in fantasy I would take Schwarber because he is the better hitter.

    • June 2, 2015 at 1:27 am — Reply

      It’s not even close, take Schwarber. That Cub line up is going to be a fantasy juggernaut !

  2. foltzie
    March 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    My first thought was Joe Mauer. He was definitely an uber-prospect, and was definitely fantasy relevant in his prime.
    But my question is more about his eventual replacement at catcher. What are your thoughts on Josmil Pinto?

    • March 21, 2015 at 4:47 pm — Reply

      Pinto might turn out to be a decent fantasy catcher. He won’t be the type to start on a championship-caliber fantasy team but he could be serviceable in a pinch.

  3. March 21, 2015 at 9:52 pm — Reply

    Issue with your logic on catcher scarcity: The 48th best hitting OF is almost always better than the 12th best hitting catcher. I do believe drafting a catching prospect is a crap shoot, having taken chances on Wieters and Zunino in the past. But there’s something mystical about getting that once in a generation catching prospect. Anyone who has owned Posey the last 5 years in a keeper league has probably done alright. With Schwarber and Swihart out there it’s hard not to resist grabbing one or both of those guys in a keeper league, especially a 2 catcher 16 team league.

  4. DDP
    March 21, 2015 at 11:16 pm — Reply

    What kind of value would you place on Jorge Alfaro -TEX in a 16 team dynasty in Yahoo? Did I overpay with $8 on him? Our league only has players on the 40 man mlb rosters and we have 3 N/A spots to stash prospects.

  5. D
    March 22, 2015 at 11:08 pm — Reply

    I dislike knocking on posts, so please take this constructively. I don’t really agree your math on calculating scarcity percentages. Your average league has 1C and 3OFs just like each of the major league teams, right? Yes, the 37th-48th best OFs will often be among the next best 12 players out there when considering your util slot… but that doesn’t mean you can say you “need” 4 OFs on your team. You still need 3. The next best player will be whoever it is… on my team it’s a 3B. It’s often an OF because it’s such a deep position, the opposite of scarce. I don’t think you can just use 48 there.

    I agree with your point about playing time though – catchers play fewer games on average that other position players. Still, the whole point about scarcity is avoiding a giant dropoff. It’s not so much that there are no decent catchers out there, it’s that there are so few elite ones. One would want Schwarber to be a C in the belief that he can be, say, a top 50 player as a C. Right now there is one C on Yahoo ranked in the top 50 (Posey, 34) and the next best is pretty far away (Santana, 97). There are 16 OFs that are (and #17 is ranked 51). That’s a crazy scarce resource at C, even if you think Schwarber would rank a bit higher as an OF.

    To put it in perspective, who would you prefer on your team – Posey, or Justin Upton (ranked 33)? There are a lot of Upton types out there, but just one Posey.

    Either way a top player is a huge asset. And I definitely agree with you that it’s a huge gamble to go for as far as drafting a dynasty prospect. It’s so tough because the only ones that you’re sure will stick at C are usually all glove and no stick, just like at SS. So if you “have” to fill a need at C and he ends up at OF, well, that happens. That’s what makes those scarce positions such a huge win if you get one right though.

    Just my thoughts, feel free to disagree :).

    • March 23, 2015 at 9:32 pm — Reply

      You make some good points. In leagues with small starting lineups then the math would change as I mentioned in the article. In most leagues you need to start at least 4 outfielders, sometimes 5 or 6. For example, in The Dynasty Guru Experts league we start 5 outfielders plus 2 utility players and only 1 catcher. Very few dynasty leagues use a lineup with only 3 outfielders.

      It is extremely rare to start more than 2 catchers in a one catcher league. A team that is starting a catcher in a Utility or Infield slot must have a very poor offense indeed.

      Yes it is a big advantage if you have Buster Posey instead of Miguel Montero, but that “star principle” applies to every position. It is better to have Clayton Kershaw than Mike Leake. It is much better to have Mike Trout than Dexter Fowler. If you have great players it is a big help no matter the position. I don’t think star catchers are any different in that regard.

      You are much better off using your minor league slots on non-catcher players. If you want that exceptionally rare catcher who is also an elite hitter you are probably going to have to trade for him. Wasting minor league slots on catchers with the prayer that one of them becomes the next Buster Posey is not a winning strategy. The chances are overwhelming that they will never be valuable fantasy players. If they don’t become one of the best 12 catchers in baseball then they are essentially worthless. An outfielder doesn’t have to be one of the best 12 to be valuable. There are 50+ valuable outfielders in even the shallowest leagues. If you invest in prospect hitters (non-catchers) you can then trade one or more of them for a proven major-league catcher if you need one.

      • D
        March 24, 2015 at 12:42 am — Reply

        Thanks for the response. And fair enough about league size… to me, 3OF and 1Util is very “standard” (I think it’s the Yahoo default), and my league uses it – it’s got its dynasty intensity by virtue of being a 20 team league though. Most leagues I’ve played in have used roughly that format (maybe going to LF/CF/RF but still just 3 total OFs), but this is all subjective. One of the joys of fantasy and especially dynasty, there’s a million variants out there :). So the math will be different for everyone.

        I still think scarcity matters, but it’ll obviously vary by league. I mentioned avoiding the dropoff above… you can also think about it as compared to a replacement level pickup. In my league, if my C retired tomorrow, all I could get for free is a part-time guy, likely a sinkhole. If one of my OFs retired tomorrow, I could still pick up a reasonably rosterable player to replace him. In theory, that is who Schwarber would replace for me as a C or OF. In your league, it sounds like the replacement level gap is different, but it’d be interesting to scan your FA pool and see by how much.

        I’d imagine a C prospect has as low a chance of being a Buster Posey as an OF prospect does of being a Trout, so I agree they’re no different in that regard. Whether the #12C is more or less valuable than the #50OF I think is a fair question though… in my league, I probably wouldn’t trade that C for that OF. Anyway, I can’t say “league dependent” enough, but perhaps you’re right that in many leagues the scarcity of Cs is overhyped due to other positions being expanded and managers not adjusting their thinking. It’s a good reminder that everyone should crunch the numbers for their own league.

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