Building a Balanced Team: Catchers
With draft season upon us, you’ll soon be reading multitude articles related to draft strategies. Some will recommend that you spend the vast majority of your auction budget on “stars”, and fill in the gaps with “scrubs.” Others will suggest that you punt certain categories and instead focus on winning the rest. While it is always valuable to examine the different ways you can approach your draft, there’s a big difference between understanding strategy in theory and executing it in practice. Over the years, I’ve found myself taking a more balanced approach and diversifying my fantasy baseball portfolio. It hasn’t been a conscious decision, but rather something that has happened organically. Maybe it’s because I’ve reached an age where I spend far more time thinking about my retirement account than my destination on Friday night. Or maybe it’s just a subconscious reaction to some of the disappointing seasons I endured in the past using an extreme draft strategy.
In any event, I’m become a proponent of mitigating your risk when constructing a roster. This means drafting a balanced team so that you’re not relying on any one asset to carry a category. Sure, Billy Hamilton presents an opportunity to lock up a category with a single player, but what if he gets hurt? Worse yet, what if he just sucks and ends up being a drain on all of your other categories? I don’t know about you, but I spend too much time preparing for each fantasy baseball season to have it be derailed by a single stroke of bad luck. This isn’t to say we should avoid specialists as a rule of thumb, but rather focusing our efforts on drafting five category contributors will afford us the opportunity to roll the dice on the Billy Hamiltons of the world to compliment a solid foundation.
In order to put this into practice, we must target players who can contribute to (or at least not detract from) all five hitting categories. Obviously, the number of five-category contributors in each league is limited, and the market has properly valued them for the most part. But less-heralded players who meet our contribution thresholds do exist, and finding them is a key way to gain an advantage over our opponents. In addition, we’ll also need to look at positional scarcity to identify the tiers that we must target in our drafts to achieve the most balanced lineup possible. Over the next several weeks, we will examine production trends over an 11-year period for each position to aid us in our quest to build a balanced roster. We will conclude this series by looking at positional scarcity across all positions, and player distributions based on current ADPs. Today, we will take a look at catchers.
For those of you who aren’t interested in the methodology, please feel free to skip ahead. For the rest, I began this exercise by gathering data for each position over the past decade (plus a bonus year because why not?) to determine the average production for each hitting category. In order to eliminate outliers resulting from limited sample sizes, I used a 400-plate appearance qualifier for all positions with the exception of catcher, for which I set the threshold at 300 plate appearances. I also wanted to control for lost playing time resulting from unforeseeable injuries, so rather than calculate the average counting-stat totals for each category, I calculated the ratio of plate appearances to each counting stat (e.g. 30 plate appearances per home run as opposed to an average of 20 home runs).
After calculating the baseline for each category and year, I tallied the number of players who met three or more category thresholds as a measure of positional scarcity. Finally, I calculated the average for each category and position over the ten-year period to reduce the noise and determine the baselines we will use to identify multi-category contributors in our draft. For those who have the time, I highly recommend creating your own player projections and comparing them against the following baseline calculations, but for this article, I am going to use the Steamer 600 projections provided by Fangraphs. For reference, current 2016 NFBC ADP figures for each player are listed in parenthesis. And now, the catchers:
Overall, the catching position has seen declines across all categories in recent years. In 2015, home run and batting average production was down by five percent, run and RBI production was down six, and stolen base production decreased by forty-five percent relative to the 10-year average. This does not appear to be the result of random variance, as the most recent three-year trends are also well off of the 11-year average. The number of five-category contributors has also been on the decline, and it appears that the majority of the players in this pool can be expected to contribute to no more than three categories.
If we convert the 11-year average ratios back to counting stats based on 450 plate appearances, we can compare the values to the Steamer 600 projections (which projects all catcher stats based on 450 plate appearances) to identify players that meet each of our target thresholds.
Keeping with recent trends, we only identified a single five-category contributor based on the Steamer projections: Nick Hundley (230.91). You can attribute his resurgence to the hitter’s haven that is Coors Field, but Hundley demonstrated some improved skills last season, swinging at far fewer pitches outside of the zone, and posting his best ISO since 2011. Based on his current price, it does not appear that the market buys a repeat, and at 32 he should be discounted in dynasty leagues, but even with some regression he shouldn’t kill you in any one category. As a win-now target he’s quite solid.
Buster Posey (21.02) and Kyle Schwarber (31.56) are the obvious names, and you’ll obviously have to pay a premium to acquire each of them. Joining them in this tier are two more moderately-priced players, including Sal Perez (102.75) and Devin Mesoraco (161.60). Short of an injury, Steady Sal is all but guaranteed to play 140 games and accumulate plate appearances, which is half the battle at this position. He should help you in the homerun, runs, and RBI categories, and he only missed our batting average threshold by 2 points. Mesoraco is more of an unknown after missing most of last season with a hip injury. If he can regain his form, he has the potential to return second- or third-round value for a fraction of the cost. Both players are entering their prime years, so don’t hesitate to pay the price in dynasty leagues.
We identified nine players in this category who are all priced reasonably, especially for a two-catcher league. Jonathan Lucroy (103.00) had an injury-plagued 2015, but prior to that he was a model of consistency, and with health he could be a five-category contributor. The injury may have opened a window for acquiring him at a discount in your dynasty league, as well. The days of stealing bases and providing a useful batting average appear to be over for Brian McCann (111.02), but he’ll make up for it by easily exceeding the home run, run, and RBI benchmarks while hitting in the middle of the Yankee lineup. Russell Martin (123.40) benefited from the move to Toronto last season, which resulted in a huge spike in his counting stats, but Steamer forecasts regression in his Age-33 season. Travis d’Arnaud (145.75) has struggled to remain healthy throughout his professional career, but even in half a season he exceeded the thresholds for home runs, runs and RBI. He doesn’t have much speed, but he could contribute to four hitting categories this year. Matt Wieters (167.27) is another player who has struggled with injuries, but with health he could match McCann’s numbers at a discounted price. Yasmani Grandal (201.18) has never put together a full season of production, but while his only consistent contribution has been power he has shown intriguing elements of four-category potential in flashes. He seems to be appropriately priced given the injury/production risks, but offers tantalizing potential for surplus value. Robinson Chirinos (324.26), Dioner Navarro (375.89), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (550.17), will likely be part-timers for their teams, but with an injury to their counterparts they have the potential to contribute in multiple categories and remain relevant in deeper two-catcher formats.
In recent years, five- and four-category contributors have become increasingly scarce at the catcher position. Worse yet, the position has seen a decline in production as a whole. As such, it is critical to identify and target those players who have the potential to meet or exceed the positional averages. The players that we’ve identified using the Steamer 600 projections not only provide more overall value relative to their peers, but in some cases they can give you a significant advantage over your competitors in specific categories. Catchers on the whole tend to be devalued in dynasty formats, so there should be ample opportunity to make your play. Nick Hundley may not lead the position in any single category, but he is being valued for present-year production in the range of Blake Swihart and Wellington Castillo, two players who will force you to compensate for their deficiencies elsewhere. Swihart has the greater long-term value, but Hundley will be significantly cheaper and represents a more complete option for 2016. Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber will require a substantial investment, but they are also projected to meet or significantly outperform the position averages, which could be the difference between a first- and second-place finish. Jonathan Lucroy’s injury-shortened 2015 season has caused his market value to plummet since last year, but the underlying skills haven’t changed. He presents an excellent buy-low opportunity, and he could potentially finish the year as a five-category contributor. Devin Mesoraco, Travis d’Arnuad, and Matt Wieters are all injury risks, but the extent to which they outperform the category averages should offset any lost playing time. Even with only a partial season’s worth of plate appearances, they should be able to at least meet the category benchmarks and protect your investment.
Next up, we’ll evaluate the positional averages and measures of scarcity for first base and second base, and identify some players to target in our quest to build a balanced roster.