Building a Balanced Team 2017 Edition: Catchers
Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Growing up, my grandfather would regularly say this to me, which isn’t surprising since it’s a very grandfatherly kind of thing to say. It’s reminiscent of a time when people had lots of eggs, so many so that they used baskets to transport them from place to place. And those that tried to use one giant basket to transport their eggs sometimes lost the farm.
While the egg carton has spared modern man a similar fate, the lesson remains applicable to many facets of life. It’s especially true in fantasy baseball, where relying on any one player to carry a category invites unnecessary risk. Sure, Billy Hamilton may be able to single-handedly win you the stolen base category, but if you put all of your eggs in that basket, you’re asking for trouble. One tweaked hamstring or hit by pitch or outfield collision could be the difference between a title and a fourth place finish. Why would anyone tempt the fickle fantasy gods in such a way?
Owners can mitigate the risk of a single unfortunate event derailing their entire season by constructing a balanced roster. Now, it’s impossible to build a team of five-category contributors, so what we are really trying to do is build a team of players that at a minimum will not detract from any single category. In order to do so, we must calculate the average production of each position, and then use these benchmarks to identify the most balanced players in our leagues.
I began this exercise by gathering data for each position over the past decade 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 are listed for each player.
While offensive output for the position rebounded slightly in 2016, the number of catchers whom you can count upon to offer value in more than three categories remains abysmal. Based on this measure, the catching position is one of the scarcest in the sport. This should come as no surprise, as outside of the top options, the position has been a wasteland for the majority of the past decade.
If we convert the 10-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.
No real surprises here. Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez, Jon Lucroy, and Wilson Contreras are the first catchers off of the board in redraft leagues, and Sanchez and Contreras carry even greater value in dynasty leagues. However, the track records of these promising new back stops should make dynasty league owners take pause. Each has fewer than 300 major league plates appearances, and they both have some warts. Sanchez took the league by storm before his BABIP regressed, and with a 33% strikeout rate from September 1st onward, hitting the batting average benchmark is not a foregone conclusion. Contreras mustered 12 home runs with a 54% groundball rate, which seems a little flukey. If you don’t buy repeats in these categories, this tier only includes two potential five-category contributors in Posey and Lucroy. Considering that each is now 30 years old, you may be able to acquire them at a discount in dynasty leagues. Their respective teams seem committed to keeping them fresh, so I expect them to continue to accumulate plate appearances in the future. Playing time at this position is half the battle.
Who the hell is this guy?
The San Francisco Giants transitioned Miguel Gomez to third base during the 2016 season, but Steamer still categorizes him as a catcher. As a 24-year-old in the Cal league, Gomez slashed .267/.302/.500. Over his minor league career, he has shown the ability to hit a few homers and swipe a few bags, but the hit tool has been the real differentiator thus far. His skill set isn’t nearly as valuable at third base, so monitor his eligibility moving forward.
Outside of Sal Perez, each of these players come up short in the batting average department. Considering Perez missed the potential five-category tier by a single stolen base, I have him ranked well above the rest of his cohorts in dynasty league formats. Grandal, Wieters, and Zunino should provide excellent home run production at the position, but they carry a high degree of risk due to injury and performance histories. Tom Murphy is this year’s sleeper at the position after he batted .273/.347/.659 in limited action last season. The combination of the performance and home venue have made him a popular target in redraft and dynasty leagues. Small sample disclaimers apply here.
Who the hell is this guy?
Another Rockies catching prospect, Will Swanner, has amassed 77 homers and 26 steals over a seven year minor league career. With a career .266 batting average and the potential to play half of his games at Coors, he could turn into a solid contributor by virtue of his surroundings. However, he is 25 years old and just got his first taste of AAA ball last year, so this one is a long shot, albeit one that likely won’t cost you much in dynasty leagues.
Our third and final tier has many familiar names, as well as some surprises. McCann and Martin are the boring but steady options, although each likely has nowhere to go but down from here. Welington Castillo’s arrival in Baltimore could finally lead to the break-out that many pundits have predicted. Ramos has struggled to stay on the field as of late, but when he does he offers similar production to that of some of our four-category contributors. This is the second year in a row that Steamer has projected Robinson Chirinos to meet or exceed at least three of our thresholds. Texas will likely try to mitigate the wear and tear on Jonathon Lucroy, which should give Chirinos plenty of opportunities to contribute. It doesn’t look like Chance Sisco will offer much in the way of power, but Camden Yards should give him a boost. His arrival in Baltimore will be dependent on the performance of his cohort.
Who the hell is this guy?
Kyle Higa… Higa… Notgunnaworkhereanymore hit 21 homers across AA and AAA last year, which accounted for almost half of his career total over his nine minor league seasons. There’s some guy named Gary Sanchez manning the position at the major league level, so it doesn’t look like he’ll get much of an opportunity to duplicate the power breakout in the Bigs anytime soon.
Historically, it has been difficult to find anything more than a warm body to fill the catching position on fantasy teams. Despite the emergence of younger options such as Sanchez and Contreras, there are few who offer the safety and production that an early round investment will likely demand. That being said, it is a position that needs to be prioritized when attempting to build a balanced roster, as our measures of scarcity indicate that there are very few options who meet our criteria. Next time, we’ll take a look at first and second base to identify players who can contribute to at least three categories.