Fantasy Baseball Position Primer: Catcher

Andy Behrens
March 4, 2014
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Last year, the man who led all fantasy catchers in runs-scored, homers and RBIs was not actually a catcher. Instead, it was Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, who retained position-eligibility from the prior season. Napoli finished No. 2 in the year-end ranks at this spot, behind only Yadier Molina. The guy who ranked No. 4 among catchers last season, Victor Martinez, spent nearly his entire year at DH.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

So, generally speaking, it's nice when your fantasy backstop is not a real-life backstop. Catcher is easily the game's most physically demanding everyday position, a fact that remains unchanged despite the experimental anti-collision rule. The best way for fantasy owners to reduce injury risk at this notoriously injury-prone spot is to find catcher-eligible players who don't catch.

Unfortunately, neither Napoli nor V-Mart made enough appearances behind the plate last year to qualify again in 2014. However, we have other brand-name catchers relocating on the defensive spectrum, and the fantasy community needs to take note.

Joe Mauer will shift full-time to first base for Minnesota this year, following a season cut short by concussion issues. With the loss of Mauer's defensive contributions at catcher, the Twins almost certainly won't realize full value on his contract ($115 million over five years). But they're extending the career of a three-time batting champ, a career .323/.405/.468 hitter.

Fantasy-wise, Mauer now appears to be among the safest draft day investments; only six months ago, he figured to be one of the riskiest. He's never played more than 147 games in any of his 10 big league seasons, but he's now a decent bet to see action in 150.

Carlos Santana spent his offseason working at third base in the Dominican Winter League, having been usurped by Yan Gomes as Cleveland's backstop. Santana started 47 games at first last season, too, so he'll eventually have uncommon positional utility. (Not that you'd want to play him anywhere other than catcher. Still, it's a useful deep-league trait). Carlos is perhaps the favorite to lead all catcher-eligible players in at-bats this season; only Martinez finished ahead of him in 2013.

Of course most of you won't have the luxury of owning a non-catching catcher this year, because there aren't enough to go around. The essential thing to recognize about this position is that it's highly unusual for any catcher to finish with a top-50 overall rank, which means it's difficult to justify an early pick. Last year, no backstop cracked the top-50. The year before, only Buster Posey did it (31). In 2011, nobody. In 2010, nada. In 2009, only Mauer.

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So that's just two top-50 catchers in a five-year period. Not great.

Before you hammer out a lengthy position-scarcity manifesto in comments, please just do the following: Go to one of your Yahoo mixed leagues, hit the "Players" tab, filter for all catchers with 2013 stats, then sort by "Rank." What you'll see, up and down the list, are a bunch of 60-15-70-.270 seasons. Among the pool of C-eligible players for 2014, nobody scored more than 75 runs last year, no one hit more than 22 homers and no one finished with more than 82 RBIs. Russell Martin and Jonathan Lucroy each stole nine bases, leading the position.

The raw numbers separating a top-five catcher from a player in the 8-12 range are not exactly eye-popping. What's more, the raw numbers separating last year's unanimous No. 1 catcher (Posey) from the guy we ranked tenth (Salvador Perez) were basically trivial. Our top-ranked backstop scored 13 more runs, hit two more homers, delivered seven fewer RBIs, stole two more bases, and finished with a two-point edge in batting average. That's it. Both guys had relatively healthy seasons, too, appearing in 148 and 138 games respectively.

We can play this same showdown-game with Posey vs. Castro, Pierzynski, Salty, Lucroy or Wieters. The point is, our top-ranked catcher had a healthy, productive season, yet his drafters took a loss.

No matter your format, even in two-catcher leagues, I prefer not to invest heavily at this spot. I typically won't shop in the upper tiers (unless, again, I'm getting a non-catching backstop. Napoli was my guy last season.) Sure, it's awesome when you happen to own a catcher who delivers an MVP-worthy season, like Posey in 2012 or Mauer in '09. But those years are rare, and certainly not bankable.

Position averages for the top-15 catchers, last three years

2013 – 60.4 R, 17.2 HR, 71.9 RBIs, 2.1 SB, .279 AVG
2012 – 61.3 R, 19.8 HR, 73.6 RBIs, 2.9 SB, .278 AVG
2011 – 59.5 R, 18.9 HR, 70.4 RBIs, 3.1 SB, .267 AVG