Fantasy Baseball 2021: Catcher preview

Catcher remains fantasy baseball’s thinnest position (think tight end in football), with only J.T. Realmuto and Salvador Perez finishing inside the top-100 players last season. Put differently, the No. 10 fantasy catcher last year (Martin Maldonado) was the No. 487 ranked player overall (No. 190 hitter). Going back to 2019 when MLB last played a full season, we saw similar results with JTR the only catcher who finished inside the top-175 fantasy players (and the depth got just as ugly).

[Positional Previews: C| 1B| 2B| SS| 3B| OF| SP| RP]

Volume is the main reason why here, as THE BAT X projects just eight catchers to reach even 400 at bats and only one to get to 500. Playing catcher is taxing, and it’s evolved into a platoon position, with defense and especially pitch-framing gaining increasing importance.

Catcher draft strategy

This can vary, as leagues fluctuate between using one and two catchers. In either format, spending an early pick on Realmuto gives you an advantage at a position (he’s in a tier by himself) unlike any other, so it’s a strategy well worth entertaining. In fact, a practical way of illustrating just how important Realmuto is compared to replacement level, consider that he was on about 33% of the winning teams in the NFBC’s Main Event last year (h/t Greg Ambrosius). That’s pretty compelling with fantasy baseball having so many roster spots.

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Catchers you’d reach for

J.T. Realmuto is clearly extremely valuable when you adjust for position scarcity and as the rare catcher who contributes power, batting average and speed. Although it would’ve been better for him had the NL brought back the DH, his ADP is also falling after suffering a fracture in his thumb (he’s expected to be ready for the start of the season). He’s an excellent target.

After JTR, I’m mostly waiting on the position rather than targeting one in the early rounds. Others I’m most interested in this year include Mitch Garver and Gary Sanchez, who are obvious BA risks (most catchers are) but primed for big bounce backs coming off a disappointing 2020. Since 2003, only three catchers have eclipsed 30 homers in a season, and two of them are Sanchez (twice) and Garver.

On the flip side (BA over power), Buster Posey is healthier than he’s been in years after opting out last season, and the career .302 hitter is the rare catcher who won’t hurt your batting average. Maybe some of his diminished power returns further removed from hip surgery, and the former MVP winner should hit toward the top or middle of a much-improved Giants lineup that’s otherwise loaded with lefties. Moreover, last season Oracle Park changed its dimensions (among other tweaks), resulting in it going from an extreme pitcher’s park to an extreme hitter’s park.

From 2017-2019, San Francisco decreased run scoring by 12%, which was the second-most in baseball. Last season, only three other NL parks increased run scoring (7%) more than San Francisco. That may not transfer completely to 2021 for a few reasons: the archways may be changed back when/if fans return, not all games will be played during the warmer summer months, random variation. Still, SF is still likely to be a much more friendly place for Posey to hit since he last played. He’s my favorite target in two-catcher leagues this year.

[Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Daulton Varsho could easily open the year in the minors, so he may require patience and/or a deep bench, but he also has real fantasy upside as a catcher with 20/20 potential. Varsho had 29 homers and 40 steals over the last two years in the minors (700 ABs), and Chase Field remains a fine place to hit, so he has reasons to be drafted other than his strong first name.

Austin Nola is a late bloomer, and while there’s some concern about the number of at-bats he’ll get with San Diego possibly using personalized catchers, he’s developed into one of the league’s better hitting backstops. His expected batting average was in the 80th percentile last season. Nola is a fine fallback option if you miss out on earlier catchers in your draft.

Catcher you’re fading

Will Smith joins a long list of talented Dodgers, but his ADP (103.7) is high for someone who may not even reach 400 at-bats given how Los Angeles treats him. Manager Dave Roberts recently referred to Austin Barnes and Smith as a “1 and 1A” timeshare. But really, there are only four catchers with a current Yahoo ADP inside 120, meaning not even five are off the board after 10 rounds of a typical draft, so there’s no one to really “fade” here unless you’re out on Realmuto, which I can’t get behind.

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