Caught Empty-Handed?

During the preparation season (October to March if you’re like me), there are tons of debates that get looked at from every possible angle. One that comes up annually is position scarcity. Is it better to have the best at a scarce position or just fill the gap with something moderately adequate and hope that maybe you capture a breakout season in a bottle? This year it was quite clear that catcher was the thinnest position. (Note: I also believed outfield to be far more scarce than many believed, but it’s a different beast in that some of the game’s top producers are outfielders and stocking up on them early doesn’t carry the potential disadvantages of getting a top catcher early on.)

It was viewed as the 4 M’s and then the rest. Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Joe Mauer and Brian McCann were the elite while almost anything else was table scraps by comparison. Geovany Soto and J.R. Towles were appealing rookies that got a lot of attention based mostly on potential. So back to our question, would you be paying the premium for an M or waiting on the flotsam? I’ve always been firmly entrenched in the flotsam camp. I’m not saying I get the absolute worst of the worst, but I’m definitely hoping to get two $1 lottery tickets in the auction. That is, two $1 catchers that have some level of silver lining that could lead to a quality season. At most, I’ll budget $10 to fill the two catcher spots. In my draft leagues, I usually designate a set of value guys and take them once only a couple of teams need catchers.

To me, spending the extra resources (draft pick or auction dollars) to maybe get top quality production at catcher just isn’t worth it. The 4 M’s are some quality baseball players, but it’s not like I get them AND the same outfield or the same trio of corner infielders that I would’ve gotten by not investing those extra resources. My point is, your team will take the hit somewhere. Is it better to take the hit in catcher or any other position? The answer, plain and simple, is any other position. And there are several reasons for this answer.

First is that the position is a defensive one; hitting is secondary for almost every catcher. Regardless of how well they hit, a catcher’s first job is to run the pitching staff and quarterback the defense… or at least it will be if the manager has his way. That doesn’t mean that they care less about hitting, but their management is likely to ignore some struggles at the dish if they are calling their games remarkably well and engineering a crisp defensive unit. It’s a very cerebral position that puts a lot on a guy’s plate and sometimes the hitting gets pushed to the side. Ever notice how many former catchers are currently managing teams?

Second is that the position takes a toll on the body! One of the reason it is hard to get quality numbers out of catchers is because they just don’t play as much as other players so they can’t pile up counting stats. Usually it’s simply the nature of being a catcher is conducive to planned off days, but oftentimes injuries occur and they miss extended periods of time. There is a reason that players move from behind the dish after a few seasons. Craig Biggio started out as a catcher and so did Carlos Delgado & B.J. Surhoff. Neither would’ve lasted as long as they did (or are in Delgado’s case) without moving to a new position. Victor Martinez played 30 games at 1st base a season ago and 22 the season before that—he is slowly making the transition. Already this year he has four games logged as a first baseman.

Reasons 1 and 2 lead to volatility in the already depressed production of players at that position. To put it simply: too much can go wrong when investing heavily in catchers at the expense of another position. Consider the following table:

2005-2007 Catchers Production

Ouch, that’s pretty awful, isn’t it? So what’s my point? Looking at the three year averages of production across the key statistics in fantasy baseball, there isn’t even enough at any statistic for one per team in a 10-team league. And 12+ team leagues are far more common meaning things are even thinner in your average league. That coupled with the fact that there are no sure things at catcher (isn’t that right, Mr. Martinez?) means you should avoid investing heavily at the position. The best way to optimize your chances for winning is to mitigate the risk. You can’t play it safe across the board, but when taking risks you assess the level of risk against the potential reward.

When analyzing catcher, the risk-reward says you’re better off with Dioner Navarro and Chris Snyder at a dollar apiece or a late round pick than Russell Martin or Victor Martinez for several dollars (varies greatly by league) or in the first 2-3 rounds. Navarro was brutal last year with a .641 OPS, but digging deeper reveals an .815 OPS after the break. Most owners would only see his overall numbers and probably laugh when you roster him for a $1 or in the reserve rounds of your draft. Now he has an .862 OPS in 118 at-bats. Snyder’s 13 home runs from 2007 likely had him on more radars than Navarro, but the .252 average and 47 RBIs likely kept his draft position and auction price low. His .889 post-break OPS, powered by a .386 on-base, screamed buy to me and now I’m enjoying his .842 OPS and 26 RBIs in several leagues.

Both of these players may look like hindsight 20-20 picks and I can’t necessarily prove that they aren’t so you’ll have to trust me. I’m simply making a point that a little extra homework can save resources from being wasted and enhance your chances for winning your league. Even if that same homework results in a Carlos Ruiz (.595 OPS) or Kurt Suzuki (.614 OPS), it freed up resources (in the form of auction dollars or your higher level draft picks) that ensured you weren’t stuck relying on an Andruw Jones or Eric Byrnes as a #1 or #2 outfielder. Acquiring a top catcher means you will have to cut corners elsewhere and it’s wiser to cut corners at catcher than it is at any other position. By the way, the mention of Martin may draw the ire of some who look at his line and say he’s doing just fine. He hasn’t been abysmal, but he’s on pace for 9 HR and 12 SB when many projected a near 20-20 season again after last year’s 19 HR-21 SB. Factor in the price paid to get him (leagues in which he was a keeper notwithstanding) and he is whatever the level is just before “abysmal”.

As the calendar flips to June, the preseason catcher quartet shows the one ranked 4th producing the best by a landslide:

I’ve already covered Martin. Mauer has been a bust in the power department since day 1 for the most part so his homerless streak isn’t terribly surprising, but the owners that have 0 HR-11 R-18 RBI out of Martinez thus far probably get sick every morning when they sift through the boxscores. The only one on par with McCann thus far? The rookie of course. Geovany Soto has McCann matched in home runs with 9 to go with his 36 RBIs, 21 runs scored and .301/.396/.563 line. Three of the four catchers widely regarded as the only sure things available are vastly under performing against expectations and the fourth was often rated the lowest only further showing how uncertain the position can be for fantasy owners.

This subject will be revisited throughout the season and at length again in the off-season.

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One Comment to “Caught Empty-Handed?”

  1. I like the breakdown. I tend to aim for the middle and typically budget $10 to spend on catchers. I don’t want absolute stiffs, but I also don’t want to pay for any of the 4 M’s. This year in my 3 money leagues (2 NL, 1 AL), I took Soto, Towles, Shoppach, Snyder, Montero, and Johjima. I spent no more than $12 on any pair of the catchers. I have since made a deal in the AL league to acquire Mauer from an owner who was down on him.

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