Why Joe Mauer Isn’t the Top Catcher in 2011

This will serve as the 3/15 Daily Dose (Ed. note – I’ve got time for one post a day right now, so it’s either a feature like this or the DD).

Catcher is always a tricky spot in fantasy baseball.  It’s usually pretty thin putting a premium on the studs, but that is counterbalanced by the fact that even the studs are guaranteed to miss time by not catching at least a day and sometimes two each week.  There is a firm ceiling on a catcher’s output because of those built-in days off plus the significant risk of more missed time due to injury.

Despite all of that, Joe Mauer remains the consensus top catcher and usually goes very early.  Whether people are still salivating over that MVP season from 2009 and hoping it will return (only for a full season this time instead of five months) or they just want to get the perceived best player at a perceived scarce position who will at the very least give you a major boost in an oft-forgotten or at least generally mishandled category (batting average).

First things first, catcher isn’t as scarce as conventional wisdom suggests.  It’s not superstar-laden, but the upper crust (8 or 9 guys spread across two, maybe three tiers) is thicker and the mid-to-late round options contain about 10 or so guys who don’t vary much in their overall value.

The point of this article is less about scarcity and more about that perceived top option.  I have nothing against Mauer.  Despite being a Tigers fan with the Twins as one of our chief rivals, I really like the guy.  I actually want him to become the guy he was in 2009 and I was convinced he would be for most of the 2010 offseason until March hit and I came to my senses and backed off in the nick of time (a lot of it had to due with reading some convincing pieces, namely by Ron Shandler).  I still think he’s capable of being truly elite when it comes to power and pure hitting, but until he shows it that 2009 season is a major outlier.

When I posted my catcher rankings back on February 9th, I had Mauer first.  In fact every single one of the seven offseason magazines I sheepishly admit to having bought (Borders giftcard + addiction to fantasy baseball = win!) did, too.  I have thought long and hard about it and I’m making a change.  This is not home team bias driven, but I think Victor Martinez should be the top catcher for 2011.

Before I get into why, I want to clarify that this doesn’t mean you have to draft him first.  I think he will have the most value, but you will still see at least Mauer go before if not Brian McCann, Buster Posey and maybe even Carlos Santana, too.  Be careful, though, catcher is a position that tends to go in runs so if you see Mauer go, it is probably time to pounce on Martinez if you’re on board with my thoughts.

The reason I like him as the top catcher is the obvious one: he’s not going to be catching much at all.  The problem with catchers is the position.  It’s a grueling position that inherently wears guys down and cuts into their offensive value in a myriad of ways, most of which I already covered.  The general degradation of their bodies as the season progresses just eats into their value.

The Tigers are planning to play Martinez at DH most days, catcher every once in a while to spell Alex Avila and some first base when Miguel Cabrera needs a partial day off and moves to DH.  Speaking of Cabrera, if a worst-case scenario came to fruition for the Tigers whereby they missed Cabrera for any amount of time due to his off-the-field issues, then that would just mean more time for Martinez not catching as he is the primary backup at first.

So what does not catching do to his value?  We have a glimpse of it in the form of his 2009 season.  He caught 85 games and played first for another 70 logging a career high 155 games and essentially matched the production in line with his best seasons.  Coming at age 30 for a catcher, that’s impressive.  His OPS+ was 126, 3rd-highest of his career (130 as a 26 year old, 129 at 28).  He hit .303 with 23 homers and 108 RBIs (2nd-best HR, RBI totals and 3rd-best AVG of his career).

In the 2011, his split between games catching and not catching will be much greater which should result in another 150+ games played and could even yield career-high production.  I think we could see as much as a 7-10% increase of his production from 2009 season with the bulk of his catching duties removed from his plate combined with the fact that he is still in his prime (although 32 years old is generally regarded as that final year of the prime).

Just using the low end of that increase yields a .324 average, 25 home runs, 116 RBIs and 94 runs scored, which would no doubt lap the field in terms of catchers.  In fact, unless Mauer repeats his 2009, Martinez with “just” a .300-20-100- season is better than Mauer at .330-10-80.  Mauer’s batting average advantage offers .002 more to the bottom line over Martinez, but Martinez more than makes up that difference with 10 more HRs and 20 more RBI.  Martinez has three 20-100 seasons; two included a .300+ average.  He also had .302-20-79 last year in just 127 games.

Consider also that power is drying up recently making his 20+ ability all the more valuable, especially since it doesn’t come with the deficiencies found in a Mike Napoli 20-homer season (granted, V-Mart costs more than Nap, too).  Mauer’s batting average boost is nice, there is no denying that, especially since he is capable of .350 in any given season, but Martinez is hardly a liability there and he often logs more at-bats than Mauer.  Mauer has yet to reach 540 at-bats in a season while Martinez has four such seasons, three of which topped 560.

For as great a hitter as Mauer is, he has yet to rack up 100 RBIs in any given season, either.  Martinez has three such seasons.  I’m struggling to see why Mauer is an unchallenged #1 at the position.  The batting average impact is undeniable.  His “worst” season in the last three was last year’s .327, but compared to Martinez the advantage isn’t as glaring.  Apart from 2009’s explosion of 28 homers, he has reached double digits just once (13, 2006).  Same with topping 85 RBIs, only 2009’s 96 fit the bill.

Instead of betting on what Mauer can be, why not invest in what Martinez already is?  There is too much risk tied up in catchers already before you even get into the personal situations of each, but then you look at Mauer with his injury history combined with the underwhelming production save the one star category.

Looking at Martinez, you’re alleviating a great deal of the risk associated with catching by getting a catcher-eligible DH/1B, combining that with a proven track record of power production at a position lacking it (just four 20+ HR hitters in 2010; more than four just once since 2003 [2009]) with a guy still in his prime.  Adding it all up, you have a new #1 atop the catcher rankings.  Martinez is your guy if you want to go with catching early.

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