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MLB Baseball Column: Closer By Committee

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January 30, 2013
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Assessing the Tools of Ignorance

Chris Mosch
Writer, Fantrax

In 2009, Joe Mauer had one of the best Fantasy seasons for a catcher in recent memory. En route to winning the American League MVP, Mauer hit .365, jacked 28 home runs, and scored 581 Fantasy points. The last time a catcher posted such incredible Fantasy numbers was when Mike Piazza rattled off a three year stretch of 662, 579, and 586 point seasons from 1997 through 1999.

Despite Mauer’s prolific offensive production, his 581 points tied him for just 30th among all hitters in points. Mauer would have ranked as the 10th best first baseman, 5th best second baseman, and 4th best shortstop that season. Impressive, but not mind-boggling numbers, by 2009 standards.

Hitting has been down across the board since, as last season boasted just eight 600-point scorers compared to twenty such hitters in 2009. When Buster Posey scored 543 fantasy points last season, it ranked him 30th among hitters in points, the same that Mauer’s season placed him among the game’s best hitters in 2009.

By comparison, Mauer’s 2009 season would have tied him with David Wright as the 11th highest scorer among all hitters last year. Remember when Mauer’s 581 points would have ranked him 10th among first basemen in 2009? His 515 points last season would have ranked him as the 7th highest scoring first baseman and just five points behind Adrian Gonzalez.

It’s not just the top scoring catchers who have upped their game compared to the rest of the field. Last season, the position ran fairly deep. There were ten catchers who played in at least 100 games and averaged 3.1 PPG. There has been no other season since 2007 where more than six catchers have reached those benchmarks.

While the rest of baseball has seen an offensive decline in the past few seasons, catchers have been as productive as ever. Let’s take a look at the men who sport the tools of ignorance this season.

 

The Studs

 

Buster Posey 2020

Posey bounced back in spectacular fashion in 2012 following a gruesome home-plate collision with Scott Cousins that cost him most of the 2011 season. The Giants backstop put up a fantastic .336/.408/.549 slash line last season, marks that have only been reached by Piazza, Mauer, and Mickey Cochraine since 1900. Posey scored 543 fantasy points last year, and became just the 3rd catcher in the last decade to break the 540 points mark. At what is traditionally such a thin fantasy position, Posey outscored Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran, Ryan Zimmerman, and Hanley Ramirez. The reigning National League MVP will turn 26 years old this spring and should be a popular fantasy option come opening day.

 

Yadier Molina 1840

In 2011, Molina had what many considered to be an offensive breakout season. Always known for his glove rather than his bat, Molina went from a middling offensive catcher to an above averaging slugger at the position. Last season turned out to be breakout season 2.0 for Molina, as he built on his 2011 campaign and posted career highs in all major offensive categories. Molina’s 22 home runs and .315 batting average fell in line with the league’s best backstops, but he scored significantly less fantasy points than either Posey or Mauer, in part because he did not play in as many games as them. Without the option to play first base or DH with the Cardinals, Molina simply does not have the upside in the counting categories that either of his high-priced counterparts do. Not to mention there is the possibility that Molina experiences regression in the power department, as his HR/FB rate of 13.8% was nearly double his career rate.

 

Joe Mauer 1790 

Like Posey, the 2009 American League MVP returned to form last season and finished as the second-highest scoring fantasy catcher of 2012. Mauer actually posted the best walk rate of his career and reverted his batting average to a solid .319. One of the biggest advantages that Mauer has over other fantasy catchers is that the Twins are willing to play him at 1st base and DH in an attempt to get his bat in the lineup more often. Last year, Mauer played in a career-high 147 games and only 74 of them actually came behind the plate. Manager Terry Ryan has indicated that Mauer could catch as many as 125 games this season, but Mauer is one of the few catchers who you won’t find sitting out a game every week.

 

Waiting for a Breakout

 

Wilin Rosario 1760

Rosario exhibited prolific power during his rookie campaign, leading all catchers with 28 home runs despite playing in only 117 games. The 23-year old trailed only Posey, Mauer, and Molina in points per game (PPG) last year and has a minor league track record that supports that his power is legit. On the other hand, Rosario showed terrible plate discipline last season as he walked just 5.9% of the time while striking out in 23.2% of his plate appearances. His contact rate landed him at the bottom of the league, next to whiff-masters Chris Davis and Pedro Alvarez. Rosario has considerable fantasy potential due to his power numbers alone, but you can pay pennies more for established veterans with fewer question marks.

 

Carlos Santana 1740

Oye Coma Va! Following a 27 home run rookie season, fantasy owners expected big things out of Santana in 2012.  However, he struggled out of the gate, hitting .221 with just five home runs heading into the All-Star Break. Down the stretch, Santana made impressive strides in his approach at the plate, walking 14.3% of the time compared to a 13.1% strikeout rate during the second half of the season. The results followed suit, as the Cleveland catcher hit .281 with 13 home runs while averaging a solid 3.58 PPG. Santana will turn 27 years old in April and could be poised for a big fantasy season.

 

Matt Wieters 1690

In 2012, Wieters produced a stat line that was nearly identical to what he posted during the 2011 season. Let’s take a look at his numbers from the past two seasons.

Season

G

PA

HR

R

RBI

SB

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

2011

139

551

22

72

68

1

8.7%

15.2%

.188

.276

.262

.328

.450

2012

144

593

23

67

83

3

10.1%

18.9%

.186

.274

.249

.329

.435


Wieters’ power has been stunningly consistent - posting nearly identical totals in home runs and ISO. An encouraging step that Wieters did take last year was that he drew more walks. From a skills standpoint, you can make the case that the increase in strikeouts offsets any gains that he made in taking more free passes, but in terms of fantasy points, drawing more walks is always a good thing. The Baltimore backstop has averaged 3.0 PPG over the last two years -- not the most inspiring of marks. The fact remains that Wieters is a former megaprospect entering his age-27 season and the possibility of a breakout season is always imminent.

 

Miguel Montero 1620

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The value that Montero will lose from not having Justin Upton hitting in front of him in negligible. The always underrated Martin Prado is the owner of a .345 career OBP, which is just 12 points less than Upton’s career mark. Like the aforementioned Wieters, Montero has put up respectable numbers in recent years, averaging 3.1 PPG in each of the last two seasons. Montero is a solid fantasy player, but his upside is probably not as high as Wieters’ and the Arizona backstop has dealt with injury problems in the past. For the extra 70 bucks in salary, I’ll take the player who is a former top-five draft pick.

 

Salvador Perez 1540

Perez is a trendy sleeper for many fantasy players over in the rotisserie game due to his .311 batting average through 463 career plate appearances. However, he was also at the bottom of the league in walk percentage last season in part because he is one of the best at putting the bat on the ball. The resulting 19 walks that Perez has accumulated in a little under a season’s worth of career plate appearances puts a major damper on his potential fantasy points value. Taking Perez’s career numbers and extrapolating them over 600 plate appearances would give him 18 home runs, 75 runs, and 78 RBIs to go along with a .311 batting average -- a season that only Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, Piazza, Posey, and Mauer have claim to among catchers since 2000. Despite all of that, Perez has averaged just under 3.0 PPG during his short career. The lack of walks seriously limit Perez’ upside in the points game.

 

Bounceback Candidates

 

Victor Martinez 1650

After missing all of the 2012 season following microfracture surgery on his left knee, V-Mart is expected to be 100 percent healthy by opening day. His value only increases upon the announcement by Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski that Martinez will only serve as Detroit’s DH this season. Martinez had been a top three scorer at the catcher position in each of the three years before the injury and there’s reason to believe that he can return to an elite level of production. Coming back from major surgery is an obvious risk, but Martinez’ upside and moderate salary definitely make him worth consideration.

 

Brian McCann 1580

The Braves have projected that McCann will miss the first few weeks of the season after undergoing surgery during the offseason to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. There is a slight chance that he could make it back in time for Opening Day, but the once-sturdy McCann registered a disappointing .230/.300/.399 slash line to accompany a 2.8 PPG average in 2012. There are too many question marks here for my liking.

 

Mike Napoli 1550

Avascular necrosis -- bone death caused by poor blood supply to the area. Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.

Napoli lost a lot of money this winter after failing the physical for his three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox upon discovery that he had a degenerative hip condition. The most famous case of avascular necrosis is essentially what ended Bo Jackson’s career, but Brett Favre also played the majority of his career with it. Napoli’s condition was caught at a very early stage, but it’s still hard to tell whether he will need surgery this year or if at all during the remainder of his career. However, it was enough for the Red Sox to restructure Napoli’s contract to a one-year, $5 million deal. Napoli already had question marks after hitting .227 and striking out in 30% of his at bats last season. Two years ago that Napoli hit .320 with 30 longballs in just 113 games, but rostering him this upcoming season is not for the risk-averse. 

 

Extra Innings

In past years, many fantasy owners elected to punt the catcher position and find the cheapest options that would hurt their team the least. This strategy has become very outdated since the top catching options have started outscoring similarly priced players at other positions. As mentioned earlier, Posey’s production exceeded that of Ryan Zimmerman, who costs more to roster this upcoming season. Mauer outpaced both Elvis Andrus and Mark Trumbo, and is priced for 210 less. Meanwhile, Molina and Santana were both superior plays to David Freese, Paul Konerko, and Jose Altuve in 2012. The comparisons are endless. Catchers are now a legitimate source for fantasy points and it’s time for owners to start allocating cash accordingly.

 

Chris is a freelance writer attending the University of Oregon. Check out his blog at ESPN 101.7 The Team, and follow him on Twitter.

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Northcoast Feb 2, 2013 4:08:26 AM EST
Thanks Chris, just confirmed what I was thinking. Wouldn't hesitate to use Santana, Mauer, Posey,or Vmart as a DH when needed to get under cap.
noddy Feb 1, 2013 8:21:31 AM EST
Great stuff Chris!
RTLONG Jan 30, 2013 5:24:48 PM EST
I agree. Well said.

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