2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Catchers

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IJanuary 25, 2013

2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Catchers

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    Over the years, many fantasy baseball aficionados viewed the catching position as one that could largely be ignored in auctions and drafts. While there have always been a handful of catchers worth owning, they often went for too much money in auctions or far too early in drafts, so many owners filled their slots with $1 pick-ups (auctions) or late-round fliers in drafts. The best thing these owners could say about their catchers was "His batting average won't kill me" or "He will not get enough at-bats to skew my average."

    This viewpoint was not a ringing endorsement of the talent (or lack thereof) an owner was able to stick behind the plate.

    As we look ahead toward the 2013 baseball season, the position appears much deeper than it has been in many years, with four guys who appear to be something of a sure thing in terms of fantasy production and value. Among the next half-dozen backstops there are several who have asterisks after their names, either because of injury or the lack of a substantive track record.

    In compiling my rankings, I have taken injury history into account (i.e., Victor Martinez), and I have added value to those players who qualify at multiple positions (Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli).

    (NOTE: If not for his qualifying at multiple positions, Napoli wouldn't have made the list due to his horrific batting average and potential hip problems (can you say Bo Jackson?), but the fact he can be slotted at catcher while playing most days at 1B or DH forced me to put him on my list. Barely!)

Number 1: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    The former National League Rookie of the Year added lots of hardware to his trophy case last season, as he won the league's Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year awards. His outstanding campaign also culminated with him adding a second World Series ring to his jewelry collection. 

    A year ago at this time, Posey was slotted lower in most pre-season rankings due to the fact that no one knew whether he was fully recovered from the injuries he suffered during the 2011 season (when he broke his leg and tore ankle ligaments in a collision at home plate). He put those fears to rest and hasn't looked back after hitting a robust .336, with 24 HR, 103 RBI, 103 runs scored, and 1 SB.

    It's the stuff dreams are made of!

    But fantasy owners cannot focus on the past—we most look towards the future. The question: Can he repeat last year's performance in 2013, or even come close to it?

    While he should still be the top fantasy catcher in 2013, it is unlikely he will put up similarly gaudy stats throughout the upcoming campaign. His second half performance (.371, 14 HR, 63 RBI) was the product of a superhuman hit rate (42 percent, nine percent above his career norm), and a lofty home run rate (21 percent, considerably above his career norm and on par with the number posted by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera). We simply can't expect Posey to sustain this kind of productivity.

    His first half numbers were extremely solid (.296, 10 HR, 40 RBI). If we extrapolate those numbers over a full season, it seems likely he'll produce a fantasy line in the order of .290, 20 HR, 85 RBI and a couple of stolen bases. The smart owner will plan on these numbers when compiling estimates for 2013—and then hope for a repeat of last season.

Number 2: Yadier Molina, St Louis Cardinals

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    I was blessed with a lot of luck during the 2012 fantasy baseball season. Molina sat atop my sleeper list (catchers) heading into my league draft in last year's National Fantasy Baseball Championships. The other players who sat atop my list of sleepers included Alcides Escobar, Mike Trout and Jason Vargas. I hit with all of them, and as a result I won my online league and the prize money that goes with it. 

    To my way of thinking, the fact Molina posted a break-out season wasn't shocking, though  the extent to which he broke out was somewhat surprising. I had drafted Molina back in 2010—his age 28 season—expecting that would be his breakout season. As fantasy players know, he disappointed his owners that year, but I drafted him again last year, undeterred by the previous disappointment.

    Why did I go back to the well? Well, the underlying peripherals that slid in 2010 returned in 2011, with the notable addition of a significant spike in his power metric (PX). His contact rate has always been elite. It sat in the low-90s before dipping to 89 percent in 2010 (still an elite number) and then rebounding in '11 (91 percent). His hit rate, which had been a solid 31 percent previously, slid to a pedestrian 28 percent in 2010 before rebounding to 31 percent once again in 2011. As for his power metric (hr/f), it jumped from a norm of five percent in previous years to nine percent in 2011. Last spring I saw him as someone who might fly under the radar as most fantasy owners might not project much from him in terms of power and production—at least not the kind of stats that guys like Mauer, Napoli and Santana routinely produce.

    There was no way to expect double-digit stolen bases from him last season.

    Looking ahead to 2013, I don't foresee much loss in terms of batting average, though it seems unlikely he'll hit for as much power or steal as many bases. Last year's batting average benefited from a slight increase in hit rate (32 percent) while simultaneously being hampered by a drop in contact rate (89 percent, down from a norm of 91 percent). Assuming both numbers track towards his norms, it appears likely he will again hit somewhere in the vicinity of .305-.315. But his home run production and stolen bases were driven by peripherals that he almost certainly won't sustain: a 14 percent home run rate (hr/f) and an 80 percent success rate on his stolen base attempts. If he regresses back to a HR-rate of 11 percent and a SB-rate of somewhere in the vicinity of 67 percent, then it seems plausible he will hit 17 or 18 homers and steal eight or nine bases.

    As with Posey, it seems prudent to count on numbers such as these while hoping for statistics akin to last year.

Number 3: Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians

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    Although it seems he has been around a long time, Santana will be just 26 years old on Opening Day. He has been inconsistent in terms of his performance during his brief career, so I was tempted to slot him lower than third in my rankings. Ultimately, I felt compelled to rank him here in consideration of his power potential, his versatility (he will qualify at C, 1B and DH in most leagues), and the fact that he will be playing his age 27 season in 2013. But the truth is it's very possible this could be the last year he is ranked among the Top Five fantasy catchers.

    In terms of his offensive production—the benchmark for evaluating players in fantasy baseball—he has been a disappointment since his arrival in the major leagues in 2010. He has been victimized as much by hype and the unrealistic expectations that accompanied him to Cleveland as by the growing pains he has endured. It's inarguable that he's an outstanding defensive receiver, but an honest assessment of his offensive skill set must result in a grade of "D" (for disappointment) after three seasons with the Indians (one of which was cut short by injury). At this point, he hasn't reminded baseball fans of Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk, as was expected. To the contrary, the catchers he is most similar to through age 26 are Gus Triandos and Gene Tenace.

    Santana has always demonstrated excellent plate discipline. He draws bases on balls at a rate that is well above league average (his career rate is 15 percent) but paradoxically, he has also struck out too often (18 percent). His penchant for striking out has minimized his contact rate and lowered his batting average. Last year he showed a significant improvement in his strikeout rate, cutting his K-rate by 3.6 percent, which in turn produced improvement in his contact rate (a career high 80 percent) and batting average (he raised his batting average 13 points to .252). 

    It is hard to analyze last year's performance and draw conclusions for 2013 and beyond. His 2012 campaign was a Jekyll-Hyde season, and his full-season statistics continued a regression in many of the offensive metrics (i.e., a four-year free-fall in Slugging Percentage and a three-year slide in OPS and OPS+).

    But last year was a Tale of Two Halves. The first half was frighteningly bad, while the second half was significantly better and provides fantasy owners with hope he may have turned a corner. It's impossible to determine whether July-October will be the new norm, or whether it is an outlier that will just lead to continued disappointment for his fantasy owners. Is it possible he will start to live up to the enormous expectations we have held for him since he was promoted to The Show? It seems likely that the answer to that question is almost assuredly "no", which says as much about the height of the expectations as it does about his skill sets.

    As his strikeout rate plummeted in the second half of last year, his contact rate soared (to 85 percent) and his batting average improved (.278). According to Baseball Forecaster, he hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls and enjoyed a rebound in his home run rate; consequently, he produced 13 HRs in just 284 AB in the season's last three months. But even those numbers pale in comparison to what we all expected of him when The Tribe tabbed him as their starting catcher.

    The question: Will the "real" Carlos Santana please stand up? 

    What can fantasy owners expect? Let's start by observing that his abysmal batting average in 2011 (.239) and in the first half of last year (.220) were the result of low contact (76 percent and 74 percent) and hit rates (27 percent and 28 percent). While those hit rates suggest he may have been the victim of some bad luck, his career hit rate (29 percent) isn't much better, suggesting he may be precisely what we have seen—a low-average hitter with prodigious power who will never hit 30+ homers on a consistent basis because he hits too many ground balls. On the other hand, it's entirely possible he figured some things out last summer and that he will be able to hit .270+ with 25-30 HR and 90+ ribbies annually.

    Yeah, and it is possible I will win the Powerball jackpot.

    The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It is unlikely he has suddenly become a hitter who will post contact rates in the low- to mid-80s, though he may improve enough to post rates in the high-70s to low-80s. And due to the fact he consistently hits many more ground balls than fly balls, he will struggle to consistently produce power numbers that are commensurate with his strength (NOTE: the 27 HR he hit in 2011 were the result of a 16 percent HR-rate, well above his career norm of 12 percent). The likelihood is that he will regress toward his career norms across the board, though there will be a measure of improvement owing to experience at the big league level. It seems likely he will hit .260, with 18-20 HR and 75-80 RBI.

    It's possible a couple of the younger catchers could put up numbers that surpass these projections (Perez, Rosario), but they have limited track records to rely upon, so I am loathe to rank them higher than Santana at this point. Still, when we look back on the 2013 season next winter, I would not be surprised if Santana finished outside of the Top Five in fantasy production. 

Number 4: Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

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    Orioles C Matt Wieters is similar to Carlos Santana in many respects. He was promoted to Charm City in 2009 accompanied by unrealistic expectations that he would quickly evolve into a perennial all-star starter and potential Hall-of-Famer. He too has been a disappointment to fans and fantasy owners alike.

    And he too will be playing his age 27 season in 2013.

    As with Santana, I truly wanted to slot Wieters lower in these rankings but could not bring myself to do so. I think it is possible that youngsters Salvador Perez and Wlin Rosario will begin to outproduce both Santana and Wieters, but they are young and need to establish a semblance of a track record before leapfrogging into my Top Four. Still, I will not be shocked if Wieters, the former first-rounder (fifth overall), slides well down my list next spring.

    Fantasy owners tend to overrate Santana and Wieters due to their potential, but fantasy baseball is not about potential—it is about statistics. At some point analysts have to stop projecting performance based on some ethereal notion of "potential."

    With Santana and Wieters, we're just about at the point where we have to declare they are what they have consistently shown themselves to be—nice players who should produce consistently decent stats but who will never develop into the fantasy studs we all thought they would become.

    Wieters has posted a contact rate of 80 percent-plus just once since he has been in the big leagues, and he has yet to post a hit rate of 30 percent in any season. His pitch recognition and/or plate discipline leave something to be desired, as his strikeout rate is nearly double that of his walk rate. The switch-hitter struggles vs RHP (.230 combined in 2011-12) and off-speed pitches. And like Santana, he hits far too many ground balls in relation to line drives and fly balls, limiting his power potential.

    Baseball forecaster Ron Shandler evaluated Wieters' metrics and declared they hint at "BA upside" and "reliable power (that) virtually assures 20-25 HR." While I typically agree with the maestro on his assessments, I am not so sure I am on the same page with him regarding Wieters. I don't see a skill set that suggests he is anything more than a consistent .250 hitter or that he is a lock to hit 20-25 HR. During the last two seasons he has benefited from a home run rate (hr/f) that far surpassed anything that he did in the minor leagues (14 percent and 16 percent). I compare Wieters to Braves C Brian McCann (who has regularly posted HR-rates in the 12 to 14 percent range), so I'm more comfortable suggesting his skill set virtually assures 18-20 HR, with an upside of 25 HR. And because the Orioles are unlikely to repeat their success of last year, he is unlikely to see as many RBI opportunities in 2013.

    My projection for the upcoming season: .250, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 65 Runs 

Number 5: Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

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    Perez is very young (22) and expecting top-tier production from someone who lacks any semblance of a proven track record is often tantamount to fantasy suicide. In spite of this fact, I felt compelled to place him in my Top Five—the only question was where to slot him. 

    Baseball history is filled with prospects who looked like future stars, only to watch them struggle as they proved incapable of making the necessary adjustments to produce and sustain a measure of excellence at the major league level (see Santana and Wieters). We are not soothsayers, so it is impossible to know what the future holds for the Perez, but I would rather take my chances with a potential stud than accept pedestrian power numbers (i.e., Maurer) or pray for an end-of-career breakout, a la AJ Pierzynski.

    According to the Baseball Forecaster, the Royals catcher has posted an elite contact rate (89 percent) and a solid hit rate (31 percent) in his brief career. He makes solid contact as reflected in an outstanding line drive rate (27 percent) but he doesn't hit an excessive number of fly balls, suggesting his home run production may be tempered until he learns to get more loft on the baseball. On the flip side, he should put many more balls in play than the average hitter as both his strikeout and walk rates are about half those of the average major league batter (it's possible he will make up for the lower fly ball rate by virtue of the fact that he simply puts more balls in play). Those numbers also suggest that he should drive in more than his fair share of runs—simply as a function of putting balls in play when an RBI opportunity presents itself.

    It says here that Perez should hit .290, with at least 16 HR and 65 RBI in 2013, but it should not surprise readers if he ends up swatting 20-22 HR and driving home 80-85 runs. If he produces at the higher end of those numbers, he will almost certainly place in most Top Three lists for next season.

Number 6: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

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    Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer will turn 30 years old on April 19. He has played a lot of games at the most demanding position on the diamond, both mentally and physically. So, it seems prudent to ask whether we can expect his statistical performance to make a slow and steady decline from this point forward.

    In truth, there were signs he may have already started to decline prior to last season, and in spite of the rebound he enjoyed last year, there are underlying signs that it may have been more of an exception than the rule we can rely upon in the future. After an otherworldly campaign in 2009, Mauer's stats and underlying peripherals all dropped significantly in both 2010 and 2011, led by a decrease in BA, OBP, OPS, slugging percentage, HR-rate, contact rate and hit rate. He also experienced a dramatic increase in his ground ball rate with an equally dramatic decrease in his fly ball rate. 

    The baseball cognoscenti wondered whether injuries and the number of innings he had squatted behind the dish had started to catch up to him. Then he went out and posted a .319 / 10 HR / 85 RBI / 8 SB / 81 R fantasy line in 2012. His performance begged the question: Had all of the off-season concern been much ado about nothing? In short, I don't think so.

    In examining his peripherals there's plenty of evidence to suggest that last year may be an outlier moving forward. His contact rate continued its plunge from 91 percent in 2008 to 84 percent last season (dropping from 87 percent to 84  percent last year alone). Thus it can be said that the 32-point increase in his batting average was the result of a spike in his hit rate (37 percent), which suggests he enjoyed good fortune in 2012. If he should regress back to a more normalized 35 percent in 2013, his batting average would likely end up in the vicinity of .300—nothing to sneeze at, for certain, except he doesn't hit for a lot of power. Speaking of which, it's unlikely owners will enjoy another double-digit home run total in 2013 as last season's mark resulted from a considerable spike in his HR-rate (10 percent). Assuming his home run rate will return to a more normalized six percent, he will probably be limited to a half-dozen home runs (more or less). And with the top of the Twins lineup gutted by off-season trades, it is almost certain he will have fewer RBI-opportunities in the year ahead,

    So for the sake of this exercise, let's say he hits .300, with 6 HR, 70 RBI, 4 SB and 75 R in 2013. It's possible he will produce better results, but at this point it doesn't seem likely. I recommend owners keep those numbers in mind and pray for something more in line with last year.

Number 7: Wilin Rosario, Colorado Rockies

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    Rosario was given the nickname "Baby Bull" by former Colorado 3B Vinny Castilla—not in homage to Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (who shares the same nickname) but out of respect for the Dominican's bull-like power. If you have seen him play you understand the reason the moniker has stuck.

    Rosario, who will turn 24 years of age at about the same time pitchers and catchers report to Scottsdale, AZ, next month, has ample power. And when you combine that power with the fact he plays half of his games at Coors Field, you begin to understand why he is ranked ahead of guys like Victor Martinez, Miguel Montero and Mike Napoli.

    The metrics suggest Wilin will suffer some form of sophomore slump in 2013, though the depths of those struggles should be minimized by the light air in Denver. He exhibits poor discipline and pitch recognition, often chasing balls outside of the strike zone, which results in grounders (46 percent) or strikeouts (23 percent). He strikes out too much (the MLB average is 19 percent) and doesn't walk enough (six percent vs. the an MLB average of eight percent), so he starts behind the eight-ball, so to speak. He also produces marginal contact (75 percent) and hit (29 percent) rates, so it seems plausible his batting average will slip.

    Additionally, he has enjoyed the benefits of a HR-rate of nearly 25 percent, which likely will regress to a more realistic mark in the range of 18 to 20 percent. That said, it's difficult to anticipate how much his home run rate might lessen in consideration of his strength, his penchant for hitting fly balls (38 percent) and the Rockies' Rocky Mountain digs. I would plan on .250, 20 HR, 60 RBI, 60 R and 4 SB, but if the 25 percent home run rate proves to be real, it is within the realm of possibility he could come close to doubling that power projection (he hit 28 HR in only 396 AB last season). 

Number 8: Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers

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    Tigers C Victor Martinez is now 34 years old and coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss an entire season. As if that isn't enough for fantasy owners to consider, questions abound regarding the treatment he underwent to repair the knee, as he eschewed ACL reconstruction in favor of a procedure designed to "promote healing" in the ligament.

    With that in mind, Martinez will almost certainly be restricted to DH duty for the most part in 2013, so it should be the last season he qualifies behind the plate for fantasy purposes.

    When last we saw him, V-Mart was compiling stats that made him the top (fantasy) catcher in the game: .330, 12 HR, 103 RBI, 76 R, 1 SB in 2011. Whether he'll be healthy enough to accumulate 450+ AB, and whether he'll be able to shake off the rust and the grasp of Father Time to a sufficient degree to approach his 2011 stats, remains to be seen.

    His health bears watching throughout spring training. He is too talented to leave off this list altogether, but his health issues should force fantasy owners to slide him down their draft lists—at least until they have a chance to observe his health during February and March.

Number 9: Miguel Montero, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    If you review nothing more than the standard fantasy stats for Arizona catcher Miguel Montero, you walk away with the impression he has been a very consistent performer over the last four years, with the exception of his injury-shortened 2010 campaign (even then, his production was consistent with his other full-season numbers). In particular, he appears to have been remarkably consistent during the last two seasons, hitting .282 and .286, with 15 and 18 HR, 86 and 88 RBI and 65 runs scored in both seasons. 

    Some of the underlying metrics also reflect a large measure of consistency (i.e., according to the Baseball Forecaster, in his three full seasons he posted a fly ball percentage of 36 percent in each season, and in those years his ground ball percentage was 42 percent, 43 percent and 44 percent, and his home run rates were 13 percent, 13 percent and 12 percent).

    But if you look a little deeper, you realize things are not always what they seem. His contact rate in the odd-numbered years were 82 percent and 80 percent, but in the even-numbered years they were a paltry 76 percent (2010) and 73 percent (last season). His strikeout rates have been under 17.5 percent in odd-numbered years but have spiked to 21.5 percent (2010) and 22.7 percent (last year) in even-numbered years. His hit percentages from 2009-11 were 33 percent, 32 percent and 32 percent, but then he had a fortuitous spike to 36 percent last year—which offset the brutal contact and strikeout rates he posted and provided baseball fans with the appearance of 'consistency'.

    The drop in his contact rate in 2010 in combination with the consistent hit rate caused his BA to drop to .266. The extreme drop in his contact rate last season should have caused his BA to drop even further, to somewhere in the vicinity of .250, except that he benefited from a lot of luck throughout the season (as evidenced by the spike in his hit rate). He also bested his career walk rate by a factor of one-half and improved his batting average against LHP by 64 points.

    Amid all of the consistency we find inconsistency. So, what can fantasy owners expect from Montero in the upcoming campaign?

    Well, to start with, most of the problems he experienced last year were particularly acute in the first half and appear to have been resolved in the second half; whatever adjustments he made at mid-season seem to have had the desired effect. Second, since this season is an odd-numbered year, maybe we will find that he will post a solid set of fantasy stats.

    In spite of whatever his peripherals may look like, maybe there is something to this consistency thing. Maybe we should just take his production for what it is and avoid the temptation to over-analyze his numbers. So, look for Montero to hit .284, with 15 HR, 84 RBI and 65 runs scored. When all is said and done, those are the only numbers that really count in fantasy baseball.

Number 10: Mike Napoli, Boston Red Sox

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    Unlike Diamondbacks backstop Miguel Montero, Red Sox catcher Mike Napoli has been consistently inconsistent over the last several seasons. He has consistently posted 20+ HR each season since 2008, while inconsistently hitting between .227 and .320 in each of those campaigns. He has consistently had gb/fb (ground ball to fly ball) ratios between 0.89 and 0.97 during the last four years, while inconsistently posting strikeout rates between 19.5 percent and 30 percent. His contact rates have fluctuated between 64 to 77 percent, while his hit rate has varied between 28 percent and 35 percent.

    He is the antithesis of everything the club has preached throughout the last decade with respect to the organization's offensive philosophy, yet the front office gave every indication he was THE indispensable element of their offseason strategy. This in spite of the fact he suffers from the same hip condition that ended All-World OF Bo Jackson's career prematurely.

    As a Red Sox fan, it is my opinion the best thing that happened this winter was he flunked his physical, thus providing the team with the incentive (excuse) to reduce his contract from 3 years at $39 million to one year at between $5 and $13 million. The hip issue will give the Red Sox options next winter.

    But as a fantasy fan—well, that's another thing. There are obviously several catchers I prefer to Napoli because they are more consistent and do not present the likelihood of scuttling my team's cumulative batting average (Napoli has hit .227 and .238 in two of the last three seasons). But on a case-by-case basis he could be useful to a team in need of power, especially if the roster has high-average hitters who can help diffuse the impact of a player who posts a less-than-desirable batting average.

    As with Montero, Napoli seems to have developed a pattern of better odd-numbered years and lesser even-numbered years, which bodes well for 2013. And then there is the fact the right-handed, pull-hitting, fly ball-hitting slugger will spend his 2013 playing half of his games at Fenway Park, which tends to be a good place for a right-handed hitter who pulls the ball and hits it in the air.

    My crystal ball says the Green Monster will add 20 points to his batting average and a dozen home runs to his power output, so I'll predict .252, with 32 HR and 75 RBI in the upcoming year. But he'll produce those numbers for someone else as I'm not willing to gamble my season on whether his hips hold up to the 162-game grind.