In one of my leagues, I have Matt Wieters in my catching slot. Matt Wieters is a talented young hitter, and some projections placed him near the top of his position entering the season, but after a strong April, he has performed poorly for two months. Carlos Santana is a free agent in that league, and since he hit waivers two days ago, I have wrestled with whether to switch them out or whether to drop another player and carry two catchers in anticipation of a future trade. Santana has his own issues, of course, with poor performance that cannot entirely be attributed to a concussion and back issues. Each morning I look at the top of our free agent list and see Santana, and I look at the top of my roster and see continual decline from Wieters.
There is an opportunity cost to carrying a player on your roster. That is, the player is not simply accruing value; he is accruing value in relation to other rostered players and at the expense of the statistics you may gain or lose with a similar player from the available pool of talent. In this case, owning Wieters means I miss out on Carlos Santana and the other free agent catchers. Matthew Berry coined the “Wandy Line” with regard to pitchers: there is a set of pitchers whose values are above replacement. All other pitchers are fungible. The same principle applies to hitting, with the difference that it is much easier to project favorable matchups for a hitter than for a pitcher. Because replacement is relatively higher, the line can be more rigorous. It may be that neither Wieters nor Santana is worth owning in a ten-team mixed league.
I intend to go through each position and identify players who perform above replacement level with reference to ten team mixed leagues, but the concept can be applied to any format. When projecting pitcher matchups, there are a number of moving pieces: ballpark, weather, fatigue, caliber of opposing lineup, and handedness of opposing lineup. With hitters, the formulation is much simpler: ballpark and handedness. Free agency is full of Major League platoon types who destroy right handed or left handed pitching, but who cannot be carried in fantasy leagues due to vulnerabilities to the opposite hand. This means it is relatively simple to find favorable daily matchups. As such, the worst regularly rostered player at his position in such formats should be well above average in the pool of Major Leaguers.
Seven catchers are owned in one hundred percent of ESPN leagues and seventeen have produced “positive” value. In year-to-date performance, these range from Carlos Ruiz at .356/11/38/43/3 (BA/HR/R/RBI/SB) to the aforementioned Carlos Santana at .220/5/30/29/2. Several of these options remain available in more than half of ESPN leagues, including Jarrod Saltalamacchia (49.9), Wilin Rosario (16.3), Ryan Doumit (6.6), J.P. Arencibia (24.1) and A.J. Ellis (17.6).
The first problem, then, becomes one of availability. When productive (if less than ideal) options are freely available, a player must produce more value to be owned. The second problem is the more salient with regard to catchers. Jesus Montero currently leads all positively valued catchers in at bats with 269, a number aided by the fact that he plays many of his games as Seattle’s designated hitter. Compare this to the leaders at other positions: Miguel Cabrera (318), Ian Kinsler (337), Derek Jeter (328) and Michael Bourn (331), with Cabrera, of course, qualifying as the leader at both first and third. In other words, to roster a full-time catcher, you not only need that catcher to be better than the options at his position, you need him to be good enough to justify throwing away twenty to thirty percent of the positional at bats.
Catcher has a high replacement level because streaming results in not only higher quality at bats, but a much, much higher volume of at bats. There will be more players worth owning at other positions. At catcher, there are very few.
This is the class of catching in 2012. Remembering that we should not care what a player has done to this point, only what a player will do from this point forward, Posey is the best bet at the catching position to produce four-category value. Wieters, for all his batting average struggles, remains a top option at a weak position.
Molina and Ruiz are the most productive catchers to date, but none of these three is likely to be a viable power option moving forward. If you own Ruiz or Molina, you should be shopping him, as his value will only decline. Each of these players is also likely to net you production at a different position, one which is less prone to injuries and fatigue, in trade. If you are unable to convince someone to trade with you, keeping these three will at least not hurt your batting average.
None of the first three has met expectations thus far, but ZiPS (RoS) projections at Fangraphs like them for .240-.260 with 10-13 home runs. They’re pretty much interchangeable, and parsing the differences isn’t relevant as they’re all below the line. Montero is as well, as the suppression of right handed power in Seattle offsets the fact that he can save his legs by not playing the field full time.
So that’s it. There are five catchers worth owning. If you own Posey, enjoy it. If you own Wieters, hope a few hits fall and his line turns into Posey’s. If you own Molina, Ruiz, or Mauer, you know they won’t kill your batting average, but you should shop them if someone thinks they’ll hit for power.
If you don’t own Buster Posey, trade your catcher or, failing that, do not be afraid to drop him. In fact, do drop him the next time he has an off day, because you will do substantially better streaming the spot. Play Ryan Doumit against right handed pitching. Play Wilin Rosario at home. Pick up Salvador Perez, who should approximate the “do no harm” value of Ruiz and Molina going forward, to fill in gaps. Play Derek Norris on the road and Alex Avila on the road against right handed pitching. When he starts a rehab assignment, add Jonathan Lucroy and stash him on the disabled list.
With favorable matchups and thirty percent more at bats than your league-mates, you’ll get much more value out of catcher than if you hold a catcher all year. Catchers in general are fungible, and the ones who aren’t have more value in trade than they do in your lineup.
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