This article is part of our The Z Files series.
A lot has been said and written about the 2019 catcher inventory, not much of it positive. No, I'm not here to refute that claim, it's a vortex of suck. However, as I've begun digging deeper into players, I've found a few backstops I'm willing to draft in the right scenario. Today's episode will discuss five options. However, before that, I want to talk catcher valuation in a global sense, since there's still a large contingent of fantasy players doing it wrong.
When it comes to valuation, game theory and the like, I usually agree to disagree when I don't share someone's opinion. In this instance, we're not dealing with an opinion. I'll plant my flag as the following being fact:
In a league with "X" catchers required to be legally rostered, there are "X" catchers with positive earnings. Case closed. End of story.
If you're someone believing the back end of the draft-worthy catcher pool earns negative value, you're wrong. Case closed. End of story.
I am aware where this misunderstanding comes from. When valuing catchers, the stats are compared against everyone else in the player pool. That's where you're wrong. Catcher stats should be compared to catcher stats. Catcher value is relative to the other catchers. In short, the same production from a catcher is worth more than if it came from any other position.
It's an oversimplification, but this example clearly illustrates the point. Let's say the RotoWire staff is having a home run derby. Four of us are competing. We're broken into two groups, you need to pick one from each group and you have the first pick. Here are the combatants with their projected homers:
Who's your first pick?
With apologies to Derek and Jeff, it better be Liss. The draft should go Liss, VanRiper, Erickson, and just like gym class back in the day, I'm picked last.
The key is obviously Liss beats me by 10 while VanRiper only tops Erickson by five. The homers Jeff and I hit are meaningless.
You probably see where this is going. GROUP B represents the catching pool. The 30 homers Liss hits are worth more than the 35 VanRiper smashes, even if his raw total only equals Erickson's. That is, homers from a catcher are worth more than homers from the other spots, as are all stats.
From a strict valuation perspective, Erickson and I earn nothing, zero dollars. Conventional valuation requires a minimum bid of $1, except in goofy leagues using dimes instead of dollars, so we're priced at $1. The worst legally rostered player at every position is valued at $1, with everyone else scaled up accordingly. Therefore, in a league with "X" catchers required to be legally rostered, there are "X" catchers with positive earnings. Case closed. End of story.
The "catcher bump" differs each year, but to ballpark it, in two-catcher leagues, it's $1-$3 in AL and NL-only formats, $9-$12 in 15-team mixed and upwards of $15 in shallower league. The bump all but disappears in one-catcher formats.
Now that we're (hopefully) on the same page, here's a quintet of receivers I like more than the current NFBC ADP (National Fantasy Draft Championship Average Draft Position). The rankings are based on 15-team mixed formats.
Salvador Perez, Royals (My rank: 101, NFBC ADP: 113)
Admittedly, I'm not that much ahead of the market, but if I'm going to invest early, it will be on Perez. The Royals receiver is one of the few bell cow backstops left in the league. Even though he missed the first three-plus weeks of last season with a fluke Grade 2 MCL tear suffered when he slipped lifting a suitcase on Opening Day, Perez tied Willson Contreras with a league-leading 544 plate appearances from a catcher. His batting average was a career worst .235 despite setting personal bests in Statcast data, including average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Perez sprained his thumb in August, requiring lateral collateral ligament reconstruction, but he's expected to make a full recovery. If I'm comfortable with my hitting foundation along with a good starting pitcher through Round 6 in 15-team leagues, Perez is in play.
John Hicks, Tigers (My rank: 177, NFBC ADP: 333)
I've always said playing time is a more important component of a player's expectation than skills. At least for now, I see Hicks playing a great deal, both behind the plate and at first base. The Tigers are still in rebuild mode, so they're not likely to spend a lot of money replacing the departed James McCann. There's no one within the organization knocking on the door, leaving Hicks and Grayson Greiner with Hicks the better option. Perhaps Detroit brings someone in on the cheap, but Hicks should still see some action at first base. I just don't see Miguel Cabrera playing a ton in the field. Hicks' batting numbers aren't special, but he carries a good average for the position, with his volume aiding counting stats. A popular strategy, one which I've advocated, is waiting until the end and taking the highest guys left on your rankings. Pick 333 is in the 23rd round. I'll gladly wait until the 19th or 20th and pounce on the Tiger.
Jonathan Lucroy, FA (My rank: 217, NFBC ADP: 329)
Like Hicks, Lucroy is going in the last round with respect to the active roster. Currently unemployed, my thinking is his defense will secure the majority of playing time on his new team once he has one. I'm not expecting a return to his old level of production, when Lucroy was one of the top producers at the position. His stellar contact offers a reasonable floor, especially for a catcher. Lucroy won't stuff the stat sheet, but I'm just looking for him not to hurt me. Playing time volume should provide above-replacement run production, so whenever he leaves the yard will be icing on the cake.
Tucker Barnhart, Reds (My rank: 236, NFBC ADP: 272)
It's a little surprising Barnhart isn't being drafted higher. My guess is the market recognizes he's a little better than his ADP, but the trend is for many to wait on catching so it becomes a game of chicken. Everyone waiting has Barnhart atop their catcher queue so it's a matter of who blinks first. I'm not that much ahead of the market, so I can't get too cute. If I want him, I'll take him where I have him ranked, around the 15th/16th round. In 2018, he set a career high with 522 plate appearances, after topping 400 the previous two seasons. The Reds have a couple of backstops in their top-15 prospects by James Anderson's rankings, but neither Tyler Stephenson nor Hendrik Clementina have even played at Double-A yet. Barnhart's job appears secure and he's been productive for the position. A strikeout rate a tab below 20 percent in tandem with an above average hard-hit rate provide a safe floor.
Mitch Garver, Twins (My rank: 270, NFBC ADP: 338)
Here's another case of needing to jump the ADP a couple rounds early. Garver is relatively unknown, blossoming late after being unheralded coming up in the Twins system. A season-ending injury in May for Jason Castro paved the way for Garver to see a lot of squat time last season. He took advantage, hitting a respectable .268 with seven homers, passable numbers for what's essentially an end-game catcher. Castro should be recovered from a torn meniscus in his right knee, though this is the second time he's done it to the same knee. He's also torn his ACL, so it's unclear how much crouching the Twins will expect from the 31-year-old receiver. Garver amassed 335 plate appearances last season, equating to a little more than half the catcher action. Even if he falls a little short, he's a viable play.