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10 Bold Predictions: Catcher

It’s March, training camps are underway and fantasy drafts are right around the corner. Fantasy sites like us have been rolling out content for four months since the conclusion of the 2011 season and, frankly, we’re running out of things to talk about. Sure, we can always nominate more sleepers, continue to revamp our rankings or comment on mock draft after mock draft, but that stuff’s getting old.

It’s time for some predictions, and not just any old predictions. Let’s do some bold predictions! Regular predictions are boring — I predict Dustin Pedroia will have another 20/20 season, for example — but bold predictions are fun. Yes, they’re more unlikely, but it’s the meaning behind the prediction that’s of real importance. Check out these 10 bold predictions about the catcher position in 2012.

1. Ryan Lavarnway will hit 15 homers.

Odds: 30 percent

Talent isn’t the issue with Lavarnway, it’s playing time. His walk and strikeout rates and penchant for the long ball all remind me of Mike Napoli, but it’ll be tough for the youngster to get playing time for the Red Sox with both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach on the major league roster.

There are a couple interesting caveats here, though. For one, what exactly does Saltalamacchia bring? He isn’t that great defensively, he can’t throw runners out and he doesn’t really call a great game behind the plate. His calling card is his moderate-for-a-catcher home run power. He hit right-handed pitchers OK last season, posting a .786 OPS, and he homered 16 times in total on the season, but are you telling me Lavarnway can’t bat .235 with some pop?

I see the value Shoppach has (he’s great at throwing out would-be base stealers, a huge problem for the Red Sox last season, and he hits lefties well) but Saltalamacchia seems expendable. Lavarnway has been described as a future DH, but the Red Sox started him in some must-win games last September and he played solid defensively and spent most of his time batting sixth in a very good lineup. Lavarnway and Shoppach should be the team’s catching duo.

2. Two catchers will hit 30-plus homers.

Odds: 30 percent

On the surface this doesn’t seem like a bold prediction, but Napoli’s 30 homers last year marked the first time since 2003 that a catcher-eligible player hit 30 homers (Jorge Posada that season). For this prediction I’m targeting Napoli and fellow power-threat Carlos Santana. The obstacles standing in the way of this prediction are two-fold: Napoli needed a HR/FB rate over 25 percent to hit 30 on the dot and Santana hit just 27 with a 16 percent HR/FB rate in a full-season of at-bats.

Of course, there’s room for growth with Santana, but catchers tend to get fewer at-bats anyway. That will be Napoli’s issue in Texas as the Rangers have a lot of capable bats. If only Lavarnway was Boston’s everyday starter!

3. Joe Mauer will get 600 plate appearances.

Odds: 50 percent

Mauer topped 600 plate appearances in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and almost hit the mark in 2010, but disaster struck last season and the $184 million man stumbled to just 333 plate appearances and three homers. The Twins will look to protect their investment, and the signing of Ryan Doumit is the first step in that direction. With Justin Morneau no longer a full-time player, I can easily see the Twins utilizing a catcher-first base-DH rotation of Mauer, Morneau and Doumit to ease the strain on their two best bats. That should equal better health and more plate appearances for their highest paid player.

4. Salvador Perez be better than Yadier Molina.

Odds: 25 percent

I see Molina’s value as a great defensive catcher and a leader for the Cardinals, but I don’t necessarily think that was worth five years and $75 million. Still, his 2011 stat line can’t be ignored as only two catchers hit .300 with double-digit homers (Napoli was the other). OK, you caught me. That’s a misleading stat as Molina and Napoli were the only two catchers to bat over .300 in over 300 plate appearances, but my point still stands: Molina is balanced and, sometimes, undervalued. Still, just five catchers hit at least .280 with 10-plus homers (Napoli, Molina, Alex Avila, Miguel Montero and Ramon Hernandez). As far as rankings go, Molina ranked sixth last season (and top-ranked option Victor Martinez won’t be around this season) and has been a consistent top-10 option for most of his career.

I say all of that to give a frame of reference for how valuable those high-average, moderate power seasons can be. They’re not elite, but most fantasy teams would be glad to plug that in at catcher and forget about it. Perez could be that kind of player. He doesn’t walk quite as much as Molina (around 4.5% to Molina’s 7-8%) and strikes out a tad more (10-12% to Molina’s 8-9%) but those rates are still very good for a catcher and tend to result in good batting averages. I wouldn’t expect Perez to repeat the .331 average he posted last season in 148 at-bats for the Royals, but his xBA was .314 thanks to a 29.4 percent line drive rate, and something in the .280-.290 range is very likely this  year. Hey, he could even be a little better than that.

In 2010 and 2011 in the minors Perez displayed enough power to hit upwards of 12-14 homers in a full season, and a .280 average with 10-plus homers batting seventh for a good Kansas City lineup could equal some nice RBI opportunities. If Molina is one of the catchers you’re targeting in your draft this season (ADP: 179), I’d suggest you wait and take Perez much later (ADP: 250).

5. Jesus Montero won’t be a top-10 fantasy catcher.

Odds: 15 percent

OK, I don’t really believe this one, but there’s better depth at catcher than we’ve seen in years. The top seven or eight are pretty stacked with the Avila/Matt Wieters/Miguel Montero class of players in that range, but there’s a sizeable drop off after that. Like I said, I’d be surprised if this Montero (Jesus, not Miguel) doesn’t manage to beat out Molina, Perez, Miguel Olivo, J.P. Arencibia or any of the other top-10 challengers, but we’ve seen the effects of Safeco and Seattle on top prospects before. Justin Smoak did have higher strikeout rates and less power than Montero as a prospect, but he also walked more and eventually ended up becoming a massive disappointment for the Mariners.

You’ll notice that I’ve only given this pediction a 15 percent chance of coming true, and that’s because at worst I see Montero stumbling to something like 15 homers and a .270 average with 65-plus RBI, and even that is a pretty solid season for a catcher, but the underlying point here is that it’s best to assume the worst when dealing with Safeco.

6. Alex Avila won’t top .275.

Odds: 35 percent

You’d think the odds of a guy who batted .295 last year following that up with a .275 season would be better than just 35 percent, but Avila was massively lucky last year. His xBA was just .263, making him one of the luckiest hitters according to our formulas. Despite last year’s numbers, Avila will need to maintain the 20-plus percent line drive rate and cut his strikeouts down from 23.8 percent to something in the 18-20 percent range to top .275. I think Avila is more of a .265-.275 hitter, and my guess is he won’t reach the top end of that range.

7. Brian McCann will top 90 RBI.

Odds: 40 percent

It used to be that McCann would give you 20 homers and 90 RBI and you didn’t have to think twice, but in the last two years he hasn’t topped 77 RBI or a .270 average. Why am I so confident (or as confident as 40 percent can be)? There’s two reasons. First, McCann had 71 RBI last year in just 128 games. Usually he plays around 140 games, and that total extrapolated over 140 games would be 78 RBI. It’s not 90, but my second reason gives me hope he can get those extra 12: he’ll be a free agent after this season.

McCann will make $8.5 million this season and has a club option for $12 million next year with a $0.5 million buyout. Contract Year Theory tells us that McCann will really look to hit some important benchmarks to ensure that the one of two things happen: Atlanta picks up his option or they pay him that tiny, half-million-dollar buyout and he hits the free agent market the year after Molina signs a massive contract. If I’m in McCann’s shoes, I’m really looking to bat .280 with 20 homers and 90 RBI. That would ensure a nice payday.

8. J.P. Arencibia will bat .245.

Odds: 35 percent

Arencibia batted just .219 last season with a .231 xBA. Let’s assume he experiences a little improvement in 2012. Let’s say his line drive rate improves from 15.7 percent to 17.0 percent. Let’s say his HR/FB rate improves from 14.7 percent to 16.0 percent. Let’s say his walk rate holds steady at 7.4 percent but his strikeout rate drops from 27.4 percent to 25 percent, and that would mean his contact rate and swinging strike rate would improve accordingly. If all that happens, all of which are small, attainable targets, Arencibia would finish 2012 with an xBA of .245. Of course, that’s still a 26-point improvement from a boom or bust player, but it’s definitely a possibility.

And that improvement would make Arencibia and intriguing fantasy option. If he bats .245 with 25 homers and 80 RBI, that would solidly slate him right behind Avila and solidify the back end of the top 10 catchers.

9. Ryan Hanigan will be more valuable than Devin Mesoraco.

Odds: 45 percent

I could have taken the easy way out and made this a 50-50 proposition, but where’s the fun in that? A nice 55-45 split is much better. Clearly I believe Mesoraco will be better since I’m only giving this 45 percent, but he’s still unproven, Hanigan is still a career .275 hitter in over 800 at-bats and Dusty Baker is still a veteran-first manager. It’s possible neither will be a good fantasy option because of the time they’ll split, but I think Hanigan will play more, especially early, and that could make him the better-ranked player by season’s end.

10. Buster Posey will be the top-ranked catcher.

Odds: 20 percent

How far-fetched is this prediction? It’s actually not that unrealistic. There are only three players I feel comfortable tossing into the conversation here: Napoli, Santana and Posey (sorry Mauer). Right now we have the following projections penciled in for each player

  • Napoli: 74 R, 33 HR, 80 RBI, 4 SB, .271 BA (3.71 PSR)
  • Santana: 87 R, 26 HR, 90 RBI, 3 SB, .253 BA (3.13 PSR)
  • Posey: 68 R, 20 HR, 82 RBI, 2 SB, .290 BA (3.02 PSR)
Those are all realistic projections. Of course there’s some room for discussion in some places — Santana could hit more homers, Napoli could bat higher, etc. — but overall they’re pretty solid. Assuming Napoli and Santana hit those projections on the dot, how good would Posey have to be to pass them? According to our PSR formula, if Posey finishes with 73 runs, 21 homers, 90 RBI, three steals and a .290 average, his PSR will be 3.78 and exceed both Napoli and Santana. Yes, 21 homers will be tough, but that’s a very possible stat line. Posey will bat fourth for the Giants and will get some playing time at first base, which means he’ll be among the league leaders in at-bats among catchers. I’m still projecting Posey to finish third at catcher, but it’s bold (not crazy) to think he could finish first.

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Updated: March 2, 2012 — 2:16 pm
  • Zach Pincince

    Great Article! I can really see most of these predictions coming true in 2012. However, according to your projections in the 10th prediction, Napoli will have the best season out of any catcher in 2012. But you ranked Santana 13 spots higher in your rankings. Napoli’s xBA was 0.74 points higher than Santana’s was last year, and Napoli had more home runs in less at bats. Yes, Santana will have more at bats which in turn, will increase his R and RBI total, but I are those extra Rs and RBIs really worth more than the extra home runs and better batting average?

    • Hey Zach. We’re revamping our 2012 rankings, which we’ll be releasing very shortly (sneak peak, Napoli jumped past Santana!).

      The extra homers for Napoli (7 according to our projection above) aren’t worth nearly as much as Santana’s projected 23 extra R/RBI, especially when you factor in how close they will likely bat. I don’t believe Napoli is a .300 hitter, even though his xBA showed he truly played like one last season.

      • Zach Pincince

        Cool. I can’t wait to see the updated rankings. Yes, Napoli definitely won’t hit .320 again, but he is becoming a much better hitter at the plate. His K/BB from last year (0.68) was a career high and he also posted his lowest SwingingStrike% (10.1%) and his highest Contact% (74.5%) of his career. I could definitely see him hitting .290-.300 next year. As for Santana, he had an unusually low LineDrive% (15.4%) last year, but all his other stats were in place and I could definitely see Santana rebounding to hit .260-.270 next year. I agree that the extra RBIs and Rs are worth more than the home runs, but not when you pair the homers with .30 extra points in batting average.

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