Finding productive catchers in any fantasy draft can be a crapshoot. Catching is one of the most important and physically demanding positions in baseball, and often, even the best catchers in Major League Baseball will only play 120-130 games, to preserve them throughout a full season.
In addition, teams have different priorities with their catchers as well. Some managers look to their catchers to be productive forces in the lineup (i.e. Mike Matheny with Salvador Perez in Kansas City). However, some managers value defensive value more than offensive production, which can make things difficult for fantasy managers when deciding which catchers to target in their drafts.
The Jeff Mathis types do not have much value in the fantasy baseball world (framing is not a fantasy baseball stat yet, or at least not in leagues I play in). And yet, they will play a decent amount of games in a season, even it comes at the expense of a better hitting catcher option on the same team.
So, as fantasy managers, how can we identify the right catchers to select in drafts, and avoid ones who may not live up to their ADP or preseason hype?
On January 13th, Pitcher List’s Justin Dunbar took a look at some catching “sleepers” to target in upcoming drafts. In this post, I will take a look at three catching “busts” who may not help fantasy managers all that much in their respective lineups this season.
Salvador Perez (KCR)
2021 Stats (665 PA): .273/.316/.544, 48 HR, 88 R, 121 RBI, 1 SB
ADP (average): 34.5
There is no question that Salvador Perez was baseball’s most productive offensive catcher in 2021, and as a Royals fan, I was definitely on the “Team Salvy” boat when it came to identifying the most valuable catcher in baseball last year.
After all, he set a new single-season HR record for catchers, surpassing longtime record-holder Johnny Bench:
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) September 20, 2021
Furthermore, Perez also tied Jorge Soler for the Royals’ single-season home run record as well, not an easy feat considering how difficult Kauffman Stadium is for power hitters (before Soler in 2019, no Royals hitter in franchise history had touched the 40+ HR mark in a single season).
The skills, which are demonstrated especially so in ideal plate appearance percentage (IPA%) and hard-hit per plate appearance percentage (HH/PA%), seem to suggest that Perez’s sensational 2021 campaign was legitimate, especially when looking at the new percentile rankings on his Pitcher List player page.
However, while Perez’s power skills from a season ago are impressive, are they necessarily promising and predictive for the upcoming 2022 season?
That’s where Perez’s profile gets a little hazier.
A huge development for Perez in 2021 was his spike in barrel rate, as he posted a barrel rate of 16.3%, which was a career-high for him. What was interesting though was his spike in barrel rate against offspeed pitches in 2021.
Here’s Perez’s barrel percentage by season, according to Savant, and notice how his barrel rate against offspeed pitches last year was a career-high at 15.6%.
It seems hard to believe that those spikes in barrel rates will continue for another season, especially considering Perez’s track record.
Before 2021, he had only played 140 or more games twice in his career (2014 and 2015). Additionally, he has only surpassed the .500 mark in slugging twice in his career (last season and 2020, though that was only a 37-game sample).
In terms of home runs? Last season was not only the first time in his career Perez has hit more than 40 home runs in a season but also the first time he hit over 30 home runs in a single season as well.
With his track record, it seems difficult to imagine that Perez will live up to his projections in 2022, which are listed in the table below, especially in the HR category (courtesy of Fangraphs).
According to Fantasy Pros, Perez is the overwhelmingly No.1 ranked catcher in fantasy baseball and going around the early 30 mark in most fantasy drafts. That makes him a fringe second-rounder in 15-team leagues, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Salvy maybe crack that first round in a lot of drafts, especially considering the line he produced in 2021.
Perez will get at-bats with the Royals as DH when he’s not catching, which gives him more value than the typical catcher. However, it is hard to imagine Perez hitting 40+ home runs again, especially with a K rate of 25.6% last year, which was a career-high. He also posted a whiff rate of 33.7%, also a career-high, and a chase rate of 44.6%, the second-highest rate in his career.
It’s hard to sustain the production that Perez showcased last year with swing and miss issues like that lingering.
Thus, it is easy to think that opposing pitchers will be changing their approach on Perez in 2022, especially if the Royals don’t improve their lineup around him this offseason, and that could have an effect on Perez’s overall line.
Will Perez still be a productive catcher in fantasy baseball?
Absolutely. He will still most likely be a Top-3 or at worst Top-5 catcher by the conclusion of 2022.
However, will he be a Top-30 player by the season’s end? Is he worth a second-round or possible first-round pick on?
That seems less likely, unfortunately, and makes him a considerable risk for fantasy managers in upcoming drafts.
Keibert Ruiz (WAS)
2021 Stats (96 PA): .273/.333/.409, 3 HR, 10 R, 15 RBI, 0 SB
ADP (average): 162.5
Keibert Ruiz was the prime piece for the Washington Nationals in the Max Scherzer trade with the Dodgers at the Trade Deadline last year and hopes are high for the 23-year-old, who had an impressive 23-game debut in DC a season ago.
The former Dodgers top-catching prospect was able to transition his solid contact skills from the minors to his big league debut in the nation’s capital, as he not only hit .284 with the Nationals but also posted a BB/K ratio of 1.50, which included a 6.7% walk to a paltry 4.5% K rate.
Even though he has less than 30 games at the major league level under his belt, Ruiz demonstrates a strong batting eye and a mature approach at the plate that could make him a candidate to hit .300 in a season on an annual basis.
Furthermore, there were some signs from Ruiz last year that his power tool is developing, which was primarily seen in his time in both the Dodgers’ and Nationals’ Triple-A organizations a year ago. Ruiz hit 21 home runs in 72 games and 284 total Triple-A plate appearances in 2021, a substantial step up from what he showed in previous levels throughout his Minor League career.
Even though the power wasn’t as prodigious in the big leagues, he did have an average launch angle of 18.6 degrees, according to Savant, and his stroke has 20+ HR potential, as demonstrated in this bomb off of the Reds’ Sonny Gray in a September 24th game at Great America Ballpark:
That being said, while I am gushing about Ruiz, why do I have him on the “bust” list?
Mainly because I think there will be some growing pains for Ruiz, especially as he enters his first full season at the major league level, and I think a lot of those growing pains could center on his power tool.
Last season, Ruiz only posted a barrel rate of 2.5%, and his average exit velocity was only 86 MPH. His max exit velocity only ranked in the 43rd percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Those numbers are not exactly promising for someone who is being projected to hit 20+ home runs as soon as 2022, which is demonstrated in many of his projections available via Fangraphs:
Of Ruiz’s seven major projections, three sets project him to hit 20 or more home runs, and an additional two project him to hit over 15 home runs in 2022. While Ruiz did hit 21 home runs in Triple-A a year ago, he only had one season of double-digit home runs in the minors before 2021, which was a 12-home run mark in Double-A Tulsa in 2018.
Thus, it may be rash to think that Ruiz’s power will be as good as projected in 2022, especially with all the physical and behind-the-plate adjustments he’ll need to make in his first full major league season. While he does have the potential to hit for a high average and get on base at a decent clip, he may likely fall short in terms of the power numbers, which deflates his overall value.
In deep, dynasty, or keeper leagues, Ruiz would still be an ideal fit (especially if those leagues are two-catcher leagues). However, according to Fantasy Pros, Ruiz is ranking as the seventh-best catcher in baseball. He is ahead of Tyler Stephenson and Mitch Garver, more established veterans, and even Adley Rutschman, who has less MLB experience, but a more proven power track record in the Minors.
I am not sure fantasy managers should be drafting Ruiz ahead of those three in their leagues, especially in 12-team standard ones. It will likely take at least a year for his power tool to develop at the major league level (and that’s if it develops at all; his pre-2021 power numbers in the minors were questionable).
Ruiz is young enough that he would be a great long-term asset in dynasty and keeper leagues. That being said, Ruiz being drafted in the 162 range feels high, and it seems unlikely that he will live up to that kind of draft value, especially if his power doesn’t materialize in 2022.
A decent average but sub-10 home run mark, which is completely plausible, feels like a younger version of Yadier Molina, whom fantasy managers could get MUCH later in their respective fantasy drafts.
Mike Zunino (TBR)
2021 Stats (375 PA): .216/.301/.559, 33 HR, 64 R, 62 RBI, 0 SB
ADP (average): 266
Mike Zunino is probably not high on a lot of fantasy managers’ radars in upcoming drafts. His 266 ADP demonstrates that, and Fantasy Pros ranks him as the 15th-ranked catcher in baseball right now, ahead of Joey Bart (273 ADP) and Alejandro Kirk (286.3 ADP), but behind Travis d’Arnaud (248 ADP) and Sean Murphy (260 ADP).
For fantasy managers who may like to wait on catchers in drafts, they may think of Zunino as an enticing option.
Yes, he doesn’t offer much on the batting average end, but he did hit 33 home runs in less than 400 plate appearances in 2021. Of catchers with 350 or more plate appearances a season ago, only Perez hit more home runs, according to Fangraphs. Hence, fantasy managers looking for extra home runs in the later rounds could be tempted by Zunino as a possible pick.
However, fantasy managers should steer clear of Zunino, as all the signs point to a regression in 2022.
When looking at Zunino’s profile, especially since 2018, it stands out how much of an outlier 2021 was for him, especially regarding power metrics.
Here is a look at his barrel rate, expected batting average (xBA), and expected slugging (xSLG) each season since 2018, organized in the table below:
While he did see a pretty impressive jump in 2020 in terms of barrel rate, his 2021 barrel rate of 24.3% seems unsustainable going forward, especially since he will be 31 in 2022 and with the demands of being a catcher at the major league level. Furthermore, his massive difference in xBA and xSLG in 2021 from the previous three seasons (2018-2020) also hint at a regression, for it is likely that Zunino will fall between his last year mark and his 2018-2020 numbers (and that is looking at it optimistically).
In addition to expected regression, which should deflate his home run numbers (and thus most of his value), playing time will also be an issue for Zunino in 2022, especially with the presence of Francisco Mejía on the roster.
A former top prospect in the Cleveland system, Mejía finally showed signs of life at the major league level in Tampa Bay after struggling previously in Cleveland and San Diego. In 84 games and 277 plate appearances, Mejía posted a triple slash of .260/.322/.416, which included six home runs and 35 RBI.
When looking at both of their ZiPS projections for the upcoming season, Mejía doesn’t look that much worse in profile than Zunino, except for home runs.
Currently, Mejía has an average ADP of 411.8, which ranks him as the 29th-best catcher fantasy-wise, according to Fantasy Pros. That puts him nearly 150 spots lower than Zunino, and I am not sure Zunino is much more valuable than his Tampa Bay counterpart, especially with playing time unclear for both of them going into the 2022 season.
With Mejía being five years younger than Zunino, the Rays could likely utilize the Dominican-born catcher more in 2022, which will eat into Zunino’s at-bats and thus, his overall production.
If Zunino doesn’t get off to a good start, or if Mejía gets off to a scorching one, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think that Mejía could earn more plate appearances than Zunino by season’s end. That will only disappoint fantasy managers who draft Zunino to be their primary catcher in their leagues.
Granted, Zunino is a better framing catcher than Mejía, as Zunino ranked in the 94th percentile in framing while Mejía ranked in the bottom 8th percentile. Considering how analytical the Rays organization is, that framing ability could help Zunino earn plate appearances in 2022, even if he experiences some early at-the-plate struggles.
However, there are much better and younger, catching options than Zunino around his ADP range.
Fantasy managers would be better off going with someone other than Zunino if they are looking for a catcher around that time in their respective drafts.
Photo by MLB.com/ Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerGuyBoston on twitter)