Justin Dunbar’s Top Catcher Targets

These three catchers need to be on your draft board heading into 2022.

Few positions can be as complicated to evaluate in fantasy baseball as the catcher position. Obviously, it isn’t a very offensively-skilled position, as we can see here:

Offensive Statistics By Position

wRC+= weighted-runs-created-plus
ISO= isolated power
wOBA= weighted on-base average

Catchers clearly stand out as the worst offensive producers compared to other positions, particularly in the batting average department. Add in that they provide little speed and don’t tend to accumulate as many plate appearances as players as other positions, and it’s clear that this is not a very deep position in fantasy baseball.

With that in mind, it makes sense to target catchers early. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to pay the top of the market for a catcher, but there is some logic with diving into the middle of the top ten to find your two catchers—you can wait longer potentially if you’re in a one-catcher leaguer. In fact, as I’m writing this, all of my favorite catcher targets are in the top ten in terms of average draft position (ADP).

That being said, all of these catchers still provide value currently at their respective ADPs. If you draft them, you should come away happy with your investment, and not be worried about digging too deep in such an offensively barren position. So, don’t think twice, and make sure to target these three players!

ADP Data via NFC.shgn.com (Drafts since February 1st)

Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs

 

Daulton Varsho (ARI)

 

2021 Stats (315 PA): .246/.318/.437, 11 HR 41 R, 38 RBI, 8 SB

ADP: 89.46 (C4)

Whenever you can get stolen bases from a position not known for speed, you can gain an edge on your opponent. However, that player also needs to provide value elsewhere and needs to get enough playing time to accumulate those steals. In that sense, Daulton Varsho is truly special.

Heading into last season, many expected Varsho to come up to the majors and produce immediately. However, things didn’t get off to a great start. In the first half, the 25-year-old posted just a 32 wRC+, showcasing absolute zero power (.071 ISO) as well in his first 96 plate appearances. Meanwhile, he also wasn’t getting regular playing time, and was likely cut loose on several fantasy teams.

For those who maintained faith in Varsho, though, they were rewarded in the second half. In his next 223 plate appearances, he hit for a 130 wRC+, a .289/.347/.539 slash line, and a .250 ISO. That’s quite the change from the first half, and gets me very excited for what could be in store for him next season. It all demonstrates why Varsho’s overall statistics can be quite deceiving; he clearly needed an adjustment period and everyday plate appearances to reach his full potential.

Even if Varsho’s 8% barrel rate in the second half doesn’t look extremely appealing, it does indicate he should be able to put up solid power numbers. Also helping his case is the fact that he posted just a 38.5% ground-ball rate last season, while he likely came close to several extra barrels with a 9.2% solid contact rate. In other words, even in non-barrels, he’s hitting the ball in the air, and for hard-enough contact, which is translating to power production.

Plus, even Varsho’s stolen base numbers could look deceiving. He stole just one base in the first half, but in the second half, he started running more, putting him on pace to potentially steal double-digit bases in a full season. To get close to 20 home runs and 10 steals, as well as a fine batting average, from the catcher position is a steal. Remember, Varsho also plays outfield while splitting catcher reps with Carson Kelly, so while he may qualify as a catcher, he won’t go through the same wear and tear and is less likely to need extra days off. The upside is tremendous, and the floor he provides with his power and speed is there too. Rather than spend big on the first three catchers, feel comfortable waiting to snag him as your first catcher.

 

Keibert Ruiz (WSH)

 

2021 Stats (96 PA): .273/.333/.409, 3 HR, 10 R, 15 RBI, 0 SB

ADP: 140.4 (C8)

When you trade two franchise legends in Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, you better be quite confident in the players you’re getting in return. In that lens, there is a lot of pressure on Keibert Ruiz to emerge as the Nationals’ franchise catcher for years to come. Fortunately for them, I’d consider that the likely outcome.

Ruiz’s major-league data is very limited, but it was nice to see him adjust well when promoted to the majors. That .273 batting average came with just a 9.4% strikeout rate, as well as a 6.2% swinging-strike rate. Those contact skills have been the foundation of his profile for several years as a prospect. In Triple-A last season, he had just a 6.4% swinging-strike rate, in addition to a slim 10.4% strikeout rate. This bat-to-ball talent is why most prospect outlets gave him at least a 60-hit tool grade, with some even offering a 70-hit tool grade in the past.

This is what Fangraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen had to say about Ruiz prior to last season:

Ruiz is a slow-twitch, skills-over-tools catcher who projects to be a good everyday player. He has much better feel for contact than all but a few players in the minors, let alone the catchers. It has allowed Ruiz to get away with an overly-expansive approach. He swings at far too many pitches outside the zone, but he is so often able to get the barrel there that it hasn’t mattered, and he’s a .299 career hitter in spite of this.

As mentioned in the report, Ruiz might not have the plate discipline needed to walk enough, but unless you’re in an OBP league, that’s mainly irrelevant for fantasy purposes. Instead, his ability to make consistent contact stands out, especially if his power breakout from 2021 turns out to be legitimate. The 23-year-old only had a career .122 ISO heading into the season, meaning his ability to hit for average was going to carry his offensive skillset.

However, that changed last season. In 284 plate appearances at Triple-A, Ruiz posted an absurd .306 ISO, and a lot of it can be tied to a legitimate change in approach. After being more of a ground-ball hitter, he hit fly balls at a career-high 52% rate, while he also had a 49.6% pull rate. Thus, he should be able to manufacture every last bit of power he can, which is important for someone who might not have an exceptional amount of raw power.

Given the team’s investment in Ruiz, we’re expecting him to get close to everyday at-bats for the Nationals next season—he holds up as a solid defender, based on scouting reports. You could be getting a .270 batting average with up to 20 home runs, which is quite intriguing at a poor offensive position. In fact, assuming catchers continue to be a step behind from a batting average perspective, Ruiz’s strengths can allow you to get production there when your league mates can’t. If you decide to punt catcher early, want to get a strong catcher #2, or play in a one-catcher league, Ruiz is the perfect fit for your team.

 

Mitch Garver (MIN)

 

2021 Stats (243 PA): .256/.356/.517, 13 HR, 29 R, 34 RBI, 1 SB

ADP: 175.72 (C9)

In a lot of ways, Mitch Garver is the exact opposite of Ruiz; providing a lot of power with some whiffs. That being said, at a position where the bar for batting average is so low, that is acceptable! For Garver, his 2020 season was as forgettable as it can get. That being said, if you look at his statistics since 2019, it is easy to see the outlier:

Mitch Garver Stats By Year

Plus, 2020 was only 81 plate appearances, so it was easy to write that season off heading into 2021, though not everyone did; he went from being the 5th catcher drafted prior to the 2020 NFBC Main Event, to the 11th catcher being drafted prior to 2021, per rotoholic.com. Then, his stock fell down further after missing time due to multiple injuries; as he put it to Betsy Harlfand of the Pine Journal, his season was “wrecked” due to these injuries.

Garver may have been limited to 243 plate appearances, but those plate appearances were very strong. He posted a 17.4% barrel rate, lowered his ground-ball rate to 31.2%, and only had 0.7% of his batted balls qualify as weak contact. With a pull rate of 51.4%, he’s rightfully getting the most out of his extreme raw power, which can not be overstated- 29.7% of his batted balls were either classified as a barrel or solid contact, which is absurd. His passiveness is going to lead to strikeouts, lowering the batting average upside, but the power is 100% legitimate.

The main concern with Garver is his playing time. Not only has he not been able to stay healthy, but he’ll split some reps with Ryan Jeffers. That being said, the team still clearly has preferred him when healthy, and his offense is good enough to get playing time at first base and designated hitter. Meanwhile, even if he can just get to 400 plate appearances, he’s going to provide plenty of counting stats. For perspective, prorating his statistics last year to 406 plate appearances, what projections have him at, would have him exceeding 20 home runs, while the limited at-bats also prevent him from being a drag in the batting average department. That being said, his projected .238 batting average from the ATC projections still is acceptable given the position he plays for, especially if he’s making up for it with power.

Garver isn’t the sexiest of picks and comes with a little downside based on his previous playing time totals. However, the bar is low for the amount of plate appearances he needs to accumulate strong counting statistics for the position, as his power is as strong as it gets for a catcher. As a sleeper starting catcher in one-catcher leagues or your second catcher in two-catcher leagues, he’s an optimal target. This is a player whose ADP is currently on the rise, so if you want him, you better buy in now!

 

Photos by Peter Joneleit & Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)

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