Ladies and gentlemen, baseball is back!
With the MLB and MLB Players Association agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement, the lockout is officially past us, and we are going to have a 162-game season! Suddenly, we have gone from a period of tremendous sadness to a time of extreme excitement. Now, we get to see a free-agent frenzy, while also getting ready for the season; chaos is upon us!
With that in mind, there has never been a better time to completely dive into fantasy baseball prep. Now that the season is set to start on April 7th, fantasy baseball drafts are in full swing, and we’ll have to make last-minute adjustments to the prep that was done during the lockout. With players changing teams and new reports coming in, expect there to be a lot of change in average draft position (ADP) heading up to the season- those who can make adjustments on the fly will be at an advantage.
To assist in preparation, we’ll be going position-by-position, looking for the good, the bad, and the breakout. In other words, one optimal target, a player you should avoid, and a player going past pick #300 in NFBC drafts that can be a true sleeper this year. Today, we’ll be focusing on the catcher position. At such a thin position, you can gain a serious edge if you hit gold on the right player. Who is that player, and who should you avoid? Let us dive right into it!
Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs
ADP via NFBC Drafts Since February 1st
The “Good”: Daulton Varsho, ARI
2021 Stats (315 PA): .246/.318/.437, 11 HR, 41 R, 38 RBI, 6 SB
ADP: 89.36 (C4)
Honorable Mention(s): Mitch Garver (TEX)
In my opinion, arguably the best part about fantasy baseball is it can draw you to certain players that you otherwise likely would have overlooked. There may be no player this applies to more than Daulton Varsho.
A catcher who also is a center field? That’s not a prototype you see every day. Yet, that speaks to the atypical athleticism that Varsho brings as a catcher. This is something that made him very coveted as a prospect, as did his minor-league production. In 2019 at Double-A, for instance, he posted a .220 isolated power, 159 weighted-runs-created-plus (159 wRC+), and just a 13.9% strikeout rate. Heck, he even stole 21 bases on 452 plate appearances!
After making his MLB debut in 2020, Varsho gained some steam heading into the 2021 season. Despite not having a clear MLB role, he was a top-20 catcher based on NFBC Main Event ADP, according to Rotoholic.com. Interestingly, even though he only had 315 plate appearances, he managed to exceed that value (C16), based on Fangraphs’ 2021 5×5 dollar values.
Initially, when you look at Varsho’s overall numbers, you may not be particularly impressed. However, there is some context that is needed here. In the first half, Varsho wasn’t seeing consistent playing time, and struggled as a result; he posted a 32 wRC+ with a .071 ISO. Over his next 223 plate appearances in the second half, he was a changed player.
During that span, the 25-year-old posted a 130 wRC+, in addition to a .289/.347/.539 slash line. His 8% barrel rate during that time may not have impressed significantly, but when you add it to the fact that he hits the ball in the air often (just a 38.5% ground-ball rate), you can be more confident in his power. Plus, his 9.2% solid contact rate may portend to extra barrels, especially as he continues to come into his own.
In other words, Varsho’s power is legitimate. Furthermore, he showed off his 84th percentile sprint speed by being on pace for double-digit stolen bases in the second half. In total, you should be getting 20+ home runs and 10+ stolen bases. Plus, he should be in line for extra plate appearances as he splits time between catcher and the outfield, while he should have less and tear than other catchers as a result. There’s plenty of upside here, and a high floor based on the playing time and the speed. Even as the #4 catcher, he’s a great first target for two-catcher leagues.
The “Bad”: Joey Bart, SF
2021 Stats: N/A
ADP: 282.42 (C20)
Honorable Mention(s): Sean Murphy (OAK)
There aren’t any clear busts at the top of the catcher pool, so you can say I’m somewhat stretching the term “bust”. That being said, the 20th catcher off the board is still a starter in two-catcher leagues, so expectations will still be somewhat high.
This leads me to Joey Bart, who has had a lot of hype attached to his name for some time. When he was the second overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, he was seen as the future successor to Buster Posey, which is quite the task. Now that Posey is retired, Bart should step in and keep the good times rolling in San Francisco, right? Not quite.
As a junior at Georgia Tech, Bart posted an absurd .359/.471/.632 slash line. Even then, though, it came with a 20.6% strikeout rate, which isn’t ideal as a junior in college. This is a player who has been cited as having some problems when it comes to contact skills and plate discipline, which has seemingly been ignored due to his intriguing raw power. However, at some point, it needs to be acknowledged.
With Posey opting out of the 2020 season, Bart got his chance to make a good first impression. Instead, he posted a 69 wRC+ with a .233/.288/.320 slash line. Meanwhile, his poor plate discipline was on full display with a 38.6% chase rate and a 16.9% swinging-strike rate. Even with an absurdly high .387 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the batting average was severely capped due to a 36.9% strikeout rate. That’s the issue with making such little contact; the quality of contact matters much less.
Plus, I’m not sure Bart’s raw power will translate into actionable game power. In his short sample at the MLB level, he posted a 51.6% ground-ball rate with just a 4.8% barrel rate. These ground-ball tendencies have mainly been a problem at the minor-league level, albeit to a less extent. It’s not as though his .179 ISO set the world on fire, especially when it came with a 29.4% strikeout rate.
Poor contact skills, problems with plate discipline, and questionable game power all plague Bart currently. Perhaps it all comes together at the next level, but his inability to produce despite being old for each minor-league level is concerning; it’s much harder to fix plate discipline and strikeout issues. While the expectation is that he’ll be Posey’s successor, that was a different regime that drafted him. Don’t be surprised if he’s only a part-time player at best, especially if he continues to struggle. There are much more reliable catcher targets going behind him.
The “Breakout”: Austin Nola, SD
2021 Stats (194 PA): .272/.340/.376, 2 HR, 15 R, 29 RBI, 0 SB
ADP: 362.68 (C26)
Honorable Mention(s): N/A
With the lockout being lifted recently, the chaos we are seeing in terms of player movement is something we haven’t seen. Upon writing this, I had selected Ryan Jeffers as the top sleeper, as it appeared he’d be the clear-cut starting catcher with Mitch Garver going to the Rangers. Of course, Gary Sánchez is now a Twin, so we’ll have to retract that one.
Welcome to the article Austin Nola! Nola’s certainly had an interesting career path up to this point. He’s a converted catcher who didn’t make his MLB debut until age 29 but impressed with a 114 wRC+ in the first 267 plate appearances of his career. Then came 2020, where Nola had his breakout year. In 184 plate appearances, he posted a 127 wRC+ and became a key part of one of the critical trades of that trade deadline.
San Diego traded a notable package, including Ty France, to acquire Nola. Heading into 2021, he was the 13th overall catcher off the board in the NFBC Main Event, according to rotoholic.com, but things went south for him in a hurry. He missed the entire first month of the season with a hand injury, and then was back on the injury list in June due to a knee injury, before missing the final week of the season due to a thumb injury. Clearly, it was a chaotic season for the 32-year-old.
Looking back onto 2020, Nola’s 31.8% line-drive was always going to come down. That doesn’t completely explain his 7.8% barrel rate dropping to 0.6% in 2021. Rather, it’s likely that he was compensating for his injuries, particularly the hand injury, which zapped his power. As a result, he sold out for more contact (9.8% strikeout rate), even if it came with no power.
Assuming he’s fully healthy in 2022, Nola’s approach should revert back to normal. The strikeouts will come up but he still has well above-average contact skills that give him a much higher floor from a batting average standpoint than the traditional catcher. It’s unclear how much power he brings to the table, but the above-average batting average you get from him, particularly for a catcher, cannot be ignored. We’ll see how his playing time with the Padres shapes up, but he’s a nice target as a low-level catcher #2 or high-end catcher #3 for your fantasy team, depending on league size.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)