As we kick off the 2020 Pitcher List rankings, we do so with my favorite position and probably your least-favorite: catcher. The more popular positions are coming in the following days.
These are not my personal rankings but rather the consensus rankings from the Pitcher List managerial staff. A lot of brilliant minds put this together over the course of the winter. That said, we want to hear your feedback. If you disagree, let me know! I’m happy to discuss our rationale at length. Keep in mind that rankings are one of the hardest things to do in fantasy, and we did in fact put a lot of work into this.
A few notes before we jump in. These rankings are for standard category formats that use Avg., R, RBI, SB, and HR. Without further ado, let’s get to it.
JT will continue to be at the top of this list despite being the least sexy name on here. He tied for the best xAVG among any catcher last year (Kurt Suzuki, but Realmuto did it over almost 300 more PAs) and he’ll always put up elite R+RBI numbers in his projected #2 spot in Philly’s lineup, which has become better with the addition of Didi Gregorius and the subtraction of Maikel Franco. His savant page won’t blow you away but he’s above average at damn near everything, which gives him an incredible floor. Additionally, he ranked 10th among catchers in xwOBA on off-speed and breaking pitches, demonstrating his robust batting profile. If the ball is dejuiced, I could see him dropping down to 20ish HRs but you can get your HRs elsewhere; you’ll get among the best batting averages of any catcher along with elite R+RBI numbers and a near lock for 7-10 SBs, which just adds a little cherry on top. At the end of the day, you’re drafting Realmuto for his durability and volume floors; over the last five seasons, no catcher has more plate appearances than Realmuto (2,715). Keep in mind that if you play in an OBP format, Realmuto takes a hit due to his career 5.9% walk rate.
No. 2: Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees)
In a class lacking a superstar, I can’t fault you for drafting the player with the highest ceiling. In fact, I think were it not for groin strains over the last two seasons, Sanchez would already be the perennial superstar of the position and a top 30 pick like he was in 2018. Despite two IL trips, he still managed to hit 34 HRs, a mark supported by his absolutely insane 19.1% barrel%, the second best mark in baseball (Nelson Cruz– 19.9%). A .247 xAVG is far from stellar, but if he remains healthy, the R and RBI will come in bunches. Don’t feel the need to reach for Gary because we’ve seen how low the floor can be, but the departure of Austin Romine signals to me just how much they believe in Sanchez. As a sign in his favor, he reduced his chase rates on off-speed and breaking pitches down and away.
I just can’t quit the Kraken. I think there’s a solid chance he ends up as the #1 catcher, it all depends on health.
I’m ready for the fight on this. Garver finished 2019 with the best xwOBA of any catcher at .380 and hit 31 HRs despite nearly 100 fewer PAs than Sanchez, supported by a 15.5% barrels/BBE that was third among all catchers. On top of that, Garver’s platoon mate Jason Castro is in Los Angeles now. Yes, he will lose some time to Willians Astudillo or Alex Avila, but it shouldn’t be nearly the time he lost to Castro because Avila has only surpassed 240 PAs once since 2014. So where’s the fight? Well, Garver in 2019 only punished fastballs; while his xwOBA surpassed .450 on fastballs, it was below .300 on both breaking and offspeed pitches. There are two narratives you can form here: 1) Garver can only hit fastballs, so he’ll regress due to inability to hit other pitches or 2) Garver has a lot of room to grow by learning to hit off-speed and breaking pitches better. I don’t know that either narrative is completely correct; it’s likely somewhere in the middle, but this is just his third full season in the majors, so I’m not ready to write his batting profile off as broken, especially when you consider that his xwOBA on breaking balls and off-speed pitches is middle of the pack among catchers with at least 50 PAs ending against such pitches and improved on breaking pitches by 40 points in xwOBA and 100 points in xSLG from 2018 to 2019.
I’ve considered putting Grandal higher on a number of occasions. He’s got an elite barrel rate (11.3%), strong power numbers, and elite plate discipline (17.2% walk rate in 2019). Grandal has seen a career breakout over the last four years, slashing his K-rate by 3.5%, cutting his ground ball rate by 4.5%, and increased his fly-ball rate by almost 4%. On top of that, if you want to find a catcher with a more balanced plate profile, you won’t find one. No hitter had a better xwOBA on off-speed and breaking balls than Grandal in 2019, exceeding a .330 xwOBA on all three main pitch types. While he moved lineups, the White Sox lineup he’s joining is sneaky good, adding Luis Robert, Nomar Mazara, himself, and eventually Nick Madrigal in 2020. Grandal’s ceiling is high, but, as we’ve seen in the past, Grandal’s average will continue to pull him down; he’s failed to hit above the Khris Davis line (.247) in any season with at least 250 PAs and xAVG supports his mediocre hit tool. If there’s another knock on Grandal, it’s the potential risk to his playing time. Chicago has two catchers already on the roster in James McCann, who had a strong 2019 season, as well as top prospect Zack Collins. The difference here is that Grandal is also among the best pitch framers in the game, finishing third in Baseball Prospectus’ Adjusted Framing Runs Above Average in 2019, while James McCann finished 101st of 113 qualified catchers. This implies that McCann or Collins will hold down DH and some 1B duties……. except that the White Sox brought in DH Edwin Encarnacion and retained 1B Jose Abreu. So McCann and Collins’ path to playing time is foggy right now, but I can’t imagine both will waste away on the bench. Stay tuned for news out of Spring Training.
Two IL stints cost Contreras roughly six weeks of his otherwise strong 2019 season. He posted an 11.5% barrel rate en route to a 24 HR, .272/.355/.533 season. However, this is a bit of an over-assessment, per savant, which pegged him for a .250 average and a .476 SLG. With a fully healthy campaign, it’s possible for him to reach these actual numbers, as he’s already surpassed a .272 average twice in his MLB career. To do so, he’ll have to make strides in his plate discipline to cut his SwStr% and his K% in the process. Those who are concerned about his 27.3% HR/FB should look into his 2016 and 2017 seasons, which both presented numbers over 23%. I get that I’ve presented a lot of negatives, but there’s a lot to like in Contreras’ profile, which is similarly balanced to Yasmani Grandal’s and smack in the middle of another strong Cubs lineup.
This ranking is based largely on potential; if he’s able to repeat 2019, you have a .250s hitter with 30ish HRs, 160 R+RBI, and upwards of 5 SBs. There are definitely reasons to think he’ll do it: a 10.7% barrel rate, .452 xSLG, 1.23 K/BB rate in AAA, and a nearly 2 to 1 FB/GB rate. I’m not entirely sold though; his .225 xAVG leaves alot to be desired. While he had excellent plate discipline in AAA, it didn’t carry over to the majors, as it became 2.88 K/BB. Lastly, I’m not convinced the AAA numbers weren’t the product of the hitter-friendly PCL. He’s also got one of the better playing time situations, unlikely to lose time to Austin Barnes, so it’s easy to dream about the upside. Still, he could easily just be 2019 Roberto Perez, which isn’t awful in his own right.
Despite him missing all of 2019, I’m fully on board the Perez train. He consistently produces a moderate average with 20+ HRs and solid RBI numbers regardless of the strength of Kansas City’s lineup. I actually think he can hit for a higher average given his strong contact rates; don’t be scared of his .235 AVG in 2018 because with a .260 xAVG, a 10.8% barrel rate, and a 92nd percentile hard-hit rate. The floor isn’t incredibly high, but I think he’s got a good chance at above-average results. If you’re in an OBP league, fade him HARD.
After getting traded out from under Yadier Molina’s shadow in St. Louis, he broke out in Arizona, slashing .245/.348/.478, including .356/.462/.667 in 87 PAs vs lefties. He has to improve on his .708 OPS against righties. He shouldn’t feel too pressured in the immediate term because Stephen Vogt is not a threat, and Kelly ranked in the 88th percentile in Savant framing. Still, Daulton Varsho is lurking in AAA. His situation will be something to watch throughout the year if Kelly struggles and Varsho dominates AAA.
No. 9: Roberto Perez (Cleveland Indians)
Dan Richards wrote about Roberto Perez’s 2019 breakout. He shifted his swing to create more loft and it resulted in a near doubling of his barrel rate (5.9% –> 11.0%). He also improved against all pitch types, improving in xSLG and xwOBA against all three pitch types. But it wasn’t just an offensive breakout; Perez became an elite framer, finishing 2nd in FRAA. I’m expecting HR/FB regression from his 28.2% mark based on his middling EV and HH% overall plus his 7% regression in Contact% since 2016.
No. 10: Omar Narvaez (Milwaukee Brewers)
Narvaez burst onto the scene in 2019 as a high-average option with pop. Largely it came about with a shift in his batted ball profile, going from 1.45 GB/FB in 2018 to 0.82 in 2019. With Grandal gone in Milwaukee, he should come close to 500 PAs again, but a look at his baseball savant page isn’t going to encourage much excitement.
Yikes. Below average at EVERYTHING. Even his best tool, average, isn’t really supported; he’s had back to back seasons below .260 xAVG, but he continues to hit in the .270s regardless, so it’s hard to know if it’s legit or not.
Murphy doesn’t have the largest track record, with no sesaon of 400 PAs as a professional, but he’s put up a 130 wRC+ at A+, a 131 at AA+, and 136 at AAA. He has the potential for increased power as he learns to hit more FBs. On top of his offensive prowess, he’s an elite defender who controls the run game well. With Phegley gone, he has no threats to his playing time. I’m excited by his average to his above average hit tool and power and his potential to grow in 2020.
No. 12: Christian Vazquez (Boston Red Sox)
I know 2019 was the year of the home run, but Christian Vazquez went from 3 to 23 HRs in one year and we’re just supposed to go with it? I expect regression from his 15.4% HR/FB given his middling hard hit%, but he tripled his barrel% (up to 6.4%). The good news is he’s a strong framer (16th out of 113) and defender and he’s cheap, which may be the biggest priority for Boston. As he continues to swing plane to hit more FBs (1.68 to 1.17 to 1.04 GB/FB over the last three years), the power will become more and more reliable. This is right about the end of catchers I want to draft in 12-teamers.
Keep in mind with this ranking that it is contingent on Severino earning the job away from Chance Sico in spring training. His overall numbers were very strong, including Savant numbers: .269 xAVG, .447 xSLG, and 8.5% barrel rate and a minimal SwStr%. The concern is with his second half production; he posted a .219 xAVG, an OPS+ below 85 against both lefties and righties. But we’re at the part in the catcher rankings where everyone has faults.
Can someone explain Alfaro’s BABIP to me? He’s got a career .385 mark. Well, he doesn’t hit pop-ups (0 infield pop-ups in 2019), he hits a small amount of FBs, he hits 20+% LDs, and sprays the ball to all fields, so he supports a high BABIP, I suppose, which makes me believe more in his .260+ average, despite a low 60s contact rate and a mid 30s K%. It’s such a quandry because with that plate discipline, he shouldn’t be good; and if any of those BABIP factors decline, the bottom could fall out, but for now, his upside is pretty decent.
Gone are the days where Yadi Molina is among the best defenders in the league, but his bat has remained, batting .270 in 2019 with 48 HRs over the last 3 years, though the power disappeared in 2019 (3.8% barrel rate). The threat of Carson Kelly is gone, but replaced by the threat of Andrew Knizer is imminent and that of Ivan Herrera not too far behind him. So I rank Yadi here because of his floor, but the ceiling isn’t exciting barring a power rebound from 2018.
Despite Jansen’s overall stat line struggles, he improved in the second half (.254 xAVG and .441 SLG); Savant suggests that Jansen had one of the largest gaps between actual and expected results, suggesting improvement down the line. Some may be worried about Reese McGuire’s late surge in playing time and his .364 wOBA but the bat is something we haven’t seen over substantial PAs at any point in McGuire’s career. If it’s a question of glove, Danny Jansen was named a finalist for the AL Gold Glove at catcher and finished fifth among MLB catchers in DRS (12).
Romine signed with the Tigers after a strong season as the Yankees’ backup, posting a .281/.310/.439 slash line. It came with a .265 xAVG and .433 xSLG, plus he should have virtually no threats to playing time (no, I’m not worried about Grayson Grenier). He’s not a stellar defender, grading at -1.6 FRAA, but playing time gives a strong floor that could give him solid streaming potential. I don’t envision him as an everyday regular though.
Even as I write this, it feels too far down for Wilson Ramos, but I can’t find the rationale; the elite average isn’t necessarily there (.263 xAVG) and there’s still no power (4.7% barrel rate and .402 xSLG). He’s not a great framer, as evidenced by Noah Syndergaard’s catastrophic performance with Ramos which necessitated the existence of Thomas Nido.
Some pitchers have better relationships with certain catchers, so one stat line isn’t an end all, be all, but this is pretty significant. I fear Ramos’ playing time dwindling potentially if his pitchers prefer to work with Nido.
The biggest knock on Kurt Suzuki is his potential playing time split with Yan Gomes; last year, Yan Gomes actually beat Suzuki by 49 PAs, but it came with a .278 xAVG and a .459 xSLG, so this is truthfully a rank based on potential. At this point, we know who Suzuki is for the most part: a decently high average, mid-teens power bat who won’t strike out often.
No. 20: Francisco Mejia (San Diego Padres)
I may be the low person on Mejia; he’s getting a lot of helium from his .305/.355/.511 second half slash line, but it was unsupported by Savant, with an overall .229 xAVG and .381 xSLG supported by a 4.7% barrel rate. He’s got a lot of offensive potential, as he has had his whole career, but right now, I’m not sold that the bat is ready to succeed in the big leagues and if it’s not, his framing will not help him; he’s competing against the best framer in baseball: Austin Hedges. Watch this situation closely.
I wanted to be so much higher on Castro. His numbers wow me a bit: a 17.2% barrel rate, .521 xSLG, and .364 xWOBA. He’s also out from under Mitch Garver’s shadow and should be the starter over Max Stassi. The big knock against him is his .125/.222/.125 slash line with a 42.2% K rate against lefties: Minnesota only gave him 45 PAs against them last year and I’m not convinced he’ll do a lot better in that department with the Angels.
So the high-offense catcher leaves Colorado and then emerges? He raised his average to .273 and his SLG to .535 with 18 HRs in 281 PAs, so why is he so low on this list? Because he average came with a .218 xAVG and .440 xSLG. He hits the ball incredibly hard but his swing appears to have a number of holes, particularly against righties.
Buster Posey is in full-on decline. I hate those words even coming out of my mouth, but it’s true. He’s a .260s hitter who likely won’t hit 10 HRs and may not get to 80 R+RBI. The Giants should’ve just traded him while they could because Savant backs up his struggles. He’s on this list almost purely because of playing time.
McCann is maddening because his 2019 batted ball skills were stellar, 9.2% barrel rate and a .445 xSLG, but he’s blocked by Yasmani Grandal, who is worlds better defensively. I don’t know where McCann finds playing time in 2020, but if he finds it, you want to own him. I’d draft him top 12 if he had an everyday gig, which would come with an injury to any of Jose Abreu, Edwin Encarnacion, or Yasmani Grandal.
No. 25: Travis d’Arnaud (Atlanta Braves)
This ranking is largely speculative because as of now, it’s impossible to know what the Braves playing time situation will look like. His overall .262xAVG and .455 xSLG looks fine and dandy, but 5 of his 16 HRs (8% of his career HRs in fact) came in two games vs the Yankees, so I doubt the power upside is real. Contact rate and SwStr% also took a step back, justifying his increased K%. Watch this play out in Spring Training because d’Arnaud could be ownable if he had full playing time.
Let me preface this: I don’t like Jacob Stallings– as a player, I don’t know him as a person (I’m sure he’s great). Nothing about his stat line is exciting, but with the departure of Elias Diaz and Francisco Cervelli, nobody should threaten him for playing time (Luke Maile is the only other C on the roster).
Two years ago, I wrote my first catcher rankings and I was so high on Robinson Chirinos‘ potential with the Rangers. In fact, I had him as a top 10 bat at the position; how naive I was. Much like Stallings, the skill are gone at this point in Chirinos’ career, but he’s still got thump in the bat to the tune of an 8.1% barrel rate last year. He’ll get regular playing time and occasionally have good streaming weeks.
No. 28: Martin Maldonado (Houston Astros)
The Astros will look somewhat different in 2020, but Maldonado returns as the stalwart behind the dish. He’s an average framer, but he’s a veteran who has received significant praise for his ability to manage a pitching staff. Why is this relevant? Because Dustin Garneau is the only one who can take playing time from him and that won’t happen. Once that’s established, we can talk about Maldonado’s low .200s AVG and sub .400 SLG likelihood. It ain’t pretty.
Flowers gets an honorary mention on the list because of his 11.3% barrel rate and his elite framing stats, which I’ve always felt should give rise to more playing time. Despite the power, he posted a .198 xAVG in 2019 and the power didn’t compensate for it. He’s a low, low floor bat who has to fight for playing time. Very much a Hedges-Mejia situation if d’Arnaud were still a top prospect.
Tucker Barnhart, I just can’t quit you. I was ready to leave him off this list competely, but he returned from his mid-season oblique-fueled IL stint to post a .273/.367/.448 second half slash line. That potential upside (10-15 HRs, 90ish R+RBI, and .250+ AVG) is the only thing letting him cling to relevancy in 2020.
(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)