2021 Fantasy Baseball Primer: Catcher
Most of us don’t enjoy filing taxes or going to the dentist, but we endure those unavoidable nuisances to drive on paved roads and indulge in the occasional sugary snack.
To enjoy fantasy baseball, we must eventually swallow our pride and select a catcher.
Whether taking your starter in the fifth or final round, superior hitters will undoubtedly be available at other positions. Your opinions on scarcity will determine how much you’re willing to spend on a backstop, but you can’t escape the unpleasant decision forever.
At a time when everyone is masking up, let’s break down the state of catcher and the top-30 options for 2021 drafts.
Depth remained a major issue behind the plate, but those who paid up on draft day mostly received serviceable returns. That is, unless, they watched Gary Sánchez or Mitch Garver torpedo their batting average.
It wasn’t entirely a lost cause for everyone else. Travis d’Arnaud broke out years later than anticipated, and Christian Vázquez shined as a discount version of J.T. Realmuto. The catcher-eligible Isiah Kiner-Falefa hit .280 with eight stolen bases as a starting third baseman and shortstop.
2021 at a Glance
Things aren’t overly bleak for managers playing in a one-catcher league.
Kiner-Falefa will lose eligibility outside of Yahoo leagues, where they are making no changes to 2019 positions. Playing time and steals makes him a top-10 choice to round out Tier 2 in those circumstances. This primer will adhere to NFBC eligibility.
Even without Kiner-Falefa, there are roughly a dozen worthy options. Vázquez and d’Arnaud join some familiar mainstays as top-10 choices. Sánchez and Garver were too risky as early picks last year, but they’re now intriguing late-draft dart throws for pop.
Assuming nobody in your league is foolish enough to want an extra catcher on the bench, you can reasonably wait out the position. Just don’t enter the draft locked into that plan. Be sure to closely monitor the Tier 2 catchers, which offer far more security than the ensuing options.
The position bottoms out in a hurry. After Tier 3, catcher becomes a landmine of batting-average sinkholes, veterans far past their prime, and youngsters who may not receive sufficient playing time. As usual, two-catcher leagues won’t be any fun.
A: A no-doubt stud capable of winning you a category
B: A solid, consistent contributor
C: Won’t lose you the category, but won’t win it, either
D: You can do better here
F: You’re getting NOTHING
(*Grades listed are relative to the position and take positional depth into consideration.)
Since the start of 2018, Realmuto leads all catchers in at-bats, hits, RBIs, and runs scored while trailing only Sánchez and Yasmani Grandal in home runs. We might not have witnessed his true power ceiling yet. While 25 home runs represent his season-high, he has tallied as many in 105 games since the 2019 All-Star break. Realmuto, who turns 30 before Opening Day, also remains one of select few backstops who swipes some bags.
The question isn’t whether someone will supplant him as the top catcher, but if drafters are willing to pay the price necessary to draft Realmuto. Opinions are certainly mixed; his early expert rankings contain a wild standard deviation of 29.0 with a high rank of 26 and a low of 154. Re-signing with the Phillies could help him merit a fifth-round selection in single-catcher formats.
Some drafters will decide to either pounce early on a stud catcher or punt the position. That shouldn’t be the definitive strategy in 2021.
You’re ideally leaving your 12-team, one-catcher mixed league with a starter from this tier. Maybe it’s not Perez or Smith, who nearly broke off from the others into their own exclusive grouping. Perez’s .387 expected wOBA led Smith by one point. At .370, d’Arnaud was the only other catcher to exceed .345. While you don’t want to try to start a catcher run, Perez and Smith both become intriguing if they slip past pick 100.
Contreras and Grandal are boring picks who will spare drafters a headache later. Given his track record, d’Arnaud has the highest bust risk of this grouping. He dealt with numerous injuries and posted a below-average wRC+ (under 100) in four straight seasons before slashing a sizzling .322/.386/.533 in 44 games last season. After improving on his 2019 breakout, Vázquez falls in the sweet spot of affordability and production.
If shopping in this tier, try to wait for the cheapest option. The early NFBC ADP puts Varsho just a few picks behind Vázquez, but he’s far riskier without a certain starting role. Murphy, Sánchez, or Garver could all potentially derail your batting average. McCann and Nola, meanwhile, are palatable placeholders rather than difference-makers in a one-catcher format.
Preferences here are also team- and league-dependent. Sánchez isn’t an option if you already grabbed Gallo or Miguel Sanó, but he could be worth the gamble if you’ve established a high foundation in batting average. If they start slow, be prepared to jettison any of these catchers and play the hot hand on the waiver wire.
You’re in trouble if still looking for a starter in a 12-team, one-catcher mixed league. These guys are no more than placeholders to roster before someone better comes along in those standard formats. Be ready to cut bait if necessary within the season’s first month, especially if rolling the dice on a bounce-back from Alfaro or Kelly.
While the veterans are perfectly serviceable in two-catcher formats, drafters are sacrificing upside in the process. Molina (assuming he finalizes an expected reunion with the Cardinals) and Posey won’t kill your batting average the way plenty of their peers could. Still, neither is guaranteed to even belt double-digit homers. The 34th catcher in the consensus ADP, Gomes stands out as a cost-effective second catcher going from a timeshare to the majority of a starting role. A regular top-10 choice before a subpar 2020, Ramos should jump back up the rankings since the Tigers can play him often.
The four rookies riding a wave of momentum from successful debuts could break off into their own separate clique. Just know what you’re getting into if relying on any as a second catcher. They combined for 140 plate appearances in 2020, and Jeffers is the only one who arrived before September. The other three could all open — and spend most, if not all of — 2021 in the minors.
Jeffers is at least more likely to share playing time with Garver due to his superior defense. That’s why he’s ranked higher than Kirk, a winter darling going as the 15th catcher in the consensus ADP. Any delusion of him beginning as the DH got shattered by the Blue Jays adding George Springer and Marcus Semien to a stacked lineup that may no longer even have room for Rowdy Tellez. While his bat may be ready, Kirk’s glove is not.
If it’s clear these neophytes aren’t making the majors when drafting, you’re better off just filling the spot with a no-frills starter like Stallings. Then swap him out for someone who earns a spot during the season. Joey Bart barely missed the top-30 cut since Posey now blocks him, but he remains the position’s premier long-term prospect despite looking overmatched last season.
Whether you’re new to fantasy baseball or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Baseball 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with our Sabermetrics Glossary or head to more advanced strategy – like How to Make Custom Fantasy Baseball Rankings with Microsoft Excel – to learn more.