The Case Against Catchers

Posted on 10 August 2012 by Gary Perilloux

Someone, please, have my head examined. I’m certain I lost my mind somewhere on the base paths this baseball season, and I haven’t been able to find it.

You see, the indisputable diagnosis is right there on my Fantasy Baseball roster. Follow the serious neurological disconnect between the top of my roster, where the obligatory two catchers go, and the bottom of the offensive lineup, where those invaluable utility spots reside. And there at the bottom is the indisputable proof: a third catcher.

Add to the diagnosis the fact that ours is an NL-only league, and you know that I seriously need my head examined. Three catchers from the National League on one Fantasy roster? Are you kidding?

The only plausible explanation would be that Mike Piazza and Gary Carter rejoined their teams via time-travel from the peaks of their All-Star careers. But, no, I’ve got on my roster a catcher named Kratz whom I’d never heard of until a few days back and a catcher named Rosario whom I’d never heard of before this year.

Oh, I do have a fellow by the name of McCann from down Georgia way on my team, so there’s a scintilla of logic in my backstop picks. But even there, I broke the Cardinal rule of Fantasy Baseball (or in this case, the Braves rule): Never, ever draft the same catcher from the same team two years in a row, especially if they had a stalwart year in the first season.

It’s the No. 1 Fantasy Rule in the case against catchers. By dint of their back-breaking, knee-buckling, arm-wearying, crazy-pitcher-handling jobs, they cannot sustain great offense two years in a row. Not unless you’re talking 10-15 years ago and the catcher is that first baseman convert from Lasorda land, Mike Piazza. Yes, we’re talking Fantasy, so the fact that he played mediocre to marginal defense most of his career is beside the point.

Simply put, nearly everyone else who puts on the mask has ample reason to hide behind the mask when the subject turns to offense. I took a risk this year by drafting McCann again and paying for him virtually the same thing I did in 2011: $21.

A steal? No. A deal? Yes, except — and here’s the big bugaboo for catchers — they won’t do for you this year what they did for you last (the Piazza exception, notwithstanding).

A History Lesson

Let’s look back through history at Yogi, Campy and Johnny — the holy trinity of mid-20th century catchers. Aside from being Yogi, the on-the-field mastermind behind the most successful run in Major League history, Yogi Berra was the Piazza of the 1950s: eight straight years he led the American League in games caught and seven straight years he finished in the Top 4 in balloting for MVP, winning three MVP awards. Amazingly, two MVP awards were back-to-back (1954-55) and he should have had two more back-to-back (1950-51), except for that Scooter guy at short who stole the 1950 award away.

But Yogi, like “Iron” Mike Piazza is the once-in-a-lifetime exception to the rule.

Now, let’s take Campy and Johnny at their five-year peaks. Roy Campanella won three NL MVP Awards in the 1950s. But sandwiched between those luminous 1951, 1953 and 1955 MVP years — in which he averaged .318/35/119 with an OPS of .989 were very different years in which he averaged .240/20/74 with an OPS more than 200 points lower at .745. For Bench, the spray of runs, drips and errors were far worse in the alternating years between his MVP performances of 1970 and 1972 and his 4th place MVP performance of 1974. I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau on speed dial, but in those three great years Bench never drove in fewer than 125 runs, and I doubt any other catcher had three such years in his entire career (Berra, Campanella and Bill Dickey had one; Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Javy Lopez had none).

So here’s Johnny Bench pounding the ball at an average of .281/39/131 and an OPS of .907 for those three peak years. But in the intervening 1971 and 1973 seasons he withered to .246/26/82 and an OPS of .748. Not bad years for the mere mortal catcher. But when you’re paying Johnny Bench dollars, you want that Krylon smooth sheen, not the runs, drips and errors of a mortal catcher.

Which brings us back to Brian McCann, who once looked like a lock for the title of pseudo-Piazza or demi-Yogi. You could look it up: For the six consecutive years concluding with 2011, McCann averaged .281/22/86 and his worst year (2010) of .269/21/77 really didn’t miss the mark by much. His OPS that year of .828 also didn’t miss his six-year average of .851 by too much. So I drafted the guy again after throwing him back.

Closing the Case

McCann now is on pace for 26 homers and 83 RBIs, so what’s the problem? That .240 batting average and .762 OPS that place him in the mere mortal category. It just so happens that my Fantasy team has been mired in last place for batting average most of the year and is now one spot off the bottom. That’s more testament to my myopic drafting skills than anything else. But the point is, catchers can really kill your batting average. It’s why you draft two of them because you have to, not because you want to. So how on earth did my feeble brain select a third catcher for the roster?

Well, I foolishly drafted Scott Rolen (at a great price!) in utility, but the Rolex on Rolen’s salad days had wound down. And when he wound up on the DL, the waiver wire was, shall we say, lean and green. The hottest available hitter was catcher Wilin Rosario, who has played his way into the Rockies lineup and is on pace to finish at a McCann-ian pace: .236/27/66/.790.

The third catcher? Suffice it to say that I grew weak in the knees during the minor league portion of our draft and selected one Yasmani Grandal — a catcher! — who miraculously was hitting .312/5/15 in just 24 games after a midyear call up and before the injury bug came calling. In desperation, I replaced him with a crafty, 32-year-old Philadelphia rookie, Erik Kratz, who’s stroking at the remarkable rate of .371/4/9 in just 35 ABs.

And things are looking up. Carlos Ruiz has hit the DL (sorry, Phillies fans) and the crafty Kratz is capitalizing on more playing time. I know, though, that this is all just a mirage. I see the 87-year-old Yogi grinning at me through his bifocals and wisecracking, “Take it from me: The one sure way to lose your league is to keep picking catchers. I know, I’m one of ’em. You do 300 squats a game, sooner or later, you ain’t gonna hit squat.”

Take it from Yogi: Fantasy is 90 percent hitting, and the other half has nothing to do with catching, except for the pitching — and you’ll want some of that. But the case against catchers? That’s closed.

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