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Catcher Waiver Wire Targets for Fantasy Baseball: ROS Strategy and Landscape

Every year we hear about how awful the catcher landscape is in fantasy baseball. People bemoan having to roster one and laugh at those who play in leagues where they have to carry two. However, catchers are people too.

OK, we're actually not going to go down that road this time. Instead, we're going to focus on the very real truth that the catcher position counts just as much in fantasy baseball as your shortstop or first baseman. Sure, the average numbers at the position may not be as alluring, but being able to find better than average production at the position remains crucial.

Heading into the season, the thinking was that fantasy managers wanted to be sure to land a "stable" option behind that plate. That usually either meant drafting one of the studs like Salvador Perez early or ensuring you didn't wait too long for something in the catcher 6-9 range. The overwhelming belief that was waiting on the position and picking through the remnants would lead to poor results. However, now there's chatter that waiting on catcher was the right move as plenty of waiver wire options appear to have emerged. So what is the truth? Well, that's what we're going to try to figure out in this article.

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Current Catcher Landscape

Let's start by just getting a sense of the current landscape by looking at catchers who have actually proven to be most valuable in fantasy and where they were drafted. Then we'll look at how we can use that information going forward, coming up with the best strategy for the catcher position, regardless of whether you're in a 12-team league with one catcher spot or a 15-team league that requires two. We'll look at that in a few ways, but the first is the top-12 catchers in fantasy according to Yahoo's standard 5x5 rankings as of May 31.

Yahoo Rankings (as of May 31st)

C Rank Overall Rank Player Team
1 78 Daulton Varsho ARI
2 99 Willson Contreras CHC
3 133 Tyler Stephenson CIN
4 185 Jonah Heim TEX
5 204 Will Smith LAD
6 213 J.T. Realmuto PHI
7 251 William Contreras ATL
8 273 Gary Sanchez MIN
9 291 Sean Murphy OAK
10 303 Christian Vazquez BOS
11 332 Travis d'Arnaud ATL
12 346 Keibert Ruiz WAS

Some familiar names there. Just take stock of them for a second and we'll come back to this.

Since we really only care about offense for fantasy baseball, let's also just look at the leaderboard for wRC+ to see which catchers are actually being productive with the bat this year.

wRC+ Rankings (as of May 31st)

C Rank wRC+ Player Team
1 186 William Contreras ATL
2 148 Willson Contreras CHC
3 142 Jonah Heim TEX
4 133 MJ Melendez KC
5 131 Tyler Stephenson CIN
6 124 Omar Narvaez MIL
7 123 Daulton Varsho ARI
8 119 Max Stassi LAA
9 119 Christian Vazquez BOS
10 119 Mitch Garver TEX
11 116 Alejandro Kirk TOR
12 113 Will Smith LAD

Now if we go back to that first leaderboard, we can see that a few names appear on both leaderboards: Willson Contreras, Will Smith, Daulton Varsho, Christian Velazquez, and Tyler Stephenson were likely all drafted as starting catchers in 12-team leagues. The other two names that appear on both lists, Jonah Heim and William Contreras, are two guys who appear on both lists who came out of nowhere, to a certain extent.

So, if we use this to determine the "top" catchers so far, five of the top eight were drafted as starters in most leagues. OK, we'll register that and keep going. All of Keibert Ruiz, Mitch Garver, Gary Sanchez, and Travis d'Arnaud would qualify for both leaderboards if we expanded the total to 15 catchers. Those four players were also all being drafted within the top-15 catchers in mock drafts throughout the month of March, which means that nine of the top-15 offensive catchers so far in fantasy baseball have more or less filled the role you drafted them to fill.

That's helpful to know and seems to support the theory that, while you may not have to be the person drafting the first catcher off the board, it makes sense to ensure you draft one (or two) that you believe in within the top 12 to 15 picks.

However, three of the names that you don't see on both leaderboards were three of the first five catchers off the board. So what's going on with them?


Where Are the Big Three?

J.T. Realmuto: Realmuto ranks 25th in wRC+ and is off to a slow start (for him) with a .247/.324/.370 triple slash with three home runs, 23 runs, 16 RBI, and four stolen bases. However, there has been nothing much in the profile to be concerned about, and he's been heating up of late, notching a hit in eight of nine games.

His strikeout and walk rates are fairly consistent with his last two seasons, his GB/FB breakdown is essentially the same, he's pulling the ball as much as he did last year, and his O-Swing% is up just slightly. Overall, I think it's clear that Realmuto will be fine, and we should expect the 31-year-old to be closer to his 2021 self than his 2019 levels going forward. I think the veteran is a .260 hitter who will hit 15 home runs and steal 10 bases, which is valuable, and will likely move him back inside the top-12 even if he's no longer quite the first catcher off the board that he used to be.

Salvador Perez: Perez is tough to evaluate since he's currently on the IL, but he's another guy who doesn't seem too different as a hitter. He's still barreling the ball 10.2% of the time, pulling it at the same rate, and hitting it in the air even more than in years past. It's possible that he's lifting a bit too much, but he's also chasing less out of the zone, so I'm not any more concerned about his plate discipline than we should have been coming into this year. He'll likely settle in around .250 with 20+ home runs depending on how soon he's back.

Yasmani GrandalGrandal has been the worst of the big three, hitting .163/.271/.218 with two home runs, nine RBI, six runs, and one stolen base. He's striking out essentially the same amount he did last year but is walking about half as much, coming closer to his 14.8% career rate. He's been swinging more than he has since 2017, and while he's making more contact than ever, it's not as authoritative as it was last year.  The 7.8% barrel rate and 42.9% hard-hit rate are still fine, but his groundball rate has trended up almost 4%, so we'd like to see that adjusted. However, much of his struggles seem like bad luck. He has just a 4.5% HR/FB rate and .2o0 BABIP, which will surely regress to the norm and have Grandal back up around .230 with 15-20 HR when the season is over.

I wouldn't be cutting any of these three guys for a trending catcher option.

Catching Strategy Going Forward (Single-Catcher Leagues)

So now that we have a sense of the leaderboard at the position, what should our strategy be going forward? Here's the advice in short form: don't stream in single-catcher leagues. I know the common wisdom is to stream catchers if you don't have a stud, but I just don't think that plays out in single-catcher leagues.

We've established that we have nine catchers who were drafted as top-15 options that remain top-15 options (Varsho, Smith, Stephenson, Contreras, d'Arnaud, Sanchez, Garver, Velazquez, and Ruiz). Those guys should be rostered in all leagues. We also know that our Big Three have struggled but should remain rostered, which means twelve of the top-15 catchers drafted this offseason should remain rostered in most leagues.

If you have one of those twelve names, it doesn't really make sense to be playing the streaming game (unless you obviously need to with Perez on the IL). Additionally, if you have Jonah Heim or William Contreras on your team, you should also avoid streaming since they appear on both leaderboards and have produced on par with the "stable" group of catchers.

So, in 12-team single-catcher leagues you're more than covered, and in 15-team single-catcher leagues that means there is really only one spot that needs to be filled with another option (or two if you currently have Salvador Perez on your IL). However, I don't believe that warrants streaming.

If you just look at the leaderboards above, you can find more than enough names to fill those spots: Sean Murphy, MJ Melendez, Omar Narvaez, Max Stassi, and Alejandro Kirk. That's five catchers for potentially two roster spots.

Now, you can try to flip flop these players week after week to try to maximize your team's performance, but do you really know which of those guys is going to be better in a given week? You can likely say you'll match it up based on schedule and opposing pitchers, but that's an inexact science for players who are near the same level of production. The best decision is likely to pick the player who helps you most based on his skill set.

Alejandro Kirk is hitting .324 in the month of May but has only one home run and seven RBIs to go with 14 runs. Meanwhile, Omar Narvaez is hitting .298 with seven runs and four RBI. If you need average or runs, they are likely your best bets and Kirk certainly has more power potential if he can begin to consistently make good on it.

If you want power, that's MJ Melendez or Max Stassi. Melendez has four home runs in May and is likely not going to be removed from the lineup even when Salvador Perez is back. Stassi only played 11 games in May due to COVID, but he had two home runs, five RBI, and a .275 average in those 11 games.

If you just want locked-in at-bats and the chance for accumulation, no catcher had more plate appearances in the month of May than Sean Murphy. Sure, he hit just .198 with one home run, but the ten runs scored and eight RBI are actually fine, relatively speaking, and he's done that while not hitting the ball well. In April, he had four home runs and 14 RBI, so leaving him in your lineup allows for that production when he has his good games.

The bottom line in single-catcher leagues is that there is no real need to waste the mental energy and FAAB streaming catchers. If you have one of the few studs, you're all set. If you don't, you likely still have an opportunity to roster a solid producer who can help your team in a category of need. It won't be sexy production, but it will be solid production for the position, and that's all that really matters.


Catching Strategy Going Forward (Two-Catcher Leagues)

Well, this is where it gets interesting – or depressing – it really depends on your outlook.

If you have two of the 19 names we've already covered, you can be content to just hold and avoid streaming. Let's expand that to include Yadier Molina and Danny Jansen, who both recently returned from injury. Molina has always been a consistent two-catcher option and Jansen is hitting .283 on the season with seven home runs, 12 RBI, and nine runs scored. He's striking out a career-low 16% and is the best defensive catcher in Toronto, which means he will play regularly if he can stay healthy.

So that's 21 solid catchers that should remain in your lineups without much fuss, which means we need to find nine more catchers to make the 30 catchers you'll need to roster in a 15-team two catcher league.

In this case, we have to turn our attention to streaming.


Catchers to Stream and Why

So now that we've come to the portion of the article where we admit that we have to stream, it's important to acknowledge that there are two types of streamers: Time Bomb Streamers and Weekly Streamers.

Think of a Time Bomb Streamer as a pitcher you would use as a Team Streamer (shout out to Paul Sporer). This is a catcher who is good enough to leave on your roster while he is playing and performing. Usually, these are players with consistent roles or past production that elevates them above the roll-of-the-dice options you're playing simply for a favorable schedule. If you have a Time Bomb Streamer, you can plug him into your lineup for longer than just one week at a time but keep an eye on his weekly results because, as the name suggests, the solid production will inevitably stop and you'll want to swap him out for another time bomb before he hurts your overall production.

Weekly Streamer is pretty clearly a catcher that you're adding to your roster simply for the week ahead. Maybe he's are playing in Coors. Maybe he has a nine-game week. Maybe his pitching matchups are incredibly favorable. Whatever the reason, this is a player you are crossing your fingers and hoping to get results out of, not a guy you think will remain on your roster. As a result, rostering Weekly Streamers can be rewarding when you get one right, but it takes a lot of mental energy and a hefty spoonful of luck.

With definitions out of the way, let's cover some of the Time Bomb Streamers I think you can consider going forward:

  • Jacob Stallings, Miami - He was 16th in baseball in catcher plate appearances in May and has nine runs and RBI during the month. Solid overall totals, but he won't hit for power or a high average.
  • Ryan Jeffers, Minnesota - Jeffers was 19th in catcher plate appearances in May and we've seen the power production from him in the past. In fact, he was 8th among all catchers in barrels in the month of May. However, Gary Sanchez has been playing well, so playing time may come into question when the Twins get healthy.
  • Aaron Nola, San Diego - Nola was 20th in catcher plate appearances in May and plays for a good team. He has a solid floor but lacks real upside. He hit .246 with six runs and six RBI in May, which doesn't excite you but also doesn't hurt you, which is important at catcher.
  • Jose Trevino, New York Yankees: Trevino has had fantasy success in the past and appears to have taken the Yankees' starting catcher role. In May, he hit .250 with two home runs, six runs, and eight RBI. However, he had just 51 plate appearances in 20 games this month, so he doesn't quite have the leash of the names above.
  • Mike Zunino, Tampa Bay Rays - The reasons you have Zunino on your team in a two-catcher league remain the same: the plays about 2/3 of the Rays' games and hits for power. In the month of May, he hit .196 with four home runs (tied for 2nd among catchers) and 12 RBI (4th among catchers). If you can stomach the bad batting average, he remains a fine two-catcher option.
  • Elias Diaz, Colorado - Diaz was 19th in catcher plate appearances in May and plays his home games in Coors Field. That's why he was drafted within the top-15 catchers. However, he hit just .161 in May with five runs and three RBI, so the production hasn't been there, and he's close to being into the Weekly Streamer category.

That's six of the nine catchers we were seeking out when we started our streamer conversation. Now let's try to find the final three by examining some Weekly Streamers. 

  • Curt Casali, San Francisco - You might not find a more productive catcher right now. In May, Casali hit .355 with four home runs, 11 RBI, and five runs scored. His 224 wRC+ was first among all catchers with at least 20 plate appearances in the month. Casali cut his strikeout rate and is hitting the ball hard, but we've never seen this from him before and the Giants are clearly going to keep giving Joey Bart at-bats. Since the team has more than enough hitters to find a DH without having to hit two catchers, it's hard to see Casali maintaining regular value.
  • Tucker Barnhart, Detroit - Barnhart is playing consistently but, like most of the Tigers, is not playing particularly well. He has a career-high strikeout rate and career-low walk rate right now. In May, he hit just .197 with one run and three RBIs. Still, he's getting consistent playing time, so if the Tigers have an easy schedule or the offense starts to heat up, he could be an option.
  • Martin Maldonado, Astros - The ultimate DFS punt play or streaming accumulator. Maldonado was 17th in baseball among catchers for plate appearances in May. He also hit two home runs with seven runs and seven RBI. He also hit .147, which is why he's not a Time Bomb Streamer. I really only want Maldonado in weeks where I think the Astros will score a bunch of runs and give him chances to accumulate some counting stats.
  • Brian Serven, Colorado - We covered above that Elias Diaz is not hitting the ball particularly well right now. Serven on the other hand, hit .250 in May with two home runs, three runs scored, and five RBI. Much of that came in one game, but if he remains competent with the bat, he could see more at-bats if Diaz struggles.
  • Christian Bethancourt, Oakland - Bethancourt is tied for first among catchers with two stolen bases in the month of May. He has three stolen bases on the year, and he also appeared in 21 games for Oakland in May since he was often at DH or 1B. However, he doesn't have much power and plays for a bad team, so his value could dry up soon.
  • Jorge Alfaro, San Diego - Alfaro's status on this portion of the list just comes down to playing time. He only had 40 plate appearances in May. However, he hit .282 with a home run, five runs scored, and six RBI, so he was productive when in the lineup.
  • Cal Raleigh, Seattle - This is a streaming option for power. Raleigh has tremendous power, but he's yet to see it really translate to the major league level. He did have three home runs in the month of May, which is good to see, but hit just .158. If the power matchups are enticing for the week, Raleigh could enter the streaming conversation, but he is not yet producing consistently.

Phew. That's 34 catchers covered in relative detail, and you can see from the names we covered here at the end why it still might be better to ensure you get your safe catcher from one of the pockets of names we mentioned earlier in the article. Yes, there are a few names that may pop up here and there and be relevant, but it's unlikely any of them will force their way into that stable tier, which means you're really hopping from one ledge to the next and hoping it doesn't collapse (so many metaphors here).

Hopefully, this should keep you pretty well covered in the coming weeks and months and you now feel a little more confident in your strategy to attack catchers in your fantasy league.

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