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Nick Mariano's Early 2021 Fantasy Baseball Catcher Rankings

Let's cut right to it: the 2021 baseball season is not guaranteed to be a normal one. But for now, let's just close our eyes and dream of a world unencumbered by COVID-19 and talk about our silly little game as if a 162-game season will come next spring.

It is time to decide how strongly to weigh 2020 and recalibrate our brains to forget such things as the East, Central, and West divisions only playing within themselves. Let alone the high crimes of introducing the DH to the National League. For shame! We'll see if that sticks around for 2021, but I'm not anticipating it for now. And it's clear that many familiar names may be frozen out of fair contracts as owners cry about lost revenue from the limited 2020 season. Pour one out for the poor, poor owners.

As is tradition, we start off behind the dish with catchers. I know it's become a sad position to analyze and a difficult one to spark joy with, but there are gems within the rubble. Many teams are prioritizing defense and open to platooning, with 2020's expanded rosters affecting that even more. Let's dig into these catchers and see where I stand in this very early ranking exercise.

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Early 2021 Catcher Rankings - 5x5 Mixed Leagues

In case you missed it, our very own "Big Pick Nick" Mariano was named the #1 overall most accurate industry expert ranker for the 2018 season. Be sure to follow his updated rankings all season long!

Rank Tier Player Position
1 1 J.T. Realmuto C
2 2 Salvador Perez C
3 2 William Smith C
4 3 Willson Contreras C
5 3 Yasmani Grandal C/1B
6 3 Travis d'Arnaud C
7 3 Christian Vazquez C
8 3 Daulton Varsho C/OF
9 4 Sean Murphy C
10 4 Austin Nola C
11 4 Gary Sanchez C
12 5 James McCann C
13 5 Mitch Garver C
14 5 Jorge Alfaro C
15 5 Buster Posey C
16 5 Yadier Molina C
17 6 Pedro Severino C
18 6 Joey Bart C
19 6 Danny Jansen C
20 6 Carson Kelly C
21 6 Alejandro Kirk C
22 6 Max Stassi C
23 6 Ryan Jeffers C
24 6 Tom Murphy C
25 7 Tyler Stephenson C
26 7 Sam Huff C
27 7 Wilson Ramos C
28 7 Jacob Stallings C
29 7 Yan Gomes C
30 7 Omar Narvaez C
31 7 Adley Rutschman C
32 7 Martin Maldonado C
33 7 Victor Caratini C
34 7 Roberto Perez C
35 7 Kyle Higashioka C
36 7 Kurt Suzuki C
37 7 Luis Torrens C
38 7 Chance Sisco C
39 7 Austin Romine C
40 7 Tucker Barnhart C
41 7 Elias Diaz C
42 7 Austin Barnes C
43 7 Jose Trevino C
44 7 Andrew Knizner C
45 7 Andrew Knapp C
46 7 Francisco Mejia C
47 7 Curt Casali C
48 7 Jacob Nottingham C
49 7 Mike Zunino C
50 7 Kevin Plawecki C
51 7 Jason Castro C
52 7 Keibert Ruiz C
53 7 Jonah Heim C
54 7 Willians Astudillo C
55 7 Austin Hedges C
56 7 Luis Campusano C
557 7 William Contreras C

 

Tier One

Realmuto deserves a tier of his own after delivering 11 homers with 33 runs and 32 RBI alongside four steals and a .266/.349/.491 slash in just 195 PAs last season. The top-ranked catcher was worthy of the early selection, a fact that stood out thanks to Gary Sanchez’s struggles. While we must worry about where Realmuto will play his age-30 season in 2021, the impending free agent should produce no matter what the uniform says.

While some of Realmuto's success is built on volume and other players may compare on average/rate stats, JTR is one of the few you can sharpie in for consistent work. Out of C's with >50 PAs in 2020, Realmuto was tied for first in HR (11), R+RBI (65), and SB (four - Isiah Kiner-Falefa doesn't qualify anymore). Let's hope Philly can work out a deal because I enjoy him in that lineup, but he'll go No. 1 regardless.

 

Tier Two

How about Salvador Perez, whose 2020 was further stunted by his being placed on the COVID IL at the outset? He showed off a more open, line-drive swing with that power we expect of him, hitting .333 with 11 homers in just 156 PAs.

Those needing evidence it was still Salvy will note the modest .353 OBP as the man still won’t draw a walk. Don’t go in expecting a 40-homer pace, but 30 dingers with a plus average is doable.

Another loud question in drafts will be “How often do the Dodgers play Will Smith?” This season saw Smith log 137 PAs to Austin Barnes’ 104, creating a rough 60/40 split that most sour at. But Smith proved he’s worthy of more, cracking a .289/.401/.579 slash with eight homers and an impressive 20/22 BB/K ratio. That discipline and healthy swing should crack 450 PAs next year, with Keibert Ruiz potentially spelling both if needed. Eric Cross put it nicely in this tweet:

 

Tier Three

Willson Contreras saw his OPS fall over 100 points in the shortened season, but he cut down on chasing pitches to offer hope heading into 2021. His .888 OPS from ‘19 sunk to .763, which was reminiscent of his down-2018 clip of .730, thanks largely to a deflated slugging percentage. Only seven homers and a depressed 15.9% HR/FB rate (20% career, 27.3% in ‘19) cut that mark, but he’ll be 28 come 2021’s Opening Day and there’s reason to believe. His O-Swing% went from 37.4% in ‘19 to 34.4% while his Z-Contact% rose from 79.4% to 81% next to a career-best 47.8% hard-hit rate (per Baseball Savant).

There's also Travis d’Arnaud, the third of three catchers to finish within the top 100 per Yahoo’s 5x5 scoring. Hitting .321 with nine homers and 53 R+RBI in 184 PAs will do that, and he continued hitting through 12 postseason games with two additional homers and 14 R+RBI. His regular-season BABIP was .411, in case you needed some grounding. While TdA had prospect pedigree and it’s easy to meme on the Mets for mismanaging him, it’s very unlikely he turned this sharp of a corner at 31 years old. But if he hits in the middle of Atlanta’s order then that’ll do for a top-five slot at catcher, even if it's of lesser value.

Boston took several steps back across the board, but Christian Vazquez still hit .283 with seven homers and a quiet four steals. Fenway Park remains a stellar place to hit and the veteran backstop is capable of playing roughly 75% of their games. That kind of reliable work with a track record of hitting doesn’t come easy.

Daulton Varsho can play catcher as well as outfielder, giving him an additional path to PT that many deep leaguers swoon for. Plus, the whole 18 homers, 21 steals, and .301 batting average over 452 Triple-A PAs in ‘19 thing.

 

Tier Four

Perhaps like the Padres, you’ll buy into Austin Nola. He languished in the Marlins farm system for years before getting a chance with the Mariners, raising eyebrows with a .796 OPS and 10 homers in 79 games. That success continued in 2020 as he hit .306 with five homers over his first 110 PAs (29 games) for Seattle, prompting a deadline deal to San Diego where he fell off (.222, two HR in 74 PAs). But that’s a small sample within a small sample, and the overall 451 MLB PAs have yielded a .271 average with 17 homers. Not bad at all, though Victor Caratini and Luis Campusano will surely push Nola without the DH.

The biggest question drafters face at this position is “What to do about Gary Sanchez?” He still hit 10 homers across 178 PAs (49 games), but a disgusting .159 BABIP dragged his average down to .147. A cold/unlucky two months limits how far you can bury Gary, especially with Yankee Stadium and a potent lineup surrounding him. But if the Yanks give Kyle Higashioka and his defense more playing time then we must reevaluate.

As usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Within that smaller-than-small sample size, he maintained 2019’s 50% hard-hit rate (per Savant) and had a healthy 92.4-mph average exit velocity on 36 batted balls. I’m lukewarm here, but few others can boast a ceiling similar to what we’ve actually seen from Garver.

Murphy is a 26-year-old who now has 11 career taters in just 200 MLB PAs, with a robust 15% walk rate in that span that we all know Oakland loves. That kind of eye, a 60-grade Raw Power tool, and the respectable Z-Contact% that hovers around 86% make him a fringe top-10 C heading into 2021. Don’t go in expecting a stellar average, but he’ll get on base enough to score runs and if last year’s 39.2% fly-ball rate holds then he could break 20 homers in ‘21.

 

Tier Five

Then there’s Mitch Garver, who has one amazing year surrounded by mediocrity. Calling his 2020 mediocre is being quite generous, as he only hit .167 with a wild 45.7% strikeout rate in 81 PAs. Minnesota couldn’t stomach that and neither could fantasy teams, but can we forget the 31-homer, .273-average campaign of ‘19 so easily?

And now for an elder, does a well-rested Buster Posey return to fantasy-relevance in 2021? I wouldn't go out of my way to draft him but another year removed from serious hip surgery can only help. He only hit .257 with a mere seven homers over 445 PAs in '19 but had batted above .280 for his entire career prior to that. With low speed and not clearing the 20-homer mark since 2014, Posey has a lot to prove before we should speculate on him.

Miami’s Jorge Alfaro will enter 2021 coming off a down year where he only hit .226 with three homers across 100 PAs (31 games). The 36% strikeout rate was brutal and he once again had a walk rate below 5%, but the bottom fell out with “only” a .333 BABIP. That may sound high, but a career .380 BABIP actually makes it quite low. Just one year removed from 18 homers and a .262 average over 465 PAs, Alfaro makes for a decent flier to start ‘21 while you scout for breakouts.

With Austin Nola away from Seattle, the powerful Tom Murphy should get a chance to offer 2C value alongside Luis Torrens. His broken foot never allowed him to play in ‘20 so he may be forgotten in most draft rooms, but he did crack 18 dingers with a .273/.324/.535 slash in just 281 PAs back in ‘19. Worry about juiced balls all you like, but there’s legit 25-homer upside here even if they don’t bounce as much.

 

Tier Six and Below

Stassi struggled in 2019 (.136/.211/.167 in 147 PAs) but found a home with the Angels, hitting .278/.352/.533 with seven homers in just 105 PAs. His 10.5% walk rate and career-low 20% strikeout rate backed an increase in contact quality. The man still allowed stolen bases like no other, getting regularly bullied by speedsters to the tune of 32 SBs allowed (worst in MLB). He needs to hit in order to justify playing that, and even then his spot is fragile. Mix in left hip surgery to repair a torn labrum and it’s safe to say we’ll need success out of the gate to trust him in 2021.

Baltimore’s Pedro Severino hit over .300 with five homers between July and August before crumbling with a homerless, .159-hitting September. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that it’s okay to seek out the hot hand at backstop if you miss on the top options. But really it signals how badly they need Rutschman. Chance Sisco has been solid at Triple-A but now has a career .205/.330/.361 slash in 168 career games (525 PAs). That won’t cut it for us or Baltimore.

Then there's another youngster in Sam Huff. We may all be in a rush given 2020’s time crunch, but even if Huff has to wait for the Super Two deadline then it could be worthwhile for fantasy teams. He hadn't played above High-A level prior to 2020 but we don't know the full development program that those robbed of minor-league play in '20 worked with. His 10-game MLB stint led to three homers and a 33.3% strikeout rate, which is what you can expect moving forward.

While I'm interested in how Murphy's power bounces back, I can't say the same for Narvaez there despite the strong 2019. His .093 ISO and poor .176 average in 126 PAs left a hole in our teams, and his 82.6% zone-contact rate plus the overall 73% contact rate demands high power output when contact is made. I don't want to bank on that returning when there are other fliers here that should see better playing time with higher ceilings.

Lastly, keep an eye on how the Rockies dole out playing time without Tony Wolters. Any PT at Coors is worth our attention, so if Elias Díaz or Dom Nuñez can pull away then take a chance on them.



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