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Is J.T. Realmuto Worth the Draft Cost?

J.T. Realmuto - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

Every year, there seems to be one catcher who stands above all others when it comes to fantasy value and consequently draft price. In 2017, it was Gary Sanchez. In 2018, Salvador Perez. After the 2019 and 2020 seasons, J.T. Realmuto has clearly emerged as the top backstop in fantasy.

Catcher is one of the most frustrating positions to manage due to the lack of quality offensive options. This begs the question of why two-catcher leagues even exist, but that's a topic for another time...

If you want security and high-end production at a volatile position, Realmuto is your guy. But it will cost you. Realmuto's recent ADP in NFBC leagues is 33rd overall, ahead of players like Clayton Kershaw and reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu. In single-catcher leagues, he's still likely to be a fourth or fifth-round pick at the latest. That's a high price to pay when you consider the other players you are passing up. Is it worth it to have the top player at such a thin position or are you better off playing the waiting game at catcher?

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The Real Deal

Let's start by eliminating any doubt as to whether he deserves the designation of top fantasy catcher.

In 2020, Realmuto tied Salvador Perez among catchers for the lead in home runs (11) and RBI (32) and came in second with 33 runs scored behind Willson Contreras. His .266 batting average was simply top-20 at catcher but he'd hit above .275 each of the previous three seasons. When evaluating him by any points-style scoring format, Realmuto was the top fantasy catcher in 2020, #2 in 2019, #1 in 2018, and #3 in 2017. That consistency goes a long way toward building trust on draft day and he's still barely on the right side of 30, age-wise.

He's not slowing down either. Realmuto has consistently kept his xwOBA over .340 and his xSLG keeps rising year-after-year.

Even better, Realmuto has ranked above the 80th percentile in sprint speed every year in the majors. He is one of the few catchers who can swipe a handful of bases. He stole nine bags in 2019 and is projected to do the same in 2021.

Realmuto's real-life value extends beyond the fantasy realm, as he ranked in the 95th percentile in framing, which takes into account how much a catcher helps his pitching staff out by converting fringe pitches into strikes. This along with his offensive prowess and consistency is what guarantees him a huge chunk of playing time.

ATC projects him to be the only catcher to reach 500 at-bats in 2021. How important is that stat? Only five other catchers are even projected to surpass 400 AB and Perez is the only other one over 431 AB. A fractured right thumb has put his Opening Day availability in doubt but reports indicate he's already throwing and catching with a small cast and won't miss much, if any, time. The thumb injury Realmuto suffered at the onset of spring training shouldn't be a factor when deliberating how to rank him for season-long leagues. If anything, it is just another factor that should knock him down a peg in draft value.


The Cost of Consistency

Every team would love to have Realmuto on their squad but, like the Highlander, there can only be one and his services will come at a premium on draft day. Fantasy leagues come in a variety of settings and formats, so we must always take ADP with a grain of salt. The existence of two-catcher leagues (why? just why?) also throws a wrench into things. NFBC ADP may be skewed at this position since it requires two catchers so let's look at FantasyPros' consensus ADP using five different sites, including NFBC, Yahoo, ESPN, RT Sports, and Fantrax.

Realmuto is currently going 43rd overall according to ADP consensus. The 12th-ranked catcher in terms of current ADP is Sean Murphy at 196 overall. If we take it to 15 teams, we're looking at Yadier Molina, who recently signed to stay on with the Cardinals for an 18th season. The contrasts are stark between the aging veteran who provides a strong floor in batting average but little power and the 26-year-old who has 25-homer upside but hit .233 last year. Similarly, declining vet Buster Posey and power-dependent Mitch Garver are sandwiched between them. Posey didn't even play in 2020 while Garver was the biggest draft bust at the position. These are the types of choices available for those who opt to wait on the catcher position in drafts.

RotoBaller analyst Nicklaus Gaut, of WPC+ podcast fame, has converted 2021 ATC projections into dollar amounts for each player by calculating their value relative to position at each roto category. Projections aren't inherently perfect, but the results show just how large of a gap exists between Realmuto and other starting-caliber catchers.

Player ATC Value Value Diff. ADP Diff.
J.T. Realmuto $25.1 - -
Sean Murphy $1.0 $24.1 103
Yadier Molina ($5.2) $30.3 206

Realmuto's $25.1 value places him 25th among all players, tied with Trevor Bauer and Rafael Devers. That alone seems to justify his ADP. When examining the counter-argument about his draft price, we have to consider what it would mean to wait on a catcher. Murphy, our number 12 catcher, returns a single buck while Molina delivers negative value.

The next best comp might be first base, which is considered the thinnest offensive position after catcher. The consensus top player is reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman, who is ranked 11 overall. Securing a high-end option at 1B proved extremely useful last season, especially given the disappointing production among many of the hitters outside the top 10 at the position.

While Freeman is a first-round pick in nearly all drafts and Realmuto falls closer to the fourth round, the point remains that there is a big drop-off between the top player and the last one drafted as a starter at his position (12th-ranked player in a 12-team league, 15th-ranked player in a 15-team league).

Let's conduct a similar comparison, excluding 1B-eligible players who are not likely to be used at the position. DJ LeMahieu and Brandon Lowe, for example, are far more likely to be drafted as second basemen than first basemen. Conversely, I've included someone like Cody Bellinger at first base since he's far more valuable there than in the outfield for conventional roster constructions.

Using these criteria, We have Josh Bell as the 12th-ranked first baseman and Miguel Sano at 15. Here are how the values shake out:

Player ATC Value Value Diff. ADP Diff.
Freddie Freeman $37.1 - -
Josh Bell $13.9 $23.2 134
Miguel Sano $10.2 $26.9 165

While the drop in value is almost the same from Freeman to Bell as it is from Realmuto to Murphy, you're reaping some reward with a guy like Bell. Not to mention, he could be vastly undervalued if he bounces back after a miserable short season in Pittsburgh. You know what you're getting with Sano, which is an AVG sink with the potential for 40 HR, 80+R, and 80+RBI. You can easily manage a winning squad with him starting at first base if you compensate for average elsewhere. Most importantly, if you want to wait at first base you will have plenty of other options you can live with such as Christian Walker, Ryan Mountcatle, etc. The same can't be said for the likes of Pedro Severino or Jacob Stallings in a single-catcher league.


Bottom Line

There's no doubt that Realmuto provides a huge advantage on a fantasy roster. There are virtually no "sure things" at the position. Will Smith, the third-ranked catcher, has all of 333 plate appearances under his belt. We've seen players like Gary Sanchez and Mitch Garver ascend to the top tier of fantasy rankings only to crash and burn that season. Promising prospects like Francisco Mejia and Danny Jansen have wound up as wasted roster spots.

We've determined that Realmuto is absolutely deserving of his ADP and waiting to be the last one to draft a catcher is a bad idea but that doesn't mean it has to be all-or-nothing. Salvador Perez is the one player who could put up more home runs and RBI than Realmuto without hurting you significantly in average or runs. He is going about 46 picks later, which presents the strategic possibility of securing a high-end catcher early without forsaking a top-tier option at another position in the first few rounds. Perez is projected to return $17.4 in 2021. The drop-off from him to the next-ranked catcher, Willson Contreras, is almost the same as the drop between Realmuto and Perez.

Player ATC Value Value Diff. ADP Diff.
J.T. Realmuto $25.1 - -
Salvador Perez $17.4 $7.7 46
Willson Contreras $10.2 $14.9 78

Realmuto is a great player and tremendous fantasy asset but his draft price has simply become too rich. Salvador Perez, on the other hand, can provide near-identical production at a more palatable ADP. Pouncing on a productive, reliable catcher early seems like the logical way to go. It just doesn't have to be J.T.

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