Catchers: Overrated or underrated?

The value of catchers is a hot topic in the fantasy baseball community. You can read opinions about it on any number of websites, mostly because there are so many differing opinions about it. Some people think it’s a good idea to take Victor Martinez as early as round two. Some think it’s best to take a Jorge Posada type in round eight. Others think it’s better to take a Geovany Soto or J.R. Towles in Round 13. Still others prefer to wait as long as possible and scrape the bottom of the barrel for catchers.

Replacement level

Here is my take … what I believe to be the most logically sound valuation of a catcher. I’ve written about Standings Gain Points as my preferred player valuation method twice recently. As a quick aside, I’ve gotten quite a few responses in my request for help with my Standings Gain Points project, but we still need more. Keep them coming!

You’ll find people who argue—although unconvincingly, when examined logically—that it isn’t, but position scarcity is quite real. No questions asked. One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from Keith Woolner, who developed the widely-known Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) stat:

Baseball is a zero sum game. One team always wins at the expense of another. It is not possible for one team to win without another losing. In order to win, a team must be able to produce more runs (or prevent runs from scoring) than the opposition. Its success in producing wins is directly tied to its ability to produce more runs than its opponent. Any competitive advantage a team has must, in some way, translate to better on-field performance to be valuable.

A commodity which is easily available to all teams at no or low cost confers no competitive advantage, and therefore is of minimal value. Thus, baseball value comes from scarcity.

Scarcity is important, and the easiest way to measure scarcity is to measure against the ‘replacement level player’. Replacement level represents the highest level of freely available talent—talent that every owner in your league has access to for zero cost.

That replacement level, however, varies by position. If you’re catcher gets injured, you can’t take a replacement level first basemen or outfielder and plug him in. You need to take a catcher.

Fantasy application

Let’s think about it in terms of draft day; a replacement level first baseman in fantasy might be Mike Jacobs or Conor Jackson. Neither are fantastic, but they’re decent. Now consider that a replacement level catcher might be Ronny Paulino or Yorvit Torrealba—not nearly as good. The drop-off from a first baseman like Mark Teixeira (who is generally being taken around the same time as the first catcher) to a Jacobs or Jackson is much smaller than the drop-off from a catcher like Martinez or Russell Martin to one like Paulino or Torrealba.

The combination of Martinez and Jackson will allow you to gain more points in the standings than the combination of Teixeira and Paulino—theoretically speaking, using the probabilistic concept of value, assuming that Jackson and Paulino are replacement level and get taken at the end of the draft, assuming that Teixeira is deserving of a pick around when the first catcher gets taken, and understanding that this concept holds true regardless of which players your own projections say belong in these spots.

That is the essence of replacement level in fantasy baseball, and that is why position scarcity is so important. Using a combination of SGPs and replacement level theory can give us an exact picture of how valuable every player is in comparison to every other player, which is exactly what we need to do when drafting from a comprehensive pool of players.

For a more in-depth look at the topic of replacement level and position scarcity, check out my article in the 2008 Rotoworld Draft Guide.

Where to take catchers

Hopefully, we can now agree that it is necessary to account for position scarcity and that catchers have extra value simply because they are catchers. That leaves us with the question of where to actually take them in fantasy drafts.

Using the Standings Gain Points (SGP) method for a traditional, 12-team mixed league, you’ll generally find the first catcher or two among the Top 30 players (hitters and pitchers). I don’t however, believe that this is where you should take catchers, even though taking one in the third round of a traditional mixed league draft would net you positive value.

In an interview I recently gave for the inaugural issue of Most Valuable Network’s online magazine Roster, I was asked a question that dealt with this. Here’s how it went:

ROSTER: With regard to position scarcity and acquiring a strong catcher in your fantasy lineup: Who do you think will provide more fantasy value in 2008, Russell Martin with an average draft position of 30, or Jorge Posada at pick No. 90? Is Martin five rounds more valuable?

CARTY: I love Russell Martin this year. I’ve taken him as high as round three in one mock draft (which was my first of the year, actually), and I believe that he nets you positive value in that spot. However, because it’s the third round, the margin for value is pretty small. Even if you take him at No. 30 and you have him ranked at No. 20, the value you get there is limited. If you have a guy like Posada or McCann valued at No. 30 or No. 35 and you take him at No. 90, you’re getting a whole lot more value there.

Like I said about pitchers, catchers too are undervalued as a group. While I think it’s a mistake to take Santana in round one (despite him having positive value there), I also feel like it’s a mistake to take Victor or Russell in round three or four (despite them having positive value there). Because the position as a whole is undervalued, you can pick up exponentially better value as you move down a few rounds (as long as you don’t wait too long) and the gap between actual value and market value (where you ultimately take him) expands.

This logic doesn’t really apply to, say, outfielders. If you get your No. 20 player (who is an outfielder) at No. 30, your margin for value is small, the same as it was with Russell Martin when we put him in this situation. The difference is that at pick No. 90, you would have to have some wildly different rankings than everyone else to pick up your No. 30 or No. 35 player who is an outfielder. More likely, you’ll get maybe your No. 70 player who is an outfielder. Because the market value of outfielders is closer to where their true value lies, you don’t reap that benefit by waiting longer to take them, as you would by waiting on Posada or McCann. Because of this, I don’t plan on taking Martin or Victor in any of my leagues this year, but I do plan on getting a guy like McCann or Posada a bit later on.

As far as taking your second catcher in two-catcher leagues, I wouldn’t have a problem taking both a Brian McCann and a Posada. I also wouldn’t begrudge anyone who takes a Geovany Soto-type—a guy who could easily wind up as a top catcher this year—a few rounds later. This can be a little risky, though, because if Soto doesn’t work out, you’ll be stuck with a run-of-the-mill second catcher that you used a 12th or 13th round pick on.

Second catchers (those in the 13 to 24 range) generally give you very similar production to one another, so if you somehow miss out on the top guys, just wait until the endgame to take your second catcher. This is a poor alternative to taking two guys like McCann and Posada, but it’s better than compounding the mistake of not taking them by selecting whoever the best catcher available is in round fourteen or fifteen after the first dozen or so are gone.

Because of this negligible difference between second catchers, if Soto doesn’t produce like a No. 1 catcher, it’s really a wasted pick. I’ll still likely take him in a few leagues because I do believe he can be a No. 1 catcher, but it is a little risky doing so.

Concluding thoughts

The subject of replacement level and position scarcity can be very theoretical and might be a little difficult to follow at times. I tried to lay it out pretty clearly, but if there’s anything you didn’t understand, feel free to e-mail me, and I’ll try to elaborate.

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