Free Agent Catchers: Brian McCann and A.J. Pierzynski

When I hit the Rotgraphs internal message board this week it appeared that most catchers of consequence had been claimed by my colleagues for ‘catcher week.’ But Brian McCann and A.J. Pierzynski remained unclaimed, and the two seemed like a logical pairing for discussion given they are both possibilities to be signed by the Texas Rangers this offseason.

The pairing also provides an illustration of how important at-bats are to fantasy production at the catcher position. Of the 15 catchers who returned positive fantasy value, 13 accumulated at least 400 AB. The two that returned positive fantasy value despite having fewer than 400 AB were the 14th and 15th most valuable catchers, Evan Gattis and McCann. Four other catchers outside the top 15 had more than 400 AB, but they all had one thing in common: a very low batting average.

McCann’s workload was limited because he missed the first month of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. His 402 PA this year and 487 PA last year followed up five consecutive seasons in which McCann topped 500 PA. With McCann reaching his thirties, it’s possible that these injury issues will persist and his new norm will be to see fewer than 500 PA. But if he were to land somewhere in the AL, the ability to DH could potentially offset some of the PA lost to nagging injuries.

Aside from the drop in PA, there’s no indication that McCann’s age is starting to get to him. All of his plate discipline numbers this year were very much in line with his career averages, and he continued to hit for power. In fact, his HR/FB of 16.3% was the best rate of his career, and it was backed up by the 42nd best home run and fly ball batted ball distance in the league. Depending on where McCann ends up, he has even more power potential. Turner Field in Atlanta has a slightly below average park factor for home runs for left-handed hitters. But the most rumored suitors, the Yankees and the Rangers, have well above average park factors for left-handers.

Had McCann not missed the first month of the season and had an extra 80-90 PA, it’s very likely that he would have returned top ten value at the catcher position. Because we’re not expecting him to miss the first month of 2014, he should be drafted as a top ten catcher. Whether he’s just a top ten type of guy or a potential top five guy all depends on where he ends up. If he stays in Atlanta, he should probably be drafted in the second tier of catchers with guys like Salvador Perez and Jason Castro. But if he ends up in a good situation (AL, good ballpark), he should be drafted near more top tier options like Carlos Santana, Wilin Rosario and Jonathan Lucroy.

As for Pierzynski, the best possible scenario for his value is that Texas chooses to just run it back with him. As mentioned, Texas is a good ballpark, and occupying the same role in Texas is probably his best bet to get to 500 PA again. If he goes elsewhere, he might end up in more of a platoon situation and not see as much work against left-handed pitching as he did in Texas this year. He actually handled lefties pretty well this year as he had a 92 wRC+ vs. LHP compared to an 89 wRC+ vs. RHP. But for his career he’s seen about a 20 point wRC+ gap with and without the platoon advantage.

Wherever Pierzynski ends up, he’s going to have to be more patient than he was this year. He’s never been one to take a walk as evidenced by his career walk rate of 4%. But this year his walk rate fell to 2.1%. Despite having 529 PA, Pierzynski also topped 500 AB which led to a sub-.300 OBP. His O-Swing% had been on the rise for several years, but this year it spiked all the way up to an egregious 49.6%, which was the worst mark in the league among qualified hitters. If I were a GM, that horrendous OBP and the fact that he was 26th in the league in DRS and 17th in rSB (min. 500 innings) would scare me off of playing him enough to get 500 PA.

Even if Pierzynski does end up landing a fairly consistent role somewhere, I’d probably have him outside my top 15 catchers. He’s not going to be an option in most mixed leagues and should be considered a second tier option at best in AL or NL only leagues.

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