Even though I owned Nick Hundley in a league this year, I was still surprised to see that he finished 2015 as fantasy’s No. 7 catcher. Despite receiving far fewer plate appearances than any of the other top-ten backstops, Hundley’s robust .301/.339/.467 slash line was enough to place him comfortably within those ranks. In his age-31 year, Hundley had the second double-digit homer season of his career, and his .301 AVG was well above his career average of .249.
Hundley got 389 PA this year, and that was actually just 19 shy of his career high (408 in 2013). There are two reasons he’s only surpassed the 400-PA mark once. For one, he has some significant injuries in his past, losing parts of three previous seasons to various maladies (wrist , elbow/oblique , knee ). This year, a cervical neck strain ended his season in early September, but should be a non-issue for 2016. The bright side of his injury history is that none of his ailments have been related to one another.
The other reason Hundley hasn’t gotten more playing time is that whenever he hasn’t been hurt, he’s usually been in a platoon. In 2010, he split time with Yorvit Torrealba, and from 2012-2014 he traded starts with Yasmani Grandal. Similarly, Michael McKenry ate up a significant portion of starts behind the dish for the 2015 Rockies.
McKenry is now gone, which leaves Tom Murphy as the next-best backstop in the organization. The 24-year-old impressively hit three homers in his 11-game September sample. However — because of his low-walk, high-strikeout profile — Murphy isn’t widely regarded to be a future primary catcher at the major-league level. 28-year-old Dustin Garneau got a cup of coffee in 2015 as well, but hit just .157/.224/.286 in 22 games.
If the Rockies don’t sign another catcher from outside the organization — and he stays healthy — Hundley could easily set a career high for playing time in 2016. With that established, it’s probably time to get around to the question posed in the title of this post: Is Nick Hundley sustainable?
One of the reasons I discussed playing time so extensively was to set up the argument that not only is Hundley’s 2015 production sustainable, but he could put up even better numbers next year. As to the reason why I believe Nick Hundley is sustainable, the answer is simple and obvious, and of course it’s Coors Field. Just look at the guy’s 2015 splits:
- Home (211 PA): .355/.393/.563 (.957 OPS)
- Away (178 PA): .237/.275/.355 (.630 OPS)
So, sure, his numbers are largely a Rocky Mountain Mirage. For redraft fantasy purposes, that doesn’t matter one bit, seeing as he’s signed to stay in Colorado through 2016.
Aside from taking advantage of his new home ballpark, I wanted to see if there was anything else about Hundley’s game that changed in 2015. A quick look at his heat maps unveiled an intriguing adjustment:
Digging a bit further, I decided to filter by pitch type, and found what I was looking for.
2015 (against fastballs):
It’s not a huge sample, but Hundley showed an improved ability to turn on inside fastballs this season. His 10th home run of the season is a perfect example, as he pulled a Mark Melancon fastball off the plate inside, driving it into the seats at PNC Park:
Hundley has shown power in the past, with 62 HR in 2,375 major-league PA — including 13 dingers with the Padres in 2013. This year, he set a career best in doubles (21), and tied his top mark in triples (5).
His .301 AVG — you guessed it, a career best — was largely fueled by a .356 BABIP. However, Coors Field is a well-known BABIP inflation zone. Seeing as Hundley has a .304 career BABIP, .356 is a bit high even with Coors inflation — but it’s not crazy-high either. As another encouraging sign, Hundley finished 2015 with a career-low 19.5% strikeout rate, after striking out in at least 24% of his plate appearances in each of the previous four seasons.
After his productive 2015 campaign, there’s no reason for the Rockies to hit the free-agent market seeking out a catcher. I could see them signing a veteran backup for depth, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the 2016 Rockies break camp with Hundley as the primary catcher, and Murphy as his backup.
I think there’s an excellent chance Hundley is undervalued in drafts and auctions next year. He’s 32 years old, missed the last few weeks of 2015 due to a neck injury, he’s never been a full-time catcher for an entire season, etc. On the other hand, Hundley’s DL stint in September was his first since 2012. Furthermore, the Rockies were 68-94 last year, and they don’t have any incentive to upgrade the position.
Hundley is a solid defensive catcher coming off an .800+ OPS season, who will cost the team just $3.15 million in 2016. The combination of another season in Coors Field and a lack of competition for playing time could lead Hundley to the best fantasy numbers of his career, and he’ll likely be available at a bargain price.
Just to illustrate my point a bit further, take a look at CBS’ 2016 catcher rankings. (Nothing specific to CBS here, I just wanted a solid list from a mainstream source.) Hundley is rated 14th, and I get that, for all the reasons outlined earlier. However, let’s look at the guys slotted ahead of him:
- No. 8: Stephen Vogt – Smacked 11 homers in April/May, slumped for most of the rest of 2015. Hit .217/.280/.349 post-All Star. Can’t hit lefties, but for some reason still regularly plays against lefties. Very short track record, only one year younger than Hundley.
- No. 9: Salvador Perez – Including playoffs, has averaged 157 games per season in 2014-2015 (so far). Also played 138 games in 2013. Awfully difficult to play that many games at catcher without injury and/or decreased performance. HR totals improved each of first four MLB seasons, but walk rate (2.4% in ’15) and AVG (.260) have evaporated as K-rate climbed (8.9% in ’12, 14.8% in ’15).
- No. 10: Matt Wieters – Just returned from Tommy John surgery in June. Red-hot final seven games made mediocre slash (.247/.289/.383) look much better (.267/.319/.422). Lots of risk for 2016.
- No. 11: Yasmani Grandal – About to go under the knife for shoulder surgery. Has spent most of his career either injured, mired in PED controversy, or injured while mired in PED controversy.
- No. 12: J.T. Realmuto – Modest power/speed combo is nice, but 24-year-old is still raw offensively (.290 OBP in 2015).
- No. 13: Blake Swihart – Completely lost at the plate from his May debut until August. Hit very well down the stretch, but still a huge question mark for 2016.
My point isn’t to say Hundley is necessarily better than these guys, but there’s questions/doubts/red flags all over the place — and none of them plays half their games in Coors Field like Hundley does. If you can pay No. 14 prices for a player whose fantasy potential looks a lot like the six or so guys slotted ahead of him, don’t you do that in a heartbeat? I know I do.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.