Nicklaus Gaut’s 2023 Catcher Ranks

My goodness, what times we are a-livin’ in! Not only can huckster frauds manage to make billions of dollars go up in smoke on any given day but we actually have multiple fantasy options at catchers that are really good. Well, at least ones that won’t make us want to go cry in a corner like we just lost all of our savings to a huckster fraud. What a world!

Whether one catcher or two, 12 teams, or more, catcher has mostly been a wretched den of iniquity, forcing us to generally hold our noses and hope for the best. But not this year, my friends; not this year. By my count, we have five (count ’em, five!) catchers, who if they were to finish as the Top Guy, wouldn’t really surprise us. Five! Now, it’s obviously a different kettle of fish in two-catcher leagues but in the one-catcher, 10-12 team leagues that are the standard for a majority of the fantasy community, this is huge.

Before we get to how things are shaking out for 2023, we first need to travel back in time, all the way to the year 2021 to see who succeeded or failed; who brought us flowers, and who broke our hearts. But first, a quick word on valuation methodology.

I’ve mentioned this before but I like to calculate my catcher values by keeping them in their own self-contained bubble, free from any necessary positional bumps that have to be added in order to put them on equal footing with all of the non-catchers. I find that by doing it this way, the raw ranks of players don’t change much, but rather it’s the magnitude of the dollar value differences between players that stratify into something more useful. Hence, my values aren’t always going to line up with what you’ll find on our auction calculator.

Ok, math, over. Here’s how the catchers (min 200 PA) shook out in 12-team leagues in 2022. Included are ranks and dollar values by season and by half, with ADP from 2022 and 2023. Clicking on the image will bring up a magnified version.

And here they are again, this time with the roto stats that earned them the  above ranks:

Okay, enough of the past, it’s time to flip those flux capacitor switches and get going to the future. Here are my initial ranks for 2023, along with current projections, followed by all of the totally normal tiers you’re used to.

Tier: Goat Yard

J.T. Realmuto, PHI

He might not actually finish as the #1 catcher but Realmuto is easily the best bet to do so, providing five-category production at a position where that simply isn’t feasible. The price is high but you’ll be paying for a blanket of sweet catcher cashmere that’ll wrap around your roster by contributing everywhere and punishing nothing. Lots of PAs, above average rates in HR, R, RBI, and giving you plus-results in AVG and SB, at a position where both are often a total sink.

Safety, thy name is J.T.

Tier: Top Spot Upside

Daulton Varsho, ARI

Like Realmuto, Varsho has a five-category production profile, trailing J.T. in batting average but with more power upside, all while carrying a safer chance to collect a bunch of plate appearances due to making most of his starts in the outfield. But unlike J.T., we’ve seen this from Varsho exactly one time, and assuming a repeat performance from a young “catcher” is a dangerous game.

I’m bullish on Varsho’s production but he’s unlikely to haunt many of my rosters due to his cost, with an early top-60 ADP on NFBC. Granted, part of that elevated ADP comes from NFBC’s two-catcher formant but I still expect Varsho to pretty much be the consensus #2 catcher off the board. In a year where the position is as deep as it is, I just don’t think the juice will be worth the squeeze in one-catcher leagues, especially since Varsho’s fantasy calling card might get diluted in a year where I expect stolen base rates to rise*.

* It’s not the increase in base size that drives my belief in more bags; it’s the pitch clock. Boiling it down a bit too simply, a bigger base might make for more safe calls but it’s not been success rates that have driven down stolen base totals in recent years. In fact, players have been more successful at stealing bases recently than at almost anytime in modern history – rates of 75.2%, 75.6%, and 75.4% from 2020 to 2022 were the three highest since 1937. Stolen bases have been dying because the attempts are and I think a pitch clock (at least during this our year of adjustment in 2023) is going to throw things off enough for attempts to organically increase.

Salvador Perez, KC

Perez offers a combination of playing time and power, without a batting average penalty, that simply isn’t available elsewhere at the position. Even missing over a month in 2022 after thumb surgery – and running a .211 AVG and .296 wOBA prior to getting hurt – Perez finished as the seventh-best catcher, coming back from the IL in August to finish his season slashing .297/.329/.505 over 237 PA.

If you could guarantee me the 660 PA he racked up in 2021, Perez might be my pick to earn 2023’s positional crown. He’s still just 32 years old, the power remains legit, and while the bottom of Kansas City’s lineup includes the likes of Michael A. Taylor and Nicky Lopez, the top part has a seemingly future star in Bobby Witt Jr., M.J. Melendez coming off of a superb rookie season, and a guy nicknamed Italian Breakfast – you simply can’t have that as your nickname and be bad. Can’t do it.

But Nicklaus, c’mon! How likely is it that Perez will again lap the catching field in PA by playing nearly every game? Surely, the Royals won’t try to grind him into dust, right? Well, the Royals played 121 games in 2022 when Perez wasn’t on the IL – and he started 115 of them. Not only that, but of the six games he missed, four were the final games of the season, when minor thumb soreness kept him out for precautionary reasons.

If he’s healthy, I’ll expect Perez to again play nearly every day, hit 30+ bombs, and push 100 RBI. But banking on a catcher in his 30’s to stay healthy all season is a tall order and one that keeps me from making him a (tippy) top-shelf selection.

Adley Rutschman, BAL

Yeah, so the hype was for reals. Rutschman doesn’t have as much power upside as the others in the tier but he more than makes up for it with a well-rounded profile that should pile up the PAs batting near the top of a better-than-average Orioles lineup.

Will Smith, LAD

Good power but not as much as Salvy, good average but not as good as J.T. But Smith’s R+RBI production should continue to be elite, batting in the middle of what is likely (after the Dodgers presumably reload for a few hundred million) to again be one of baseball’s best offenses. Smith provides four-category production and has nearly as much upside as anyone else above him.

Tier: Knocking on the Door

MJ Melendez, KC

Not only did Kansas City commit to playing their rookie every day a few weeks after his initial call-up (granted, their decision was made easier by Perez’s injuries) but he more than held his own, finishing as the #13 catcher for the year, and the #7 catcher in the second half. And, it was mostly coming at leadoff! Always an unexpected boon for someone with catcher eligibility.

His situation should be much the same in 2022, and if leading off, he’ll be followed by a pretty solid trio of Witt Jr., Perez, and Pasquantino. That, along with well above-average power, should make Melendez a plus contributor in HR+R, with a batting average that won’t kill you, and piles of PAs. Currently running around the 8th catcher off the board, I’d be perfectly fine ending up with him.

Alejandro Kirk, TOR

Did you know that Kirk was the #2 catcher in the first half? Pretty, pretty good. But did you also know that he was only 20th in the second half? Well, you certainly did if rostering him – Kirk was an absolute killer in the second half, relative to the first:

Alejandro Kirk 2022 by Half
1st Half 83 306 11 45 37 0 .315 .395 .487 .882 .384 155 .172
2nd Half 56 235 3 14 26 0 .246 .340 .320 .661 .299 95 .074

It’s not that I think the second-half version of Kirk is the one we’ll get in 2023, it’s more that I worry about players for whom much of their value is tied up in batting average – when it goes, their value drops just like all the beats did back when DJ Rapadactyl was roaming the sky.

I’m sure the average will again be terrific and batting in Toronto’s lineup is generally a good thing for R+RBI. But I also don’t think that Kirk will continue to hold the cleanup spot that Roster Resource is currently slotting him in at (because the Blue Jays probably aren’t done with their offseason moves) and those counting stats will suffer if he’s batting closer to the bottom than to the top.

And then there’s the power that I’m finding to be super-suss. In 2021, Kirk hit 8 HR in 189 PA (.042 HR/PA), and in the first half of 2022, he hit 11 HR in 306 PA (.036 HR/PA). These are pretty good power rates, especially for someone with such a high average in their profile. For context, these rates are in a similar range as Realmuto (.039 HR/PA in 2022) and Smith (.042 HR/PA) – that’s pretty good!

But Kirk’s dong rate dropped to a paltry .013 HR/PA in the second half and the power-adjacent metrics aren’t exactly screaming for more in 2022. For one, the batted-ball profile is clearly not one selling out for power, with Kirk dropping from an above-average 29% FB% (pop-ups not included) in 2021, to 12.6% in 2022 (12% in the first half, 13% in the second half), while also dropping from a 36% Pull% that was already below average, to 32% in 2022. The exit velocities weren’t any better. An 11% Brl% from last season dropped to a 9% Brl% in the first half of 2022, and a 3% Brl% in the second half. And while a 94 mph average EV on balls in the air was up a tick from 2021, his Air% (100+ mph) plummeted from 43% in 2021, to 33% in the first half of 2022, and to 24% in the second half.

That’s like going from Paul Goldschmidt to Bryan Reynolds, to Jon Berti.

Even when the aforementioned red flags on power and overreliance on batting average, I still think Kirk is going to have a fine fantasy season. It’s just that, like many others at the position, his draft price is just going to be too high considering all the questions I still have.

Tier: Wait, You Can Basically Ignore the Position and Still Get One of These Guys? Okay!

Willson Contreras, FA

Tyler Stephenson, CIN

The question’s kind of the same for both; health. More specifically, can Contreras reach 500 PA for the first since 2018, and can Stevenson do it for the first time since, well, ever?

In regards to Tyler, I’m a known Stephenson honk but until he actually completes a full season, I’ll have a really difficult time paying a top-150 price for him when there are so many other solid options.

And Contreras was having a top-flight year in 2022 before getting hurt and, given health, he should be a solid producer again in 2022. But given the injury risks, how I value him is also going to be heavily influenced by where he signs.

Goes to a contender with a decent park? Yes, please, I’ll take a little of that. Signs with a middling team/offense? No thanks. Fulfills his (I’m assuming) lifelong dream of playing for the Cardinals?…

Sean Murphy, OAK

Murphy is the most boring of profiles, with middling power and batting average, and playing on a bad team, in a bad park. But he also managed to finish as the #6 catcher in 2022, compiling his way there with 612 PA, which led all catchers. And Murphy could do it again, with a full-time job still in hand and no red flags on his categorical profile pointing to a big downgrade. But he’ll need to compile his way to a pile of PAs to turn in another top year, so how likely is he to do it?

Or does Oakland being in a perpetual state of firesale make it more likely that Murphy, who is estimated to get $3.3 million in his first year of arbitration, is going to get shipped out? If he gets traded before the season starts, I like to believe that it’ll be somewhere to be the primary all season, likely on a contender. So even if the PAs dip, more counting stats (you know, from not being on Oakland?) should cover the balance. But if he gets traded during the season, then all bets might be off, in regard to what his role might be in the second half of the season.

Oh my, what to do, what to do? To a flow chart!

Murphy is perfectly boring but safe and I’m sure I’ll utilize him plenty in two-catcher leagues. But in ones playing with just one, I have zero to little interest. Again, this crowd at catcher is just too deep; surely you can do better than ‘ol Murph.

Tier: Youth Movement Prove-Its

William Contreras, ATL

The pop is for real – all Contreras has done since hitting the majors is hit home runs at an elite rate and his exit velocities don’t think that’ll be slowing down. No, the problem is Travis d’Arnaud and the $8 million he’ll be making in 2023. Barring a trade, Atlanta is likely to be a timeshare situation, and that makes relying on Contreras as my primary in a one-catcher league, a bridge too far. To keep beating that drum, there are just too many good options to be messing with unreliable playing time situations.

Logan O’Hoppe, LAA

Bo Naylor, CLE

Both of the above are already gaining some hype steam, with both currently penciled in as their team’s primary catcher in 2023. And both have put up recent numbers in the minors that might make you feel a little tingly. But, just for a moment, let’s put any past performance and hype in a box, shut it, and ask one question –

Regardless of pedigree and preseason hype, how does relying on a rookie catcher for year-long fantasy production tend to go, hmmm?… Hm-mmmmm?

Tier: Sleeper Cell

Danny Jansen, TOR

One of these years I’m going to stop getting all gooey about Danny Jansen – But not today! I’m not so sure Jansen will still be a Blue Jays by the time the season rolls around but I’m still loving the power bumps from the past few seasons:

Danny Jansen 2019-2022
2019 2020 2021 2022
HR per PA .034 .041 .054 .060
Brl% 5.9 8.6 8.5 13.1
Brl per PA 4.2 5.4 5.9 9.3
Air% EV 91.6 89.9 95.9 95.8

The problems, however, remain the same. For one, Jansen can’t stay healthy, having failed to reach 250 PA for the past two years. For two, Alejandro Kirk (and Gabriel Moreno) will keep his playing time down, and a part-time player in a one-catcher league would need to put up some bonkers numbers to justify the spot. Jansen played more as Kirk’s performance suffered in 2022, and the case might be the same in 2023, if (IF!) he can stay healthy.

Clearly, the biggest value bump would come from Toronto trading their surplus catcher to a team in need of a primary. If so, I’m going to have a lot of Jansen in my life; and I still might even if he doesn’t. Not as a bet on the come-up, but rather as a bet on the positional depth. Let’s say you “punt’ catcher, grabbing Jansen in one of your final rounds. In previous years, this was a much more risky move, as recent waiver wires have shown to be putrid.

But this year, I believe the wire is going to be swimming with decent options, and this makes the penalty much lighter for whiffing on a possible sleeper. Using just ADP to select the starters, here are the catchers that would be on the wire following the draft in a 12-team league:

Next 12 Catchers by ADP
Player ADP min max
Travis d’Arnaud 197 121 230
Keibert Ruiz 203 152 256
Danny Jansen 227 163 285
Yasmani Grandal 248 203 302
Shea Langeliers 257 218 300
Christian Vazquez 278 195 363
Mitch Garver 280 185 386
Jonah Heim 290 219 362
Logan O’Hoppe 304 184 377
Gabriel Moreno 304 238 374
Eric Haase 324 267 377
Gary Sanchez 335 298 410

Is there any real hotness above? No, not really but you can certainly find a solid replacement if you wait on catcher but come up empty.

Cal Raleigh, SEA

We already covered our pal Cal, here but Raleigh is another one whom I’d be willing to entrust with my starting catcher job, looking to grab the biggest power potential this side of Salvador Perez, while hoping the BABIP gods will help him spike a batting average that isn’t positively a killer.

Best case, he can, middle case he hits a lot of bombs and bats .215. Whatever, even the latter can be dealt with. And worst case, the power (and/or playing time) starts slow, the average is as bad as ever, and you have to dump him in May for a reasonable substitute from our aforementioned better-than-usual waiver wire. Editor note: So he’s Mike Zunino… or combining the two: Cake Razino.

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1 year ago

These rankings are maybe selling Sean Murphy a little short. The dude had 122 wrc+ and 5.1 WAR while underperforming his expected stats (.344 xwoba vs .331 woba). His raw power up there with any catcher on this list and he doesn’t have contact issues. It will take serious prospects to pry him from the A’s due to the years of control and an acquiring will not do that just to put him in a time share. I’d definitely take him over Melendez and Stephenson.