2016 was an odd year for catchers in fantasy baseball. Something that caught my eye was the ownership rates of the top-ranked catchers. Only two catcher-eligible players — Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey — ended the season above 90% ownership in Yahoo leagues. Gary Sanchez got close (87%, with those other 13% likely being dead leagues), as did Salvador Perez (also 87%), and Wilson Ramos was in the 80+% range for a while as well, before he was widely dropped following his late-season injury.
Regardless of the reasoning, the fact that only the top two catchers were owned in >90% of leagues is significant, seeing as shortstop was the position with the second-fewest >90% owned players, with seven. The weirdest aspect of this is that 2016 was a good year for catchers in fantasy; so good, perhaps, that it was too deep for some smaller one-catcher leagues.
While it’s worth noting that Rotographs is using an updated auction calculator this year, it’s plainly clear how much more productive the position was this year compared to 2015. Last year, just one player earned his fantasy owners more than $20 worth of production, and that was Buster Posey. This year, Posey was joined by Lucroy and Ramos above the $20 threshold. Furthermore, the value of this year’s No. 10 catcher — Brian McCann at $10.20 — makes it even wackier that A.J. Pierzynski was the No. 10 fantasy catcher last year, with a whopping $3.42 value.
What this means for fantasy owners heading into next season is that, outside of Lucroy, Posey and Gary Sanchez — who I fully expect to be the top three catchers picked in most leagues — there’s some tough choices to be made when drafting your starting catcher. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that Kyle Schwarber — who would be the fourth member of that top group — will likely start the year without catcher eligibility, as he hasn’t played the position since 2015. Seeing as the Cubs also have Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero coming back next year, Schwarber’s path to regaining catcher eligibility is murky.
Of the non-elite tier in 2016, Evan Gattis ($17.40) and J.T. Realmuto ($15.80) stood out from the pack a bit, but if you don’t want to spend up for one of the Lucroy/Posey/Sanchez trio, you’re still left with a lengthy list of players with roughly equal 2016 production levels. For example, the gap between the No. 7 catcher (Yasmani Grandal, $12.50) and the No. 12 catcher (Matt Wieters, $9.30) was about three bucks.
When perusing this minefield of second-tier catchers, one thing that caught my eye was Grandal’s power spike. After settling in as a mid-teens home-run guy in 2014 (15 HR) and 2015 (16 HR), the 27-year-old clobbered 27 bombs this year. His isolated power, which hovered in the .170 range the last two years, was a robust .249 in 2016. Only Gattis — with his .257 ISO — topped Grandal on the ISO leaderboard for catchers, and there’s a 40+ point gap behind Grandal until you get to Lucroy at No. 3.
As always, Grandal struck out quite a bit this year (25.4%) while drawing lots of walks (14.0%). He hit for a characteristically low .228 AVG, his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 1.14 was right in line with expectations, etc. The only major changes were a career-best hard-hit rate of 38.9%, and he also pulled a career-high 42.9% of his batted balls.
Well, that makes sense. If you’re spraying a bunch of hard-hit balls into your pull field, that’s a pretty good explanation for a power spike such as Grandal’s. My next question, and probably yours, was why this happened, and whether it’s sustainable. The answer is simpler than I anticipated.
If you look at Grandal’s peripherals, essentially nothing about his hitting profile changed, other than his power against right-handed pitching. Grandal flashed more power against lefties this year too, with four homers, but he’s still mostly the same OBP guy he’s always been against southpaws (.224/.385/.395 vsL in ’16). Even if there is something in that small-sample .171 ISO vsL this year, that doesn’t hold nearly as much predictive value as what he did against righties, especially since A.J. Ellis got the bulk of the starts against left-handers until he was finally dealt away in August.
This season, Grandal made huge strides in his plate coverage against righties’ fastballs. He hit 18 fastballs/sinkers from right-handers out of the park in 2016, a mark just one shy of the 19 homers Grandal hit on those same offerings in his previous two seasons combined. Let’s visualize what I’m talking about with some heat maps. First, here’s Grandal against RHP fastballs in 2015:
Here’s that same heat map from 2016…
The first thing to note here is how dramatically he increased his plate coverage against right-handers’ fastballs. He expanded his coverage on inside, high and low fastballs, while also crushing middle-middle mistake pitches far more than before. Regarding the plate coverage, my very rough estimate is that he added about 120 square inches (roughly 25% of the entire strike zone!) to the area in which he was able to hit fastballs with authority. In other words, the areas in which right-handers could previously attack Grandal with the hard stuff became non-existent.
Pitchers tried to adjust by throwing Grandal more sliders than they used to, but that only compounded the problem. Grandal hit six sliders out of the park this year, after homering on just one such pitch in his major-league career to that point. I would show you heat maps for that too, but one of them is a big blue box, and the other has some red in the lower and inside parts of the zone. Use your imagination on that one.
Want to see some videos? We got videos! Here’s an example of Grandal hitting an inside fastball:
This isn’t a bad pitch from Andrew Cashner. He hit his target on the inside edge, which used to work against Grandal. Unfortunately for Cashner, now it does not. Here’s Zack Greinke, trying the same thing in the same count. Like Cashner, Greinke more or less hits his spot with this pitch, but the result is the same:
Let’s look at what Grandal can now do to fastballs low in the zone. This is an okay pitch on a 3-2 count from Blake Wood, as he drops a sinker on the lower-inside corner that caught just a little too much of the plate. Too bad, that’s a homer:
“But Scott, you said that he hits sliders for homers now too, and we haven’t seen any of those!” My goodness, y’all can be needy. How about this one? Chad Qualls has Grandal in a 1-2 count, and aims for the punchout with a slider at the knees. “This is a pitch Grandal *never* hits; at best he’ll fight it off foul and I’ll get to—wait, what?” -Chad Qualls while delivering this pitch, probably.
I saved the best for last, and that’s a perfect illustration of what I mean when I say that Grandal expanded his coverage up in the zone against right-handed heat. Here we have Chris Archer, delivering a nasty 1-2 pitch. It’s 95 mph, on the inner third, and probably gets called a ball high, if Grandal doesn’t swing…but swing he did:
What I believe this all comes back to is refining Grandal’s swing mechanics as a left-handed hitter. In the past, he was either inconsistent, frequently tinkering, or both. Sometimes he incorporated a big leg kick into his swing, like he did here:
Sometimes, he would do a little double-tap step:
Most of the time, he was somewhere in between on this sliding scale of great big leg kick to tiny little stutter-steps. Obviously, it worked sometimes, as the two pre-2016 videos I posted both resulted in home runs. The problem was consistency, and that’s a problem Grandal found a perfect solution for this year.
In 2016, Grandal found the happy medium when loading up his swing. Re-watch any of the first five videos in this piece. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, because they all look the same. As the pitcher enters his windup, Grandal lifts his front heel, keeping the toe on the ground. He re-plants the heel right as he starts his swing, a consistent timing mechanism that clearly did wonders for Grandal’s ability to square up a variety of pitch types and locations.
Questions of sustainability always come down to whether I can identify why a player had a breakout campaign. For me personally, I’ve found what I needed to believe that Grandal’s 2016 production is sustainable going forward. Furthermore, there’s still a good deal of fantasy upside in Grandal, to go along with his rising floor.
I mentioned earlier that Grandal was the No. 7 fantasy catcher in 2016. This season’s 457 PA was a career-high for Grandal, and it was still the lowest number of plate appearances among the top-ten catchers, and a full 124 PA fewer than the guy who slotted in directly above him, Yadier Molina. While Grandal is usually good for one injury per season, he remained healthy throughout 2016, after starting the season on the disabled list with a mild forearm strain.
It’s possible that 2016 was simply the first time we’d seen what a fully healthy Yasmani Grandal can do. He tore his ACL/MCL in July 2013, then played through much of the 2015 season with a bum shoulder, before having offseason surgery to repair it. It’s hard to be consistent when you’re battling back from — or playing through — injuries. Now that the Dodgers have seen Grandal get through a full injury-free season, I expect him to see more regular playing time next year, especially now that there’s no A.J. Ellis around to steal away 40% of the starts behind the plate.
Sure, Austin Barnes is around, but he’s pretty old for a prospect — only about ten months younger than Grandal. Barnes is also a weird commodity, in that he’s extremely intelligent and one of the best pitch-framers in the minors, but doesn’t have the arm strength to throw out baserunners at the major-league level. He’s just 1-for-10 throwing out runners in the majors so far, and from what I’ve seen of him in the last two years in Triple-A, that isn’t surprising. He’s a bit of an anomaly at the plate too, as he has a fantastic approach, but I can’t see him becoming more than an empty batting average in the majors. Even if he does enough to force his way into the lineup at some point, Barnes can also play both second and third (and got one random start in center field this year), or they could give Grandal some starts at first, whatever. That’s already way too much writing about Austin Barnes, because I don’t see him as a threat to Grandal’s playing time. I probably could have just said that and moved on, but here we are.
Grandal is probably never going to post a great batting average, but it’s not unreasonable to foresee him getting into the .250 range as he continues to mature as a hitter (in OBP leagues, he already gets a huge bump). Also, his 2016 value was suppressed by a bizarrely low 49 runs scored. Considering he drove himself in 27 times, Grandal scored just 22 other runs, despite posting a .339 OBP. Don’t get me wrong, Grandal is a god-awful baserunner, but a run total that low is still almost certainly a major fluke for a guy who routinely hit 5th/6th with a solid OBP.
When it comes down to projecting catchers in next year’s fantasy drafts, I have a feeling that Gary Sanchez’s price tag will be too rich for my blood. You and I both know that somebody in every league is going to go bonkers on Sanchez, and I’m not comfortable spending what it will take to get him in redraft leagues. That leaves two options: spend up for Lucroy or Posey, or pick somebody from that nebulous next tier down.
I could see myself owning Grandal in several leagues next year. His power seems sustainable, and there’s still projection here, as he doesn’t even turn 28 until next month. From a fantasy perspective, I can easily see him becoming “Evan Gattis with more walks.” Now that I think about it, that’s not even a particularly aggressive projection, seeing as Grandal was just a few homers and 20 batting-average points away from being “Evan Gattis with more walks” this year.
There’s plenty to like about many of the non-elite catching options for next year. After Lucroy/Posey/Sanchez, you’ve got Grandal, Gattis, J.T. Realmuto, Russell Martin, Salvador Perez, Brian McCann, Welington Castillo, Matt Wieters, Cameron Rupp, Willson Contreras — do you ever remember going into a season with 13 legitimate quality starting catcher options like we will next year?
When I look at this list, I see Grandal at the top of the secondary heap. Considering his price tag will be significantly lower than any of the top three, he could easily be the best combination of value and production at the position next year.
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.