Well, the World Series is over, the citizens of Houston got to have their parade and now here we are – the offseason.
But don’t fret. If you are a regular Razzball reader, then you know we have been looking at the top keepers for 2023. Over the last two weeks we’ve released the 2023 Top Keepers 2023 – Relievers and 2023 Top Keepers – Starting Pitchers. This week – catchers!
Catchers are almost becoming like the place kickers of fantasy football – everyone needs one, but except for a few top players who can actually sway an outcome, they are all the same.
So here are a few simple rules when it comes to catchers:
- Catchers, in general, will only play in about 110 to 120 games except for a few outliers. So don’t expect catchers, as a group, to perform like other position players.
- If you think two catchers are equal except for age, go with the younger catcher. Few catchers age well.
- Be happy if you have a catcher who is a standout in one scoring category. Rare is the catcher who hits for average and homers, even more rare if they add steals.
- There are some catchers who make Rule #1, #2 and #3 completely false. If you have one of them, hold onto them for as long as you can.
In backing up rule No. 3, the career leader in home runs by a catcher (as in hitting a homer while playing catcher in that game) is Mike Piazza with 396. There are only three more players who hit more than 300 – Carlton Fisk (351), Johnny Bench (326) and Yogi Berra (305). That is it. This season, the highest batting average by a catcher with more than 200 at-bats was .285 by Alejandro Kirk of the Blue Jays – .285!
So for the below rankings, if you see a player like Martin Maldonado, you are going to wonder why he is even ranked. Dude slashed only .186/.248/.352. But he did hit 15 homers and drove in 45 runs.
You know how many other catchers hit more than 15 homers? Twelve. Do you know how many other catchers drove in more than 45 runs? Fourteen. When looking at a catcher like Maldonado for just his power and run production, he is actually close to being a starter in deep fantasy leagues.
Moral of the story – catchers are their own breed and should be viewed differently.
A quick note: ages are as of now and the team is who they finished the season with. A player’s team may change for 2023, ages certainly will.
With that said, let’s get rolling with the Top 2023 Keepers – Catchers edition.
If you are in a league that starts two catchers, you could do worse than having the tandem of Christian Bethancourt and Francisco Mejia. Combined, they hit 13 home runs and drove in 46. Bethancourt, who came over from Oakland in a trade, slashed .255/.265/.436 for the Rays while Mejia slashed .242/.264/.381. Mejia, however, has to learn to take a walk at some point if he wants to remain in Tier 5 player or ever move up. This past season he had a walk rate of 2.3%. Ouch.
Jacob Stallings got a lot of playing time for the Marlins this year, but he can’t hit his weight, posting a .292 OBP and .292 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Nick Fortes – who is six years younger than Stallings – slashed .230/.304/.392 with nine homers and 24 RBI in 217 at-bats. He even stole five bases. With a new manager in Miami, Fortes may be in line to get more playing time.
In line for more time
Two years ago, Eric Haase hit 22 home runs and drove in 61. While Haase didn’t duplicate those numbers this past season, he did slash .254/.305/.443 with 14 homers and 44 RBI in 323 at-bats. While not a front-line catcher, he is more than serviceable and should be in line for more action in 2023 as Tucker Barnhart hits free agency.
A Blue Jays Logjam
I may be too aggressive with Gabriel Moreno with where I am ranking him thanks to the glut of catchers the Blue Jays have. Moreno will have to battle Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk – both of whom I better than Moreno – for time behind the dish, if the Jays don’t make a trade, which is being rumored.
However, in his 25-game stint with the Blue Jays this past season, Moreno started one game in left and also played four innings at third base and an inning at second base in addition to the 17 starts he had behind the plate. If Moreno gets consistent playing time, I love his bat as he hit .319 for the Jays and had a strikeout rate of only 11%.
Two More Youngsters
Keibert Ruiz didn’t put up eye-popping numbers this past season (.251/.313/.360 with 7 homers and 36 RBI), but he does an amazing job of putting the ball in play, ranking in 97th percentile in strikeout percentage, with only 50 strikeouts in 433 plate appearances. He also ranked in the 91st percentile in xBA and in the 94th percentile in Whiff%. A switch hitter, I think he will start to hit for more power as he gets stronger.
I went back and forth with myself about where to rank Francisco Alvarez. He is only 21 and has only 14 career plate appearances. But he has been a beast in the minors the last two years, hitting 24 homers with 70 RBI in 2021 and adding 27 dingers and 78 RBI this past season. In his three years in the minors, his slugging percentages have been .510, .554 and .511. Alvarez basically has no experience in the majors, but his upside is too high to overlook or rank lower.
When Tom Murphy suffered a season ending shoulder injury on May 6, the Mariners turned to Cal Raleigh. All he did was slug 27 homers and drive in 63 runs in 415 plate appearances. Yes, he didn’t hit for average (.211 with a .284 OBP) but there aren’t too many five tool catchers out there and his barrel percentage ranked in the 96th percentile.
Danny Jansen is the second Toronto catcher to appear in these rankings, with one more to go. Jansen slashed .260/.339/.516 with career highs in home runs (15) and RBI (44) in 248 plate appearances. His career home run, strikeout and walk percentages are all better than the MLB average. The only question is how much playing time will he get? If you play in a one-catcher league, you may want to move Jansen down in the rankings. But in leagues that start two catchers, he would be a great option.
Not just a catcher
I fully expected MJ Melendez to become a Tier 2 if not a Tier 1 catcher in a few short seasons, if not by the end of 2023. While he hit only .217 for the Royals, he smashed 18 homers and drove in 62 runs. His home run percentage (3.4%) was better than league average while his 12.4% walk percentage was 4.2% higher than league average and his 90.7 mph exit velocity was 2.6 mph higher than league average.
Making Melendez even more valuable is the fact he can be slotted into your lineup as a left fielder (23 starts) or right fielder (14 starts). His versatility will allow him to get more at-bats than the average catcher.
Four of the five players in this tier are 28 or younger. Sean Murphy is the “old man” but is coming off an 18-homer season with 66 RBI. William Contreras is coming off an All-Star season in which he hit 20 home runs for the Braves while driving in 45 and slashing .278/.354/.506. Yes, he will split time with Travis d’Arnaud, but he will get plenty of time at DH and, in a pinch, can play in the outfield.
Tyler Stephenson had a lost season in 2022 as he was limited to 50 games. When on the field, he slashed .319/.372/.478. In 2021, his slash line was .286/.366/.431, so he has proven he can hit. He does not have as much power as the other catchers in this tier, but he is good for 10-15 dingers to go with his solid slash line.
Kirk is this third Toronto catcher to appear in these rankings and is coming off a .285/.372/.415 season with 14 homers and 63 RBI. I’m not sure how the Blue Jays will split time between Kirk, Jansen and Moreno, if there’s no trade. Obviously, the DH slot will be a place to get Kirk more at-bats, as well as the others, but he played in 139 games this year and will likely get close to that number next year.
Willson Contreras will get a nice payday from some club this offseason as a free agent. For the third straight full season, he topped 20 homers and has done that in four of the last five full seasons. Probably just as important is the fact that he will be in the lineup for a majority of his team’s games, surpassing 400 plate appearances in the last five full seasons.
The man can hit
No one expected Salvador Perez to match his amazing 2021 season of 48 homers and 121 RBI, but the longtime Royals’ catcher still had a great 2022 season, slugging .465 with 23 homers and 76 RBI in 114 games. In the last six full major league seasons, he as topped 20 homers. I know he will be 33 next season, but the man just knows how to hit.
The unicorn – for at least one more season
I’m not sure how many games Daulton Varsho will play at catcher in 2023, but no matter what, he is eligible to play there in fantasy baseball and that makes him a Tier 1 catcher. Finally, given regular playing time, Varsho had a breakout season for the Diamondbacks, hitting 27 homers, driving in 74 runs and stealing 16 bases. He can play center field, right field (and left if Arizona decides to put him over there). His 162-game average is 23 homers, 69 RBI and 14 steals, making him a top keeper at catcher or any position.
Rookie proving himself
Of the final three players in this group, I can easily flip Will Smith and J.T. Realmuto, but that doesn’t diminish Adley Rutschman. He’s only ranked third because he only has one season under his belt.
The first half of Rutschman’s rookie season wasn’t great as he slashed .222/.302/.420 with five homers and 16 RBI in 46 games, but the switch-hitter showed why he was the top pick in the 2019 draft in the second half. In 67 games, he slashed .275/.399/.462 with eight homers and 26 RBI while increasing his walk rate from 9.3% to 16.7% and increasing his OPS from .722 to .861.
Realmuto vs. Smith
Choosing between Will Smith and J.T. Realmuto as the top catcher is like choosing between two fine wines – you can’t go wrong. Both catchers hit for a decent average, post great OPS+ numbers, hit for power and drive in runs. Realmuto can also steal bases, though the 21 he had this past season was a career high, and before 2021, the only other time he posted double-digit steals was 2016. He will be 32 next season, so I don’t expect him to keep stealing bases.
The deciding factor for me ranking was Smith as the No. 1 keeper is his age and slightly better peripheral numbers. Smith is only 27, so he has many more peak years ahead of him. I also like the fact that he strikes out less than Realmuto and walks more. Smith had a 16.6% strikeout percentage and 9.7% walk percentage compared to Realmuto’s 21% strikeout rate and 7% walk rate. More contact gives Smith to hit more homers and drive in more runs.
Over the last four seasons, Smith has posted a better OPS+ than Realmuto, posting OPS+ numbers of 133, 162, 127 and 120 compared to Realmuto’s 126, 109, 110 and 129. Smith also wins when it comes to homers, hitting 25 and 24 the last two seasons compared to Realmuto’s 17 and 22. So outside of speed, Smith has the slight advantage when it comes to numbers and has a big advantage when it comes to age.
That’s why I went with Smith.
JUST MISSING THE CUT
- Logan O’Hoppe, Los Angeles Angels
- Yainer Diaz, Houston Astros
- Bo Naylor, Cleveland Guardians
- Tom Murphy, Seattle Mariners
- Seby Zavala, Chicago White Sox
Their time is near
In a few years, Logan O’Hoppe (age 22), Yainer Diaz (age 24) and Bo Naylor (age 22) will likely be Top 20 catchers. O’Hoppe, who joined the Angles from Philadelphia as part of the Brandon Marsh trade, slashed .283/.416/.544 with 26 homers and 78 RBI at Double-A this season before getting a cup of coffee with the Angels at the end of the season.
Like O’Hoppe, Yainer Diaz of Houston got a few at-bats with the parent club after an outstanding minor league season. Diaz, who can also play first base, slashed .306/.356/.542 with 25 homers and 96 RBI. Those numbers prove his 2021 season at three levels of Class A ball wasn’t a fluke as he hit 17 homers and drove in 90 runs while slashing .324/.362/.527.
Naylor also showed off his power this season at Double-A and Triple-A, hitting 21 homers while driving in 68 and slashing .263/.392/.496. While Naylor strikes out a lot right now, he showed a great eye by walking 82 times and also has speed as he swiped 20 bases.
Will they get playing time?
While O’Hoppe, Diaz and Naylor may still see time in the minors next season before establishing themselves in the majors, Seby Zavala and Tom Murphy are established catchers but whose roles are not perfectly clear. Zavala appeared in 61 games for the White Sox this past season and had a nice slash line of .270/.347/.382. But Zavala may still have to play backup to Yasmani Grandal, who is signed through the 2023 season but is coming a down year at the plate.
Murphy was limited to 14 games this past season, and while out Cal Raleigh established himself behind the plate for the Mariners. When Healthy, Murphy can hit for power, hitting 18 homers in 2019 and 11 in 2021. But how much playing time he will get with the Mariners is murky, leaving me to keep him out of the overall rankings.
Thanks for reading once again. Come back next week when the 2023 Top Keepers – First Basemen rankings are revealed.