2015 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Breakout Candidates
When researching my recent post on Devin Mesoraco, I looked at how 2015 Steamer projections and early NFBC ADP data compared to how players ranked in 2014. There were two young catchers that finished well outside the top 12 catchers last year that both Steamer and ADP think could be top 12 catchers this year, Travis d’Arnaud and Wilson Ramos. d’Arnaud finished 2014 as the 17th ranked fantasy catcher per Zach Sanders but is ranked 7th at the position according to Steamer and is being drafted as the 13th catcher off the board. Ramos finished 2014 21st among catchers and is ranked 14th by Steamer and is being drafted 12th.
Let’s start with d’Arnaud. After a disappointing 100-ish plate appearance debut in 2013 in which he hit .202, d’Arnaud took a step in the right direction in 2014. He hit .242 with 13 home runs in 421 PA. He swung more, which can sometimes be a bad thing, but he also made contact at a higher rate, so his strikeout rate improved despite the extra swings at pitches both in and out of the zone. Through 533 career plate appearances, his strikeout rate sits at 15.9%, which is an encouraging and impressive number for such a green hitter.
The problem wasn’t contact, no, it was making square contact. d’Arnaud’s line drive rate was 19.6% and his infield fly ball rate was 11.3%. Both of those numbers were below the league averages of 20.8% for LD% and 9.6% for IFFB%. The sample sizes I’m about to cite are too small to be determinative when it comes to batted ball data, but d’Arnaud’s LD% was three percent higher in the second half of the season. However, his IFFB% ticked up a bit in the second half. Improvement in the solid contact department would go a long way toward d’Arnaud fulfilling his breakout potential this year.
Speaking of first/second half splits, what d’Arnaud did in the second half of the season is probably the biggest sign portending a breakout. Prior to the All-Star break d’Arnaud was hitting .217 with a .138 ISO and an 18.1% K%. But after the break he hit .265 with a .209 ISO and a 12.3% K%. It would appear that he started to figure things out, as young hitters tend to do. His second half was not buoyed by an unsustainably high batting average on balls in play or HR/FB rate, so hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.
I’m going to dig into this more at some point this offseason, but I want to carefully examine the idea of making youth my number one priority this draft season. As Jeff Zimmerman so adequately pointed out this time last year, the aging curve is a bitch. In a game where all we’re trying to do is figure out what will happen in the future primarily based on what has happened in the past, I’m tempted to rely heavily on the fact that younger players are the only ones who, on average, can improve in certain areas, maintain prior production and decline at a slower rate. For that reason, d’Arnaud might be the ideal catching candidate for me.
As far as Steamer’s projection of the Met, it’s really not forecasting much improvement. The projection is more or less projecting d’Arnaud to produce at the rate he did over the last full season. It is not projecting him to maintain the second half pace, but it is projecting him to maintain some of those gains over a larger sample of plate appearances. Assuming he gets the 500 PA Steamer projects, I see no reason why this young man can’t maintain that rate of production. And if he does, he’ll likely be starter-worthy in 12-team mixed leagues.
But I also believe it is more likely that he maintains more of his second half gains than Steamer projects as opposed to regressing back towards the player he was from late 2013 to All-Star break 2014. If he does realize that upside, he’s probably a .260/20 HR catcher. That’s basically what Evan Gattis did last year, but Gattis did it in 400-ish PA. That means d’Arnaud can top Gattis’ R/RBI totals and be at least a top eight fantasy catcher with an outside shot of cracking the top five. I didn’t know it when I started this, but I kind of love d’Arnaud in 2015.
As for Ramos, his upside is probably a little more obvious yet it’s harder to have faith in him realizing it. In the last two years Ramos has played just 166 games, 78 in 2013 and 88 last year. In that time frame he hit .269 with 27 home runs. The crazy thing about the 27 home runs is that he did it with a fly ball rate of 23.3% and HR/FB rate of 21.8%. But that home run rate isn’t fluky because Ramos ranked 12th in 2014 and 4th in 2013 in average home run and fly ball distance. The dude has serious power. And if he ever figures out how to put more balls in the air, we’ve got serious upside on our hands.
But for now let’s assume his batted ball profile remains stagnant and focus on what could happen if Ramos just stays healthy. Let’s not get greedy and just hope he plays in 120 games (Steamer has him projected for 105). In 120 games Ramos would likely come up just shy of 500 plate appearances, let’s call it 475 PA. If he produced at the same rate he did the last two years, he’d hit 19 home runs, drive in 76 and score 44 with the same .270-ish batting average. That’s fairly comparable to what Yan Gomes did last year when he finished as the fourth most valuable fantasy catcher. That Ramos projection is actually a little shy of Gomes’ 2014, so let’s just call that a borderline top five catcher projection. But keep in mind that Ramos has power upside. Assuming all other things hold steady, a rise in his fly ball rate to his career average of 28.4% would push Ramos’ homer total up to 23. If he really made a concerted effort to put more balls in the air, he could easily hit 25, something only Mesoraco did at the position last year.
Aside from the fact that Ramos has upside both if he stays healthy and/or if he puts more balls in the air, I like the idea of drafting Ramos because I think 85 games of Ramos plus whatever I can cobble together off the waiver wire while Ramos is out is still top 12 fantasy catcher production. Given that I can draft him 12th among catchers, I feel confident that, if nothing else, that pick will at least return what I paid for it. But the upside for more is definitely there.