Catcher Position Preview - Strong 2019 Finishes
Dan Malin takes a look at the catchers who finished the 2019 season strong and projects how players may perform in a shortened 2020 season.
In last week’s Hot Springs, we touched on players that were off to solid starts in the Spring. You can take it with a grain of salt. Often times pitchers will experience inflated statistics because they aren’t in full form or they may be working on some tweaks with their delivery. It’s the perfect time for pitchers to make mistakes without worrying too much about their status on the team’s roster. Even Gerrit Cole was prone to giving up four home runs in two innings against the Detroit Tigers in the Spring. A lot of times, a player’s finish to the season prior is worth looking at when projecting their outlook for the upcoming year. Now we’re obviously experiencing some unforeseen circumstances with the delayed start to the season. Everyone appears to be optimistic about a mid-to-late May start, although a later start is also in the cards. And it’s unclear what kind of “spring training” they may receive when things start up again. But here are a few players that finished 2019 on a high note.
Writer’s Note: It’s worth mentioning J.T. Realmuto finished the season on a high note as well, but to be fair, he was solid all season long and is easily the most reliable catcher in the league. So just because he doesn’t make the list below doesn’t mean he didn’t have a great finish. I just feel as if Realmuto has been dissected ad nausea at this point.
Mitch Garver (Minnesota Twins) – It isn’t too surprising to see Garver make this list as he had a career year in 2019. While he sacrificed batting average in the second half of the year, he saw a massive spike in power with 18 home runs and a .652 slugging percentage following the All-Star break. I’m more in line with the theory that Garver regresses following 31 home runs last season after hitting seven total in 108 games in 2018. But to his credit, he only appeared in 93 games and 359 plate appearances in 2019 yet still clubbed 30+ home runs. Given that the season will be shorter, he’ll definitely regress. He’s never been tested with 400+ plate appearances and if Major League Baseball settles for a 110-game season then he’ll obviously regress, as will everyone in the league, but he’ll still be fine for production at the Catcher position.
Yasmani Grandal (Chicago White Sox) – I’ve written about Grandal numerous times in these position preview articles. His second half finish actually pales in comparison to his start in the first half. He finished with 28 home runs last year with Milwaukee and only nine of them came in the second half. So why does he qualify for this article? If you look at his numbers from September/October, they helped compensate for his sluggish July/August. In 26 games and 113 plate appearances he led all catchers in home runs (seven), runs (22), RBI (14), and walk rate (21.2%) down the final stretch. Grandal has now joined the White Sox on a multi-year deal and Chicago’s “other” team is poised for a bit of a breakout campaign with a much-improved offense. Grandal may see some slight regression based on the ballpark downgrade and the shorter season, but he could still finish as a top ten catcher.
Will Smith (Los Angeles Dodgers) – It’s no secret that Smith finished the season off on a hot streak last year. His 12 home runs and 36 RBI ranked third among catchers in the second half of 2019 and he’s projected to get most of the starts behind home plate in 2020. With the shortened season, it’s probably safer to predict a 15-20 home run season for Smith, but it’s hard to ignore what he did last year in the second half. The Dodgers have a loaded lineup so Smith probably hits toward the bottom of the order, but he carries an ADP of about 157, which I don’t necessarily hate for a guy who showcased great upside last year. But there are catchers being drafted well after Smith that have similar upside as well.
Tom Murphy (Seattle Mariners) – Murphy’s second half numbers may not jump off the page, but you have to add a little context to the numbers, after all he was splitting time with Omar Narváez who is now with Milwaukee. In 40 games and 156 plate appearances, Murphy slashed .277/.346/.532 in the latter half of the season with nine home runs. He boasted a better slash line and more home runs and RBI in 50 fewer plate appearances than Narvaez. The Mariners traded Narvaez in the offseason, so they clearly have faith in Murphy as their full-time starting catcher in 2020. Even in a shortened season there’s still a possibility Murphy puts up 20 home runs since he had 18 in just 76 games last year.
Carson Kelly (Arizona Diamondbacks) – It may seem a little odd to include a guy who slashed just .207/.339/.407 in the second half of the 2019 season. However, Kelly showcased solid plate discipline in what was his first full season in the big leagues. His 16.1% walk rate in the second half was second-best in the second half among catchers and he still even went out and hit eight home runs in the back nine of 2019. A bit of a concern was that he was ice cold in September and October of last year. He lost all power and struck out more often. A shorter season may benefit Kelly based on how worn down he looked in his final 16 games. He’s still on the younger side of the game and can still develop as a hitter and he should get most of the starts behind home plate once the season resumes.
Travis d'Arnaud (Atlanta Braves) – I haven’t written too much about d’Arnaud this offseason, save for the brief mention in the Catch My Fastball article. In the second half of 2019 with Tampa Bay he ranked fourth in home runs (ten), fourth in runs scored (31), and first in RBI (47) among catchers. He did cool off in September but following the All-Star break he was scorching in July and August, and he did it all in 56 games. For 2020, he heads to a better ballpark for hitters in Truist Park (formerly known as SunTrust Park) and while he’ll be sharing the catching duties with Tyler Flowers , ZiPS, ATC, and Steamer all project him for at least 350 plate appearances in 2020. That number likely drops with fewer than 162 games, but Flowers is still in play for two-catcher leagues.
Yan Gomes (Washington Nationals) – Throughout his career, Gomes has seemingly never been able to put together a complete, healthy season. If he can register 110 games (in a full 162-game season) then he seems like a lock for 15 home runs give or take. He’s a pretty streaky player who put his power on display in September and October of last year. In that 21-game span he hit six home runs while driving in 13 RBI. At this point he’s more of a play in two-catcher leagues as there are better options with more upside in one-catcher leagues. He’ll be sharing backstop duties with Kurt Suzuki in 2020 and with the shortened season he’ll likely be treading water on waivers. It’s also worth noting that he’s not worth rostering in a points league. He doesn’t walk nearly enough and strikes out way too much to warrant any ownership in that format.