Today’s modern MLB has basically two tiers of Fantasy Baseball catchers: those who can hit and everyone else.
In 2016, Catchers had an average of 87 wRC+, which means the average catcher was about 10% worse at the plate than the average major leaguer (97 wRC+ in 2016).
Only 14 catchers with at least 400 plate appearances had a wRC+ greater than 87, and of those 14, six were above the MLB average BA of .255.
This article isn’t about them; however, it’s about four guys who by the end of 2017 will be in the first tier of catchers, and these catcher sleepers provide value to your Fantasy roster in the backend of the draft or as undrafted free agents.
If you take a look at our 2016 Catcher Rankings, you will see all four guys are in the bottom half of our rankings as well as average draft positions for Fantasy relevant players.
2017 Fantasy Baseball Catcher Sleepers
Tyler Flowers, Atlanta Braves (ADP: 376.5)
The first sleeper was a key contributor in the Braves amazing offensive second half in 2016, which turned Freddie Freeman into an MVP candidate. In the second half, Tyler Flowers stopped swinging at everything and began cashing in on his former top prospect pedigree.
Flowers has always been a catcher who barrels up the ball well and put his 95 mph exit velocity, which puts him in between Gary Sanchez and Mark Trumbo in terms of exit velocity, to good use. However, he had a major issue at swinging at pitches outside of the zone. In 2015, he swung at 30.7% of pitches outside of the zone and in 2016, it was down to 26.6%. This better plate discipline led to a career high of 29 walks and a career low of 91 strikeouts, albeit in a smaller sample size (325 PAs).
The better discipline allowed Flowers to see better pitches in each at-bat and he capitalized on it by hitting more balls in the air and hitting less on the ground, so if you could please solve this equation:
More plate discipline + hitting balls off the barrel = More Fly Balls = X
Flowers’ better discipline led to hitting more fly balls that should lead logically to hitting for more power. This power hasn’t matriculated into his on field product yet, but we were only given a relatively small sample size in the second half of 2016.
Flowers finished the year with just eight HRs and 18 doubles, but if he can sustain his FB/ GB rate and his hard hit rate (43.8%) for a full season (400 plate appearances), we could be looking at a catcher with a slash line of .260/.320/.400 with 20 home runs. Who has similar stats? That would be Stephen Vogt, our 15th ranked catcher (and one of the 14 catchers in 2016 with a wRC+ greater than 87). Flowers’ floor as a player could make this a risky pick, but at a position where you often take whatever production you can get, Flowers could easily be a late-round sleeper.
Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 279.3)
Catchers are notorious late bloomers when it comes to their skills at the plate, and Mike Zunino is no different. Last season seems like a strong indicator of success to come for the Mariners backstop, so that’s why he’s our second of four catcher sleepers.
Zunino is an extreme fly ball hitter. Almost 53% of his contact in 2016 resulted in a fly ball and that led to an incredible 23.1% HR/FB ratio. That rate seems unsustainable at first, but Zunino barrels balls up at a 15.9% clip. This elite Barrels rate could allow him to retain his power numbers over a full season and muscle out nearly 30 HRs.
As we know “you can’t hit home runs on the ground” (you kinda can). In 2016, Zunino hit only 29.3% of balls he made contact with on the ground (only popped up 11.5%, both career lows), which means he is hitting 70.7% of balls he makes contact with in the air. Couple that with his elite barrel ability and we are starting to have the ingredients of a long ball casserole.
I know he seems great, but he has some major red flags. Better pitch selection led to more walks and a .318 on-base percentage (compared to his .207 average), but it didn’t led to less strikeouts. For the foreseeable future, he wont hit for a high average as he only made contact on 64.9% of his swings in 2016. I am comfortable enough in saying that he will have a .220/.320/.450 slash line with 25 HRs. He gets bonus points for being part of the strong Mariners lineup, which could lead to a boost in RBI chances.
Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres (ADP: 305.5)
Austin Hedges is perceived as a defensive first catcher with little to no hitting ability, but that is going to change in 2017. Hedges will more than likely start the year as the Padres starting catcher and although he has not had much major league success, he will get every chance to stick in the majors. Hedges and Zunino have a very similar batting profile, due in large part to a change Hedges made in 2015 to his stance.
Since the change, Hedges’ ISO has doubled as his FB% rises and his raw power should begin to materialize in game. The major issue with Hedges is that he has not been able to hit the ball hard at the major league level. He makes mostly medium contact 66.7%. If Hedges can start to hit the ball harder, he will be able to take full advantage of the spacious PETCO Park gaps as his spray chart is even throughout the outfield (50% of his hits were to center field in 2016).
If everything goes right with Hedges and he continues to trend upward with the bat, you could have a steal of a catcher. A .250/.290/.400 slash with 12-18 homers and a glut of doubles. Hedges’ 2017 could resemble Salvador Perez’s 2016, which means you would have a no doubt steal with Hedges if he cashes in.
Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies (ADP: 458)
Unlike Hedges, Alfaro is a prospect known for hitting, which is evident in his 60+ power on the prospect rating scale. Right now, Alfaro is behind on the depth chart (Cameron Rupp is their starter), so he should start the year in the minors to get regular at-bats, making him one of my 2017 catcher sleepers.
In Double-A last season, Alfaro slashed .285/.373/.369. He is an interesting combination of speed and power as well and has career minor league highs of 16 homers and 16 steals. His speed score should sit around 4.5, which is above average for catchers (the average for catchers is 2.5). That speed and base running ability not only gives Alfaro a chance to net some steals, but it gives him a better chance to score runs.
Alfaro has a lot of raw power, but it hasn’t fully matriculated into his on field play. When Alfaro is in the upper minors, look for him to begin to hit more home runs as he matures at the plate. If Rupp gets hurt or struggles, Alfaro will most likely get the call, and look for him to take advantage of Citizens Bank Park’s 1.149 HR park factor.
Following his call up, Alfaro has a real chance at having a Willson Contreras 2016 type season, so he might not crack 400 plate appearances but he should be in the top tier in wRC+ for catchers and thus one of my catcher sleepers.
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