This third part in our series focuses on catchers who quietly improved in the second half and have enough upside to provide you a great return on investment on draft day.
Willson Contreras, C/LF, CHC
This first one is cheating a little bit, as Contreras is already part of the upper echelon of catchers in fantasy baseball. However, he made some significant improvements in the second half that I will argue, on a later date, should make him your top catcher target on draft day (yes over Gary Sanchez). On the season Willson finished with a .276/.356/.499 triple slash with a 10.5% BB rate and a 22.9% K rate. All of those numbers are good for a 121 WRC+. That WRC+ is ranked 7th among all catchers. So he is clearly a very solid option in real life. His 21 home runs, 50 runs, 74 RBIs, and 5 stolen bases over 428 plate appearances led him to being the 6th catcher in standard leagues. He would have been even better had he not missed a little over a month with an injury. So he’s coming off a strong season, and is considered a top 3 catcher already, but his second half suggests even more upside.
In the second half, across 150 PA (smaller sample due to injury, but still notable) he finished with an incredible .305/.407/.586 slash line. That triple slash is noteworthy on its own, but that’s not why I am encouraged. Plenty of players have strong results (Avisail Garcia anyone?), but the reason I am so excited about Willson is his process to getting those results. As you could probably guess by his OBP, Willson’s walk rate sky rocketed. He had a 14.7 walk rate in the second half, compared to an 8.3 walk rate in the first half. That’s a great improvement, and one that can’t be dismissed by small sample size as walk rate stabilizes fairly quickly. The next area he progressed was his K rate. In the first half he struck out 25.9% of the time, but dropped that all the way down to 17.3% in the second half. He walked almost as often as he struck out after the all star break.
He paired those substantial improvements in plate discipline with a dramatic power increase. In the second half he had a .281 ISO, compared to .193 in the second half. To be fair part of that was an increase in HR/FB rate, as he hit 37% of his home runs out in the second half as opposed 20.4% in the first half, so that is largely responsible for his increase in ISO. But, his quality of contact improved dramatically in the second half. His hard hit rate jumped from 32.8% to 40.2%, and his soft hit rate dropped from 18.9 to 13.7. So yes, Willson was already very good, but he made strides both in discipline and quality of contact that could make him elite. Target him aggressively this year.
Kurt Suzuki, C, ATL
Kurt Suzuki is a 34 year old catcher coming off a career year. In 309 plate appearances he hit .283/.351/.536 with 19 home runs. It was his first year with double digit home runs since 2011, and his first career season with a WRC+ over 100, as he finished with 129 (that number was actually 2nd among all catchers). So this was the high water mark for Kurt Suzuki, and I’m sure many people are gonna write him off as just a guy who had everything break right for him. But he actually made some notable changes that should keep him on the radar in 2 catcher or deep leagues. He won’t be as good as he was in 2017, but he could be a lot closer to it than you would think.
On the year Kurt upped his fly ball rate from his career 39% rate to 46.6%, which is a nice indicator that he could keep some of his power. He also upped his pull% from a career 42.1% to a 48.8 number. He also upped his hard% from a career 26.6 number to 33.3. Hitting the ball hard, in the air, to your pull side is the best recipe to hit for power, and Suzuki made big strides there.
This is a second half article though, and don’t worry he improved. He hit the ball in the air at a similar rate, but he upped his pull% to 52.1 and his hard% to 36.4. He made all of those improvements while striking out at a lower rate than he did in the first half.
The power in Kurt is real, he made sustainable improvements. He was in the top 5 in ISO from catchers this year, don’t be surprised if he does it again. Combine that with his low k rate which leads to a good average, and he will still be a useful fantasy catcher in 2018.
Austin Barnes, C/2B, LAD
Full disclosure I have been an Austin Barnes fan for years, and am probably irrational about him. I’ve owned him in a 30 team fantasy league for over 2 years now, and I’ve been fully bought in to his talent. This year, especially in the second half and in the playoffs he received more playing time and showed us exactly what he could do.
On the year in 262 plate appearances he hit .289/.408/.486 with 8 home runs, 4 steals, a 14.9% BB rate and a 16.4% k rate. I’m cheating here as other than receiving more playing time, he didn’t make any noteworthy changes in the second half. But he took the job from Yasmani Grandal in the playoffs, and is looking towards getting to close to 400 plate appearances this year. That’s all he needs to be a top 10 fantasy catcher. I could write for days on Austin Barnes, but will just sum it up by saying: he’s a monster, go get him and enjoy the amazingness with me.