This represents the first in our series of "Spring Fever" preseason pieces, in which we offer bold opinions on key fantasy topics/players leading up to the regular season.
It doesn't matter how many teams are in your fantasy league or what scoring format you use, we can all agree that nothing is better on draft day than getting a player at a great value.
The more mock drafts I take part in and the more I look at our rankings and average draft positions (ADPs), the stronger I feel about catcher being a position at which there is great opportunity to find said value, especially in leagues in which you start only one of them, such as our standard game on ESPN.com.
In one-catcher formats, I am almost always one of the final owners to draft a backstop, because I feel good enough about 10 to 12 of them to wait and strengthen my roster at thinner positions. However, there is one catcher in particular who has a great deal of promise and could offer the best return on investment among catchers in roto leagues this season: Salvador Perez.
Why am I such a big believer in a 22-year-old who has yet to play a full season in the big leagues? It has as much to do with Perez's considerable talent as it does where his projected fantasy peers are being selected.
Dissecting Salvador Perez
When it comes to hitting, Perez takes it to its simplest form: See the ball, hit the ball. He's a contact hitter, and very rarely do his at-bats end without him doing so. His 9.6 percent swing-and-miss rate in 2012 was eighth best among the 265 players with at least 300 plate appearances, and his 8.9 percent strikeout rate was seventh best among the same group. Numbers such as those would normally lead you to believe he's selective at the plate, or that he's strictly a contact hitter with little power, yet his chase rate was 34.8 percent (231st out of 265). That makes the above contact numbers even more impressive. He may be a free-swinger, but he clearly has a good grasp of what pitches he can hit. In fact, only Melky Cabrera had a higher batting average on pitches outside the strike zone last season than Perez (both hit .337, but Cabrera finished percentage points higher).
Lowest Swing-And-Miss Pct., 2012
While it was unclear in the minors how soon Perez would develop more than just gap power, he has shown significant progress already. Remember those seven hitters with lower swing-and-miss rates than Perez? Well, they combined for 29 homers in 3,281 at-bats (0.9 percent HR rate). Perez's home run rate was more than four times higher: 3.8 percent (11 homers in 289 ABs).
What's even more encouraging is that he hits the ball hard to all fields. Four of the righty-hitting Perez's 11 homers went to right field. Only 19 other right-handed hitters in baseball hit more dingers to right field last season. Oh yeah, he did all of this after missing the first three months of the season after undergoing knee surgery during spring training.
To this point in his young career, Perez has played 115 games and compiled a .311/.339/.471 slash line, totaling 58 runs scored, 14 homers and 60 RBIs. For a player being taken as the 10th catcher overall -- and in the 20th round, no less -- you'd be thrilled to get those numbers with the potential for much more, especially because he's projected for 80 more at-bats than his career total.
Once you get past Victor Martinez in the positional rankings, very few catchers -- if any -- can offer the batting average boost that Perez can. And if he starts to hit righties with more authority than his .283/.308/.403 clip to this point in his career, the sky's the limit. We could have a major breakout performer on our hands.
The catcher landscape
If you look at average draft positions, you'll see there is a clear first tier of six catchers: Buster Posey (whom many consider to be in his own tier), Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Victor Martinez. In a 10-team league, those guys will be gone by the end of Round 9, according to early live draft results. Then there's a pretty long wait -- 56 picks, to be exact -- before the next catcher, Mike Napoli, comes off the board. While Napoli is being selected 50 picks before Perez, I still consider him to be the first of Perez's aforementioned "fantasy peers," at least as it relates to value. Let's look at the ESPN projections for the next 10 catchers after the big six, using ADP.
ADPs of Catchers ranked 7-16, with 2013 Projections
Although I acknowledge Napoli's tremendous power potential, especially in Fenway Park, I also have some concerns that his hip could give him trouble during the season. And if the hip doesn't concern you, what about the fact that in the past three years, he has sandwiched .238 and .227 averages around his magical and never-to-be-done-again .320 season of 2011 (thanks to an out-of-whack BABIP 45 points higher than his career mark)? Head-to-head, Napoli takes homers by a wide margin, but Perez does the same in batting average. The other categories are basically even in the projections. If your team is sorely lacking in homers at this juncture, I can certainly understand selecting Napoli; otherwise, I'd advise waiting a few more rounds, shoring up your roster in other areas and making sure you don't get stuck with the dregs of the middle-infield pool.
If Napoli is the most sure thing in homers among this group, Miguel Montero is the player with the greatest probability of coming closest to his projection, because his numbers the past two seasons have been nearly identical. Even then, his only real projection advantage comes in RBIs. Montero makes for a nice value this late as well, but if I can get a comparable catcher like Perez a couple rounds later and add depth to my pitching staff or finish off my outfield instead, it's a rather easy choice to make.
Of the rest of the group, Wilin Rosario has great power, but he's certainly more of a batting average risk. Jonathan Lucroy is an intriguing option, but his .320 BA from last season is likely to regress quite a bit. Jesus Montero has a bright future as a hitter, but he'll have to overcome playing half his games in Safeco Field, where he posted .227/.268/.337 rates as a rookie. Brian McCann is on the downside of his career, and I expect 36-year-old A.J. Pierzynski to come back to earth after a shocking power display in 2012. Meanwhile, Jarrod Saltalamacchia's batting average is simply a killer, and while Ryan Doumit is coming off a fine season, injuries have often derailed him during his career.
In our Feb. 14 mock draft, Perez was the ninth catcher taken. (I waited a round too long, as Matthew Berry got him two picks before I was up but that's my fault because he went at No. 177. I was just being greedy.)
The major league batting average has declined in each of the past six seasons; it was .269 in 2006, and has fallen all the way to last year's .255. Because of that, I'm placing a greater emphasis on batting average whenever I feel a player can make a significant difference without sacrificing too much in the other categories at his position. And because of that, Salvador Perez should easily outperform his draft position this season while batting in the middle of the Royals' lineup. And while it's not likely, if he can remain healthy for the entire season, it wouldn't completely shock me if he approached the top five catchers in fantasy.
Note for those of you in points leagues: Perez might not be as great a value in this format as he is in roto leagues, depending on your scoring system. Because he's a free-swinger, he hardly walks at all, as evidenced by his 3.9 percent walk rate in 2012. Of course if your league rewards for walks and penalizes for strikeouts, the impact will be rather minimal because he doesn't do much of either. But if your scoring rewards for walks only, then his overall value will clearly be muted some.