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Draft Round Battles: Yadier Molina Vs. Joe Mauer

As they say in boxing, the game plan goes out the window as soon as you're punched in the face.  The same is true, albeit in a less physically painful way, when it comes to fantasy drafting.  You can make up spreadsheets, plan for every scenario and have Nate Silver and Bill James on speed-dial, and yet even the most prepared fantasy managers tend to panic once the dreaded 'run' on a position gets underway.

You all know the feeling.  After someone takes one of the top players at a thin position, the next manager up may select the next-best option at said position and suddenly uh oh, the pickings are even slimmer.  That can begin a frenzied rush and before you know it, you've spent on a sixth-round pick on a catcher who was probably better-suited to the 16th round.  Nothing will ever top the fiasco in one of the my earliest fantasy drafts, around the year 2000 or so, when the run on catchers started in the FIRST ROUND, leading to the spectacle of Todd Hundley and Darrin Fletcher being selected with the 11th and 12th overall picks.  (Needless to say, the guys who took Hundley and Fletcher didn't win the league.)

I use catcher as my example since it's by far the position most susceptible to "runs" (honorable mention goes to closers and the non-first base infield positions) due to the relatively consistent lack of depth and the fact that some leagues require two starting catchers, which even further thins the pool of candidates.  And so, in this first edition of Draft Round Battles, I'll hesitate to put an actual round number on when this particular choice might take place since the run on catchers could very well begin soon after that first manager snaps up Buster Posey.  In general, however, I'd say that Posey will go very early and then you can probably wait until the fifth or even the sixth round to dive into the catcher pool.

Posey, needless to say, is the clear No. 1 catcher in 2013 fantasy drafts, but things get fun once the NL MVP is off the board.  Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer were the next best catchers in 2012 and I'd expect them to retain those positions in 2013 (with a tip of the cap to Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero and Matt Wieters).  You'll be breathing easy at catcher no matter which of Molina or Mauer you take, but forget that "six of one, half-dozen of the other" equivocating, you want to know which is better.

This would've been a hard debate to believe two years ago, when Mauer was putting up MVP numbers and Molina was known for a superb arm and game-calling abilities but an average bat.  Over the last two seasons, however, Molina has posted a .310/.362/.484 line with 36 homers in 1081 PAs, while Mauer has produced a slightly lesser .308/.397/.419 line and only 13 long balls in 974 PAs.  Mauer did miss about half the 2011 season due to injury but even still, it's stunning that Molina is now producing as much value with his bat as he is with his league-best glove.

While most point to Target Field as the reason for Mauer's power "outage," his home/away power numbers are quite similar since the Twins moved to Target before the 2010 campaign.  It's far more likely that Mauer's 28-homer outburst in 2009 was the real outlier, given that he hasn't hit more than 13 bombs in any other season, and has only reached double digits in home runs three times in nine seasons.  What Mauer is now is likely what he'll be for the remainder of his prime, a consistent threat to post .400+ OBPs and batting averages in the .300-.325 range.  If you have a catcher who can do that, then a lack of power is not a big deal.

So Mauer brings consistency to the table and he's also predictable in the sense that he was supposed to do this; he's a former #1 overall pick, of course.  As long as Mauer stays healthy, you know what you'll be getting from Kevin Butler's nemesis.  When it comes to making a high pick at catcher, that predictability is welcome, since when you have a high-drafted catcher struggle, then you have to dive into the muck that is the catcher waiver wire.

With Molina, then, the question is why did he suddenly learn how to hit over the last two years and can he keep it up? If he can, then he's an overall better fantasy choice than Mr. Well Played.  Molina's 2011-12 peripheral numbers are very similar to his numbers earlier in his career with one simple exception --- he is just hitting more balls in the air and hitting them harder, as evidenced by his career-best 24.8% line drive percentage in 2012 and fly-ball percentages of over 35% in each of the last two seasons.  By that token, if Molina's power suddenly vanishes or just gets muted, his value drops significantly, though there's no evidence to suggest this will happen.  Molina may not hit 22 homers again but I highly doubt he'll suddenly swing back into the single-digits.

I mentioned Mauer's health earlier but it probably deserves more focus.  Mauer, of course, was hampered by "bilateral leg weakness" in 2011 and it seems just a matter of time before the Twins move Mauer out from behind the plate for good, though that's still at least a few more seasons away from happening.  Molina, by contrast, hasn't been on the disabled list since 2007 and has been solidly durable despite not having the luxury of a DH rest day in the National League.

All things being equal, however, and if both men stay on the field for all of 2013, I'd slightly favor Molina as the pick in a standard 5x5 league and Mauer if your league has a 6x6 or 7x7 format that includes OBP.  Going by the standard 5x5 statistics, Molina has a clear edge in homers, Mauer the clear edge in runs scored and both are even in steals.  Mauer has traditionally held the edge in batting average in his career, though over the last two seasons Molina has drawn to within a few percentage points, so that category is basically a wash too.  So it comes down to RBIs, and while Mauer has traditionally driven in more runs than Molina, you wonder if this will change in 2013 given that the Cardinals' lineup is as strong as ever and the Twins are already without Denard Span and perhaps could be without Justin Morneau and/or Josh Willingham before the trade deadline.  This lackluster Minnesota lineup, however, could also add to Mauer's value if your league counts walks or OBP.  Mauer collected a career-best 90 free passes last season and now opposing pitchers may have even less reason to pitch to him if Willingham or Morneau leave town. 

Mauer's edge in walks is so large over Molina (though a .373 OBP is still terrific) that the Twins backstop becomes the pick if you're in a 6x6 or 7x7 league.  It's just a good general rule of fantasy that you draft according to your league setup --- you're trying to win YOUR league, not just draft in a vacuum and win a theoretical game of "who is the better player."  To wit, I'm in a league that tracks pitcher complete games, which is why Roy Halladay has been the easy choice as the first pitcher taken for the last several years, including one season when Halladay actually went first overall in the entire draft.  So, our first draft battle really has two results depending on the parameters of the battlefield, but if you play by old-school fantasy rules, Molina's newfound power gives him the edge.

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