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Draft Round Battles: Montero Vs. Saltalamacchia

If it's all the same to you, I'll just go ahead and refer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia as "Salty" for the remainder of the column.  It will save ever so many keystrokes and give my poor fingers a break.  In fact, with Lloyd Moseby's blessing, I'd like to propose that we officially hand the "Shaker" nickname over to Salty and then refer to him solely by that nickname AT ALL TIMES in all media (a la nicknames given to Brazilian soccer players).

* = you know, as in salt shaker?  I probably didn't need to explain that joke.  This footnote is pointless.

Okay, so one thing has been settled already.  Now we'll move onto the larger matter of this week's draft round battle, which pits two catchers who had very different 2013 seasons up against each other as we try to predict who will be better in 2014.  I also really wish that Miguel Montero's last name somehow involved the word 'Pepper' so I could make no shortage of terrible puns, but c'est la vie.

Let's start with Saltalam....uh, Salty, who was a cheap power source for fantasy owners in 2011-12 but became a much more solid all-around hitter last season.  Salty only hit 14 homers (a major drop from his 25 dingers in 2012) but put up a .273/.338/.466 slash line along with 65 RBIs and 68 runs for career highs in all those categories. 

Of particular note was that OBP, as Salty had a meager .289 OBP from 2009-12 but was able to get on the basepaths with much more frequency in 2013.  The backstop had a 60.4% contract rate on pitches outside the strike zone and a 28.6% line drive rate overall, easily topping his career numbers by almost six percent in both categories.  So while the next paragraph is going to cast a doubt on Salty's performance from last season, there's no doubt that he did take at least some step forward in his development as a Major League hitter.

And now, the bad news!  It begins with Salty's .372 BABIP, so while he was certainly hitting the ball harder, that 60.4% number tells me that he was less selective at the plate but was bailed out when his hits found a lot of holes.  Despite his overall stronger numbers, 2013 didn't solve Salty's problems from the right side of the plate, as the switch-hitter continued to perform much better against right-handed pitching (.873 OPS in 334 PA) than he did against southpaws (.628 OPS in 136 PA).  This was actually a bigger OPS gap than his career splits (.795 to .599). 

While no catcher is a true "everyday" player in either actual baseball or fantasy baseball, having Salty on your fantasy roster means you need to liberally platoon him and have another solid option on hand as a backup.  If you're in a weekly league, throwing Salty out there every game will cost you any time the Marlins find themselves facing a number of left-handed pitchers in a row.      

And, oh yeah, the Marlins.  Salty is no longer plying his trade at Fenway Park, but rather Marlins Park.  In its two seasons of existence, Marlins Park has been rated as one of the game's worst stadiums for home run hitters, according to Park Factor.  Fenway, interestingly, has been middle-of-the-pack in terms of Park Factor over the last two seasons but needless to say, the last century has told us that Fenway is a pretty hitter-friendly stadium.  Since power is the cornerstone of Salty's game and homers have generally been his only standout feature as a fantasy catcher, his move to Miami could well be enough reason to knock him down a few draft boards.

In fact, Salty has a 269.72 average draft position according to Mock Draft Central's latest ratings, so in a standard 12-team league, nobody is reaching for the Salt until the last round of some drafts.  Just barely ahead of Salty is Montero (269.13 ADP), which seems a bit of a surprise given that Salty is coming off a semi-breakout year and Montero is coming off a disastrous 2013.

After hitting .283/.361/.457 with 58 homers in 1927 PA from 2009-12, Montero was firmly in the second tier of every fantasy manager's catcher rankings, behind only the Poseys and Mauers of the world.  Last year, however, the bottom fell out --- Montero slumped to a .230/.318/.344 slash line, 11 homers, 42 RBI and 44 RBI over 475 PA.

Why this dropoff happened is still a matter of conjecture.  It could've been injury (Montero spent some time on the DL with a bad back), or it was just hard for the slow-moving catcher to beat out the increased number of balls he hit on the ground, given his career-high 1.51 grounder-to-fly ball ratio.  But overall, Montero's peripheral metrics were largely the same as they were during his impressive 2012 season...

...though maybe the problem was that 2012 was an outlier anyway, given Montero's .362 BABIP and his much-improved performance against left-handed pitching.  Montero, like Salty, has also traditionally struggled against southpaws, but in 2012 Montero delivered a solid .767 OPS against lefties to go along with his .859 OPS against righties.  In 2013, however, Montero's BABIP dropped (.282) to below-average levels and his production against southpaws cratered to a .492 OPS in 118 PA. 

Essentially, given the limitations of both catchers, it's a risky proposition to have either Montero or Salty as your primary backstop.  In fact, if you're in a league with just one starting catcher slot, it wouldn't be a bad move to wait until the end of your draft and then try to get them both for a platoon, sitting whichever catcher is facing a lefty on any given day. 

If you're in a two-catcher league and you want only one guy as your C #2, so to speak, then I'd hesitantly take Montero.  He's two years older and he has more miles on his catching odometer than Salty, but since Montero was hands-down the better player over the rest of their careers before 2013, I'll still go with the more proven catcher.  With more BABIP luck and the boost of playing at Chase Field, I prefer the odds of Montero rebounding to the chances of Salty having another "everything goes right" season at Marlins Park.

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