- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Those in standard fantasy baseball leagues probably don't think much of Cincinnati Reds backup catcher Ryan Hanigan, and for good reason. This isn't a player with much power upside, he's not starting regularly, and the organization has a few top prospects, led by Devin Mesoraco, slated to emerge at the position in the next year or so. In leagues that start just one catcher per team, Hanigan doesn't enter the conversation.
However, I'm well aware that many of you play in deeper formats (as I do), or with different statistical categories other than the standard 5x5 setups, and Hanigan, who was rewarded Sunday with a three-year contract, certainly does matter in many of those leagues. Why? Because he knows the value of taking a walk. Judging by the feedback I get, many of you are interested in walks, on-base percentage or OPS as opposed to, in some cases, batting average. Hanigan, 30, has a .279 career batting average and has drawn more walks than strikeouts, meaning his value goes up in OBP formats, and he's also not a bad dollar backup option for multi-catcher mixed leagues. He's safe.
I'm often asked which players benefit most in a fantasy league with walks and OBP as standalone categories just like home runs and stolen bases, and when considering catcher, Hanigan is one of those options. Carlos Ruiz, John Jaso and new New York Mets starter Josh Thole are better choices because they should play more, and they possess terrific plate discipline. Jaso is expected to lead off for the Tampa Bay Rays against right-handed pitching. I see Chris Iannetta, J.P. Arencibia and John Buck being chosen in many leagues, each with enticing power potential, which is wonderful until one (or more) of them hits .215. I'm not even exaggerating with that batting average. I don't want those guys. I'd rather play it safe with Hanigan or Thole, who can be had much later. They could each hit .300, and if it's an OBP league, it's a slam-dunk decision.
Here are some other players who matter considerably more if your league's fantasy categories favor walks:
Daric Barton, 1B, Oakland Athletics: He finished second to Prince Fielder last season in walks, but as most fantasy owners know, the comparisons end there. Barton might be the league's preeminent glove man at first base, and he lacks power, with little hope of it showing up. However, an on-base percentage better than .400 -- only seven qualified players reached this mark in 2010 -- is certainly possible. Even if Barton hits a mere 10 home runs, his OBP is so high, and he bats so much, that he'd go from undraftable to a better pick than Derrek Lee, James Loney and Garrett Jones, among others at first base.
Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, who qualifies at first base, also deserves mention here. A year ago, I chose Dunn in the fourth round of a head-to-head league -- his ADP was at least three rounds later -- because batting average was not a category, and on-base percentage was. The problem is, Dunn is now going late fourth round in standard leagues, so he's no longer a bargain. Bump him up 10 spots if OBP replaces batting average, but Barton -- as well as Chipper Jones and Todd Helton -- goes up at a far greater rate.
Chone Figgins, 2B, Seattle Mariners: OK, was it really that awful a season (in 2010) for this guy? Matt Kemp drops 50 points in batting average, and while everyone is upset with him, he's still being picked in the third round. Figgins was 68th in average live draft position in 2010, and now he's going at 125. That's astounding. Figgins still draws a healthy number of walks. Among the 27 players who stole 25 or more bases last season, only Brett Gardner drew more walks. I viewed Figgins as overrated for years. Now he's just the opposite, and that .340 on-base percentage from a nightmare Mariners season should jump up 30 or more points. If OBP matters in your league, Figgins is probably a top 75 player. Among other middle infielders whose stock rises with the walks include Ben Zobrist and Rickie Weeks, though I'm not particularly high on either guy.
Nick Markakis, OF, Baltimore Orioles: I've watched enough Orioles games the past two seasons to believe he should spend more time swinging for the fences and a bit less time drawing walks. Markakis is a career. 298 hitter with a .368 OBP, and obviously he'd have a lot more value in fantasy if he could hit 20 or more home runs. However, after his walk rate took a major hit in 2009, Markakis made strides last season. In 2008 he walked 99 times, and it helped him score 106 runs. Last year, Markakis scored just 79 times. I probably won't get him in any leagues this year -- not much power or speed there -- because there still is demand for him, but if walks/OBP counted, he'd be among my top 30 outfielders, over such players as Carlos Lee and Vernon Wells, who don't seem to put much stock in getting on base.
Jim Thome, DH, Minnesota Twins: He didn't qualify for the batting title last season, but his .412 OBP is mighty impressive, and he also swatted 25 home runs. I have Thome and Dan Johnson slated for DH duty in my office Dynasty league, with the hope that Johnson gets first base eligibility soon. Don't worry about Thome not getting enough playing time; the power and discipline is obviously still there. Even in a standard league, he's a wise last-rounder. In an OBP/OPS league, take him five rounds earlier.