Mariners’ New Catcher Omar Narvaez Owns a Mixed Bag of Tools
After Mike Zunino and James Paxton were traded, the inevitable was right around the corner for Alex Colome. The Mariners dealt him for a catcher with a starting-quality bat, but whether one of the newest Mariners brings anything else to the table is dubious.
The Chicago White Sox surely enjoyed what proved to be a breakout year from Omar Narvaez offensively. The 26-year-old catcher slashed a well above average .275/.366/.429 with 14 doubles and 9 home runs in 97 games. That performance translated into a 122 wRC+, which ranked 5th in baseball among catchers with at least 300 PA.
Only Wilson Ramos, J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and Francisco Cervelli were more productive at the plate on a rate basis, and no one else was really in the same tier with Kurt Suzuki‘s 108 wRC+ following in 6th place.
In order to rank with those potent bats, Narvaez did outperform an xwOBA that was hardly improved from 2017, yet he got there in a different way.
He remained typically patient at the plate, seeing a lot of pitches and talking his walks, but he let his strikeouts creep up in exchange for some higher-quality contact. I wouldn’t quite say he was “selling out for power,” but the needle certainly moved in that direction.
Although Narvaez ended up striking out around a league-average rate, his expected wOBA on contract also shot up toward league average too.
As he struck the ball harder and lifted it a little better, Narvaez received more production on the balls he put in play, yet at the same time, he managed to maintain his characteristic above average contract and swinging strike rates.
While a pure comparison of wOBA to xwOBA does not suggest Narvaez improved overall from 2017, the difference in skills he demonstrated does bode well for his continued offensive development.
On the other hand, Narvaez created plenty of questions about his defense in 2018.
A whopping 12 passed balls in roughly 650 innings should raise some eyebrows, and according to StatCorner, Narvaez was one of the worst pitch-framing catchers in the league.
But scouting reports suggest more promise than that.
The arm is solid. There is some feel for receiving. And pitchers have liked throwing to him, as White Sox starter Carlos Rodon opined back in late 2016.
"“We’re always on the same page,” Rodon said. “Don’t get me wrong, the other guys are great. They’re awesome, excellent. But I just feel really comfortable with Omar. He just calls well.”"
Even though Narvaez was disappointing defensively from a statistical standpoint this past year, the tools look sufficient to be given a chance to stick behind the dish and his rapport with pitchers figures to only be constructive as well.
To prove capable of handling the starting role that he will likely be thrust into though, Narvaez will have to pursue those improvements and keep up his plate approach.
Per Baseball Prospectus, with a pitch framing metric incorporated, Narvaez was poor enough defensively at -17.6 FRAA that he essentially negated his fantastic offensive performance and was credited with just 0.1 WARP for the season.
Regardless of great plate discipline, improving power, or impressive contact rates, evidently, a top-5 bat (at his position) won’t guarantee that he makes a net positive contribution to the Mariners moving forward.
As things stand, his framing needs work, his blocking needs work, and a below-average pop time suggests his actions behind the dish might need work too.
(However, his pop time, as well as his arm strength and exchange time, pretty much match those of former Mariner Mike Zunino who was able to throw out roughly 35% of base stealers in 2018. Take from this what you will, as runners generally steal on pitchers, not catchers.)
There is plenty of heavy lifting to do if Omar Narvaez is to develop into the Mariners’ catcher of the future (or at least of the next 4 years), but with the “step back” fully in progress, he will likely be given every shot to prove himself both defensively and offensively.
While his expectations may not be that of an actual starting-quality backstop right now because of questions about his glove, Narvaez has the tools to improve, and in his bat, he has some noteworthy talents to lean on.