Catchers are weird. Let’s get that out of the way up front. They develop in strange ways, at strange times, if they develop at all. And given that it is the most difficult position to defend on the diamond, the bar for offensive production is extremely low.
The White Sox’ recent saga at catcher is well-known by now. In an effort to boost the offense, a platoon of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro was acquired after the 2015 season, with Tyler Flowers non-tendered. Predictable issues arose–Avila got hurt, and Navarro was ghastly as a receiver. Slightly less predictable was Navarro’s bat disintegrating as well while Flowers would have a career year at the plate.
But, during the churn of catchers due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Omar Narvaez got his shot once the playoffs were already long out of reach, and showed that the odd profile he demonstrated in the minors would translate to the majors. Narvaez has basically zero power, with only seven home runs in almost 1,800 career minor league plate appearances, to go along with a .336 minor league slugging percentage.
The problem with hitting for no power at all, beyond the lost value of not getting extra base hits in and of itself, is that pitchers have no reason to pitch you carefully. If the worst thing you can do to them is hit a single, why would they walk you?
So far in his career, however, that hasn’t mattered for Narvaez. He walks anyway. He walked more than he struck out in the minors en route to a .353 OBP and so far in 151 major league plate appearances he has walked more than he’s struck out. Indeed, at the outset of 2017 his statistics reflect a sort of exaggerated version of his purest form, with a triple slash line of .250/.382/.286. Watching him hit, you can kind of see how he’s able to pull this off, as he has excellent knowledge of the strike zone, willing to take close pitches, and with his 90% contact rate, he is able to either put strikes in play or spoil them. If anything, it appears that his primary goal at the plate is to walk above all else, with getting a hit as a fallback.
Whether Narvaez can sustain his strangely-shaped production bears monitoring. It seems unlikely that such a player will be the rare catcher that you run out there for ~475+ plate appearances a year (last year only 10 players did so). However, crucially, Narvaez has improved his pitch framing from his debut in 2016, as FRAA has him in the black for 2017. And given that the average OBP last year for all players was .322, having a catcher who simply makes pitchers work and gets on base at a .330-.340 clip while providing solid defense is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, he may be such an improvement on the 2016 White Sox catching situation* that Narvaez represents one of the many reasons the rebuilding version of the team may win roughly the same amount of games as the contending one did.
*The 2016 White Sox were the worst team in the majors in pitch framing, and Navarro alone was worth -2.5 WARP.
It is increasingly looking like Narvaez is usable as the big half of a platoon or a plus backup, and that’s a pretty excellent result for a minor league Rule V draft acquisition. It’s early, but 2017 has been a good year for the prognosis of the White Sox’ potential supporting cast moving forward.
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