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Milwaukee Brewers Tender or Non-Tender Decisions: Omar Narvaez

The Brewers’ replacement for Yasmani Grandal did just that — just not in the way expected

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Teams have until December 2nd to decide whether to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. The Brewers have a slew of players up for raises this winter, but the uncertain financial situation for teams across the league could lead to some surprising non-tenders. Who will the Brewers keep among their arbitration-eligibles, and who will they let go? We take a look at each player’s case.

Omar Narvaez

2020 Salary: $2.725 million
2021 Projection: Between $2.725 million and $3.1 million

There were plenty of disappointments in 2020 when it came to the Brewers’ offense, but Omar Narvaez may have been one of the biggest.

On paper, Narvaez figured to replace at least a decent amount of the offense the Brewers lost when Yasmani Grandal signed with the Chicago White Sox. The lefty-swinging catcher was coming off a career year in which he hit 22 home runs for a Seattle team playing in a giant park and at least figured to have good ball-to-bat skills even if the power proved to be a 2019 Super Bouncy Ball fluke.

Instead, Narvaez turned into a total black hole offensively. In 40 games, he hit .176/.294/.269. That’s a drop of 102 points in batting average, 59 points in OBP, and 83 points in slugging compared to 2019 — pretty much worse than even the biggest skeptics could have predicted.

There was some room for skepticism, and some of us may have missed it when looking at the surface-level numbers. While his wRC+ in 2018 and 2019 rivaled that of Grandal, the batted ball data for Narvaez never really compared. Grandal has a career hard-hit percentage of 41.6%, well above the league average of 34.9%. Narvaez has a career hard-hit percentage of 23.2%. Combine that with Narvaez’s high launch angle, and you get a lot of pop-ups.

That likely should have been a warning sign, but something that was unexpected were the problems Narvaez had with strikeouts in 2020. He came into this season coming off a year in which he posted a 19.1 K% — actually better than league average. In 2020, though, he whiffed on an eye-popping, Keon Broxton-level 31% of his plate appearances.

That combination of a very high strikeout rate and a very low hard-hit rate (when he did make contact) made him one of the worst offensive performers in baseball in 2020.

There was a good surprise, though — after generally being regarded as one of the worst *defensive catchers in baseball, by some metrics...Narvaez was actually the best defensive catcher in the league in 2020. Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment metric had Narvaez as the top catcher in baseball (4.5) — just ahead of Grandal (4.0). Narvaez was actually one of three Brewers catchers in the Top 25 in the league in that metric.

Narvaez also ranked 2nd in baseball in Called Strikes Above Average, going from one of the worst pitch-framers in the game to one of the best.

The Brewers are gaining a reputation for working defensive magic on catchers, whether it’s taking Grandal’s game behind the plate to the next level or turning Jacob Nottingham from a masher destined for first base to an excellent backstop (he ranke 19th in 2020), but that kind of improvement in a pandemic-shortened year is — for lack of a better word — incredible.

It turns out Narvaez’s defense was so good, it pushed him above replacement level with a positive WAR despite his woeful bat. Talk about a reversal of expectations.

Narvaez may never be the offensive force some of us projected him to be with a move to Miller Park — although his true talent is likely somewhere between his 2020 and 2019 seasons — but even if he’s a disappointment with the bat, defensive performances like the one he turned in this year would likely be enough for the Brewers to keep him around at his projected $3 million salary.

The Brewers may want to see if Nottingham can step up to be their next long-term catcher, but even in that scenario, the fact Narvaez hits left-handed and could be a platoon partner for Nottingham could save him from the non-tender axe.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Statcast and Baseball Prospectus