Catcher is arguably the most demanding position on the diamond. A backstop needs to have a working relationship with each member of the pitching staff, keep everyone’s strategy and arsenal straight, play psychiatrist when his pitcher is struggling, know the opposing hitters’ tendencies, he needs to help control the run game, and he needs to squat behind home plate to call, receive, and frame more than a hundred pitches each night. Oh yeah, and he has to be able to hit worth a lick, too.
Last year, arguably the best catcher in baseball fell into the laps of the Milwaukee Brewers. Yasmani Grandal was unable to find any multiyear offers to his liking during the depressed (colluded?) free agent market of the 2018-19 offseason, which allowed David Stearns to swoop in and convince him to sign up for a one-year deal that guaranteed him $18.25 mil (including the buyout of his mutual option). The Yazmanian Devil made good on his prove-it deal, recording career-highs with 153 games and 632 trips to the plate. He struck out at his lowest rate in four years (22%) and walked at a career-best clip (17.2%) while batting .246/.380/.468 for a 121 wRC+. His 28 home runs represented a new career-high, as did his 77 runs batted in.
Grandal was no slouch behind the plate when donning the tools of ignorance, either. Yaz rated highly as a blocker, caught 27% of attempted base thieves (league average was 26%), and was once again one of the game’s leading pitch framers. He was second among all MLB catchers in fWAR from Fangraphs (5.2) and first in WARP from Baseball Prospectus (6.1).
Grandal was able to parlay his success into another $18.25 mil per year deal, although this time it came at a length of four seasons from the Chicago White Sox for a total of $73 mil, signed in the middle of November shortly after the outset of free agency. Interestingly enough, Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio later admitted to the team trying to bring Grandal back, only to be outbid.
With Grandal off the board, Slingin’ Stearns and company pivoted to the trade market to fill their need at catcher. Milwaukee was able to land Omar Narvaez in a deal with the Mariners on December 5th, sending away only an older A-ball pitching prospect in Adam Hill and a supplemental-round draft pick. At least on offense, the Brewers could not have done a much better job finding someone to replace what was lost in Grandal.
During his lone season with the Emerald City Nine, Narvaez appeared in a career-high 132 games with 482 plate appearances. He posted a .278/.353/.460 batting line for a 119 wRC+ while clubbing a career-best 22 home runs. He did well with making contact (19.1% K rate) as well as drawing walks (9.8% BB rate) and has generally hovered around those same numbers throughout his career. Narvaez hasn’t always displayed that same kind of home run pop that he did in 2019, but he is a career .276/.361/.411 hitter for a 113 wRC+ and even though his offensive profile is a bit odd as a player who specializes in bloops and blasts, he should be able to be counted on to provide above-average offense for the position.
When Narvaez is crouching behind the plate, however, it is a much different story. Among catchers with at least 500 innings in the field last season, only one player had a worse Defensive Runs Saved total than Omar’s -18 DRS. He caught only 18% of would-be base stealers in 2019. His -8.2 framing runs ranked 105th out of 113 MLB backstops, and his -4.3 blocking runs ranked 110th out of the group. Because of those issues, Narvaez rated out only at 1.8 fWAR and 2.3 WARP even though he was one of the best hitting catchers in the big leagues.
Narvaez was available in trade from Seattle (and for a seemingly light package) due in large part to his defensive struggles. The Mariners were concerned about the development of their young pitching staff with Narvaez guiding them behind the plate. From The Athletic:
What the club’s young pitchers will need as they go through the paces of the 2020 season is…well, it’s a lot of things. Experience for one. They will get that. Another is having someone there to essentially hold their hands — a catcher to get them through those tough spots; someone who knows them and is invested in them, capable of winning a “50-50” ball on the corner or digging a slider out of the dirt with a runner on third.
That wasn’t Narváez, and it was never going to be.
Narvaez has worked hard on his defense throughout his career, including a data-driven approach with Seattle in 2019, but his “lack of mobility and explosiveness hindered what he was able to do behind the plate.” Part of Seattle’s decision to move on was because they didn’t think he would be able to improve dramatically behind the dish, which is now a project that will be undertaken by the Brewers. Milwaukee’s coaching staff and catching coordinators have developed a strong reputation for developing catchers defensively, and they’ll have plenty of work to do in order to bring Narvaez up to even an average defender. Everyone is hard at work already this spring, but notable improvement will likely require a multiyear effort, if it is possible at all.
Fortunately, veteran Manny Pina remains with Milwaukee and appears to be ticketed for a larger role than he filled last season behind Grandal. Pina has become one of the top defensive catchers in the league even in a part-time role, with a 35% career caught-stealing rate as well as positive grades as a blocker and framer during his time with Milwaukee. He posted an 87 wRC+ in 179 plate appearances last season and raked specifically against left-handed pitchers, batting .319/.395/.569 against them. The right-handed hitting Pina could fit naturally into a platoon with the southpaw-swinging Narvaez, and he could receive opportunities as a late-inning defensive replacement for Omar in games that Milwaukee has a lead.
In the Minors
The top two catchers in Triple-A figure to be David Freitas, who won the Pacific Coast League batting title last year, and former top prospect Jacob Nottingham. It is also possible that one of those players begins the year in the majors with the expanded 26-man active roster, providing further flexibility to Craig Counsell in how he deploys and substitutes his backstops. Light-hitting veteran Tuffy Gosewich was also brought back to help guide the young pitching staff in San Antonio.
Further on down the ladder are Mario Feliciano, Carolina League MVP in 2019, and his partner Payton Henry. Both of those players rank among the org’s top prospects. Other organization depth behind the plate includes Max McDowell, David Fry, Nick Kahle, Darrien Miller, and Brent Diaz.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus