When the Milwaukee Brewers allowed Yasmani Grandal to depart via free agency after the 2019 season, it left a big hole both offensively and defensively behind the plate. The star backstop was not only an hitting stalwart, but also a well-regarded defender and pitch framer who was — and remains — one of the top overall two-way catchers in all of baseball. As the club was shedding payroll, David Stearns saw the opportunity to target someone he perceived as an undervalued player — Omar Narvaez, who was being shopped around by the Seattle Mariners.
Narvaez has bounced around the game a bit, first signing as an international free agent with the Rays before getting chosen by the White Sox in the Rule 5 Draft, followed by a trade to Seattle that preceded the deal to Milwaukee. He’d put up potent offensive results for a backstop, but his poor defensive and pitch framing abilities had caused him to fall out of favor with multiple organizations that were relying on and building around younger pitching staffs. The Brewers landed Narvaez by packaging up an A-ball pitching prospect and a supplemental round draft pick and figured they’d found someone as close to Grandal as they could find offensively, while rolling the dice that they could coach him up on defense.
The second part of that equation could honestly have not gone any better. Due in large part to the instruction of respected catching coach Charlie Green, Narvaez saw dramatic improvements in his abilities and metrics behind the plate. Omar graded out at -41 Defensive Runs Saved across his first 268 MLB starts at catcher, including -18 DRS in 91 starts in 2019. In 2020, that improved to +1 DRS in 32 games, a swing of +19 runs saved. His pitch framing, which was -10 runs below average or worse in back-to-back seasons in 2018-19, shot up to +3.9 runs this past summer. According to Baseball Savant, Narvaez was the top pitch framer in baseball in 2020, ranking in the 100th percentile. Even his throwing got better, too; Narvaez caught a career-high 30% of base runners attempting to steal on him in 2020, 8% better than his career average and 6% higher than the league’s midpoint.
But while he made the proverbial “worst-to-first” turnaround behind the dish, Narvaez went the complete opposite way with his results at the plate. Even as he was posting consecutive seasons of 119 OPS+ marks in 2018-19, Omar’s results seemed a bit precarious. Based on his unimposing exit velocity and hard contact rates, the lefty-swinger outpaced his “expected” hitting metrics by quite a bit thanks to seemingly strong fortune on “bloop” hits into the shallow outfield. Those numbers came crashing down in 2020 as he hit only .176/.294/.269 for a wRC+ of 60, and his power evaporated as he dropped from 22 home runs and a .182 ISO to just two dingers and an .093 ISO in 126 plate appearances.
Narvaez’s Statcast metrics were ugly. He finished in the the 2nd percentile of the league in hard contact rate, and his average exit velocity fell by some four miles per hour. He was in the bottom one percent in expected batting average and the 2nd percentile in expected slugging. His expected wOBA of .269 lined up almost exactly with his actual wOBA of .262. Beyond his extremely poor quality of contact metrics, Narvaez took a notable step back in terms of plate discipline, as well. His chase rate on pitches outside the zone increased by seven percent, and his contact rate on those pitches outside the zone fell by some 12%. Opposing hurlers threw him fewer balls in the strike zone than ever before, and when combined with Narvaez’s career-worst 13.2% swinging-strike rate (up nearly 4% from 2019), it led to a whopping 31% strikeout rate. Narvaez had previously punched out in fewer than 20% of his career plate appearances.
Omar was legitimately bad in 2020, to the point where the Brewers seriously considered non-tendering him during the most recent offseason before he agreed to a one-year, $2.5 mil contract (a pay cut of $225K from the year before) to avoid arbitration. Hitting coach Andy Haines made a visit to Narvaez’s home in Florida during the offseason to work with the 29 year old, and if the early Spring Training results are any indication, the extra attention may well pay dividends in 2021. So far in Cactus League play Omar is hitting .385/.529/.769 with a home run, a pair of doubles, and four walks in 13 at-bats. Narvaez is a career .267/.355/.398 hitter (108 wRC+) now across 1,342 plate appearances in parts of five MLB seasons; a bounce back anywhere close to that level of production would go a long way towards improving Milwaukee’s problematic run-scoring during the upcoming season.
33 year old Manny Pina, who will be entering his sixth year with the club, seems poised to pair with Narvaez again behind the plate. The right-handed hitter has always provided strong throwing and pitch framing abilities when donning the tools of ignorance for the Cream City Nine, sometimes as a starter and sometimes as a backup. He’s consistently done enough with the bat to remain useful, too, posting a 91 OPS+ across his five seasons with Milwaukee. That includes a career-best 99 OPS+ last year, although that came in just 45 plate appearances across 15 games as his season ended early with a torn meniscus at the end of August. Pina also took a pay cut to stay with Milwaukee, going from $1.85 mil in the second season of a two-year contract to $1.65 mil in his final season of arbitration eligbility.
In the Minors
Narvaez’s struggles and Manny’s injury last summer opened the door for Jacob Nottingham to finally get some run at the big league level. He showed compelling power while bashing four home runs in 54 plate appearances, but also punched out 20 times as he hit .188/.278/.458 (93 OPS+). He’s out of options and the continued presence of Narvaez and Pina seems to put the writing on the wall, but Nottingham has been slowed this spring by thumb surgery that took place over the offseason. That could theoretically land him on the IL to begin the season, delaying a roster-versus-waivers decision for at least a little while. Luke Maile, who does have an option remaining, was brought in on a split contract and will likely serve as the shuttle catcher as necessary.
Further down the ladder is top prospect Mario Feliciano, who impressed at the Alternate Training Site last season, was added to the 40-man roster, and has so far hit .556/.600/1.222 in Spring Training with. He should begin the year at least at Double-A. Payton Henry, Jeferson Quero, Nick Kahle, Zavier Warren, and Thomas Dillard are others who currently appear in Milwaukee’s top-30 MLB Pipeline prospects as the organization is as deep top-to-bottom in quality catching prospects as they have perhaps ever been before.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant