In a season that has featured inconsistency from the offense, Omar Narvaez has been a huge boost for the Brewers lineup. The Crew’s starting catcher struggled immensely in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but this year, he has come roaring back with a breakout season at the plate. After notching a career-best five hits in Saturday evening’s win against the Pirates, Narvaez now boasts an excellent .303/.395/.462 slash line, good for a 136 wRC+. In addition to his production at the plate, he has continued to demonstrate dramatic defensive improvement since coming to Milwaukee. As such, Narvaez is leading the team with 2.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to the FanGraphs version of the metric. That figure also ties him for second among all big-league catchers.
If you were to browse Narvaez’s Baseball Savant page, you would be presented with a much different story. The site includes expected metrics that aim to evaluate how a player should have performed in comparison to his actual results. These stats are based primarily on Statcast measurements like exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, among other factors such as walk and strikeout rates. Narvaez’s expected slash line is just .253/.351/.415. That’s nearly a 100-point difference between his actual OPS and expected OPS.
The main reason for this gap is that, in the eyes of our machine overlords, Narvaez rarely hits the ball with authority. His average exit velocity ranks in the 7th percentile of hitters, and his hard-hit rate ranks in the 5th percentile.
What’s going on? Is Narvaez merely a league-average hitter who has been the beneficiary of exceptional luck? Or is there something to his success that the Statcast metrics fail to account for?
By diving into some other metrics, it becomes clear that the answer is the latter. The expected stats at Baseball Savant deride Narvaez for how hard (or softly) he hits the ball. Instead, the focus should be more on the trajectory of his batted balls. The should-be All-Star may not post impressive exit velocities, but he does have the knack for what the old-school crowd would call “hitting them where they ain’t.”
Narvaez is a line drive machine. Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances this season, his 27.2% line drive rate is the 10th-highest. Line drives turn into hits more often than any other kind of contact by far, and they don’t always need to be smoked to drop for a knock. Major League hitters are batting a collective .684 on line drives this season.
On the flip side, Narvaez avoids hitting too many balls on the ground. His 34.2% ground ball rate is the 19th-lowest among the aforementioned collection of hitters. He is also sporting the second-best fly ball rate of his career at 38.6%. While he may not strike the ball with authority all the time, over 65% of Omar’s batted balls are hit off the ground. Additionally, he has demonstrated the ability to shoot the ball to the opposite field. His 27.6% opposite field rate is 12% higher than that of the average hitter.
Statcast labels any batted ball with an exit velocity of 95 MPH or higher as hard-hit. However, avoiding ground balls and being able to go to all fields is a recipe for racking up hits, even if many of those balls fail to reach the technical hard-hit threshold. This is exactly how Narvaez has found success. He has 32 hits this season with an exit velocity below 95 MPH. That is over half of his season total, and it includes four of his five hits from Saturday.
As a visual reference, here are a handful of Narvaez hits throughout the 2021 season that Statcast did not flag as being hard-hit.
Many of these knocks are fast-sinking line drives, including clearly intentional attempts to go the other way on pitches on the outer half. While he does not hit many true screamers off the bat, Narvaez is not racking up hits exclusively on weak rollers and bloop pop-ups.
It should be noted that Narvaez’s .344 BABIP is the highest of his career. However, he would still be hitting a shade over .290 had it been at his typical .317 mark. Narvaez is benefiting from some good fortune, but not enough to support the assertion that he is simply a league-average hitter who is massively overperforming.
Finally, in addition to his high hit total, Narvaez has demonstrated excellent plate discipline. He is striking out just 17.1% of the time while drawing walks at an 11.4% clip. Even if he does not continue collecting hits in a third of his at-bats, he can still be productive by working counts and drawing free passes.
There is something to be said for “hitting it where they ain’t.” While there is no perfect way to measure such a skill statistically, the data and video prove that Narvaez hits plenty of line drives and goes to all fields. That’s a good way to find the outfield grass regularly. Statcast metrics are extremely useful tools for player evaluation. In many cases, hitting the ball hard is a positive attribute. However, Omar Narvaez’s skill set is overlooked by some of the expected metrics calculated with Statcast data. Milwaukee’s starting catcher is a skilled hitter. David Stearns and Matt Arnold knew this when they acquired him. Expect him to continue to be a well above-average bat, even if he does not scorch all of his batted balls.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.