If you were to look at Omar Narvaez’s splits for the 2021 season, the disparity between his first half and second half numbers would likely be the first thing to catch your attention.
Narvaez was excellent in the first half of the season, reaching base at a .396 clip while adding eight home runs. His 133 wRC+ was second among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. The backstop was rewarded as one of five Brewers to make the National League All-Star team.
For as strong as those numbers were, Narvaez’s line after the All-Star break is just as unappealing. He managed just a .592 OPS and 57 wRC+. That was enough to drag his overall wRC+ for the season down to 99.
As the Brewers’ offense struggled in September and went missing in action for the National League Division Series, fans and analysts alike cited Narvaez’s lackluster performance as a significant reason for those struggles. His performance during that time also raised questions as to what kind of contributor he will be at the plate in 2022. Narvaez struggled mightily in 2020 and appeared to regress toward that form in the second half of last season.
A look into the 29-year-old’s monthly splits reveals that this narrative is misleading. Like most hitters, Narvaez had his highs and his lows throughout the season, but he remained an average offensive contributor in July and August. He did not truly begin to struggle until the season’s final month, but that month-long slump was so extreme that it tanked his entire second-half line.
Omar Narvaez 2021 Monthly Production
Narvaez’s average exit velocity was never great to begin with, but we know that his style of hitting has always resulted in him being overlooked by Statcast metrics. After his average exit velocity remained consistent through the season’s first five months, it plummeted to 79 miles per hour in September and early October. A .236 BABIP was not helpful, but Narvaez largely brought poor results upon himself by making weak contact in the majority of his at-bats. His strikeout rate also ballooned to 25%.
A month-long slump is less concerning than one that lasts for the final three months of the season. That said, finding a word to describe just how horrid Narvaez was in September is difficult. It’s important to find some explanation.
Did opposing pitchers figure the All-Star out and alter their approach? That was hardly the case.
Narvaez is a fastball hitter and predictably did his best work against fastballs in 2021 (.364 wOBA), so one might assume that pitchers started to hammer him with more breaking and offspeed pitches. Instead, he saw even more fastballs down the stretch than he did in July and August.
Opponents dealt Narvaez a steady diet of high fastballs all season long, and it did not phase him through the end of August. Pitchers continued to locate most of their fastballs at or above the belt, but they were more aggressive in the zone and also threw more heaters up-and-in.
This does not help explain why Narvaez’s offense evaporated, though. Even if we assume that these were conscious adjustments by pitchers (we cannot know for sure), they should not have done much to silence the catcher’s bat. Narvaez slugged .400 on up-and-in pitches, and seeing more fastballs in the zone should be a positive for a fastball hitter.
Narvaez should have found more success in September and October. Instead, he managed just five hits against fastballs over the season’s final month for a .125 batting average and .146 wOBA. His whiff rate on fastballs jumped to 27.2%.
The best explanation is that Narvaez was worn out by the season’s final weeks. Catcher is the most physically demanding position on the field, and Narvaez was not used to the workload he shouldered last year. He caught 111 games and 886 innings in 2021. His previous career-highs were 98 games and 815 innings in 2019. That was followed by a shortened 2020 season in which he caught just 39 games.
If fatigue was all that was behind Narvaez’s poor finish to the 2021 campaign, the Brewers can breathe a sigh of relief and also map out a revised blueprint for keeping him fresh all year long. That could mean changes in the way he prepares for the season and his in-season routine. It may also involve more playing time for projected backup Pedro Severino.
Narvaez is a solid offensive catcher. He has a career 106 wRC+ in over 500 games, and there is little evidence to suggest that opposing pitchers have figured him out or exploited a glaring weakness of his. Both Narvaez and the Brewers have likely noted the impact of his heaviest workload to date and understand the best way to move forward. Expect him to produce at the plate once again in 2022.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and BrooksBaseball.