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A look at Omar Narváez’s defense

The Mariners’ new catcher has a not-so-great defensive track record, but could he improve going forward?

Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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In a hectic offseason in which nearly every move has been hotly debated, Álex Colomé to the White Sox for Omar Narváez was universally hailed as a slam dunk. Colomé, though effective last season, was only under contract for 2019 - hardly a fit for the window the M’s are looking at. Narváez, on the other hand, is under club control through 2022, and has been solid at the plate since breaking into the bigs in 2016, putting up a 108 wRC+ in 734 total plate appearances. Slated as a backup going into 2018, Narváez instead took the reins as Chicago’s primary catcher after Welington Castillo was hit with an 80-game PED suspension, and he seized the opportunity, posting a career-high 122 wRC+ with a noticeable power spike. He’s ran a double-digit walk rate in every season in the Majors, he hits left-handed... in many ways, he profiles similarly to old friend John Jaso - minus a big platoon split and those godawful dreads.

Unfortunately, Narváez’s defense behind the plate is also comparable to Jaso’s - it isn’t very good. His blocking seems subpar; his twelve passed balls ranked third in baseball last season, and he also allowed 44 wild pitches across just over 650 innings at catcher. While his career caught-stealing rate is a touch below league-average, his arm looks decent - here he is gunning down AL steal champ Whit Merrifield:

The big knock on his defense has been his pitch framing skills. RAA has been brutal on him over the past two seasons, ranking him fifth-worst in baseball in 2017 and better only than Gold Glover Salvador Pérez last year. After years of being treated to Mike Zunino’s fabulous framing, it may be a rough adjustment watching Narváez try to steal strikes and smother wayward pitches.

As concerning as these numbers may look, though, there could be some silver lining. Since 2016, the White Sox pitching staff has put up the second-highest walk rate in the Majors, trailing only the Marlins. Last season, they were tied with Atlanta for tops at 10.2%, and their rotation featured 170 innings of Lucas Giolito - the AL leader in free passes. The Mariners’ corps, on the other hand, put up the lowest walk rate in baseball last season - although they had the privilege of throwing to Mike Zunino.

This raises an interesting question: has Narváez’s framing been worse because of catching pitchers with poor control, or has his poor framing led to more walks?

White Sox Catcher Walk Rate Allowed, 2018

Catcher PA Caught BB%
Catcher PA Caught BB%
Omar Narváez 2857 10.70%
Welington Castillo 1584 10.10%
Kevan Smith 1757 9.70%

At first blush, this doesn’t look great for Narváez, who put up the worst walk rate of the three primary Chicago backstops despite catching over a thousand more plate appearances than both Castillo and Smith. Upon further digging, however, one can find a couple grains of salt - twice in 2018, Giolito walked seven hitters, and Narváez caught one of them on May 13th.

somehow he only gave up three runs
Brooks Baseball

Yeesh. Narváez didn’t have many borderline pitches to work with here, but I can make out two borderline strike calls and one that was a foot outside, and one borderline ball call. Giolito was a mess throughout this outing, walking seven (!) through 5.2 innings, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any that you can squarely blame Narváez for.

Narváez also caught Carlos Rodón’s highest-walk outing, a six-walk performance against Houston on July 5th, and it’s possible he was a little more at fault here:

Brooks Baseball

While Rodón was far from sharp, consistently missing up and away against right-handed hitters, he was the victim of a couple poor calls - I count two balls that were well in the zone, and just a couple of borderline high strikes. It’s tough to tell just from the chart whether these were the result of a poor frame by Narváez or a missed call by Todd Tichenor, but one can tell that the White Sox catching staff could have their work cut out for them in any given game.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the volatility of RAA. Every year, we see guys make random jumps and dives; Chris Iannetta, for instance, sandwiched an excellent 2015 between two very poor framing seasons, and Zunino had a weirdly subpar 2017 before bouncing back last season. Narváez actually graded out okay in 2016, too, ranking 41st out of 70 catchers with at least 2000 pitches caught. He’s also still just 26, and it isn’t out of the question that his receiving skills could get better.

Omar Narváez will never approach Zunino’s defensive ability, but he still has potential to improve. Both Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales are penciled into 2019’s rotation (for now), who respectively had the third- and fifth-lowest walk rates in baseball last year. The White Sox had three starters - Giolito, Reynaldo López, and James Shields - in the bottom fifteen in that department. It stands to reason that his RAA might not be quite as bad catching those two as opposed to those three. While it would still behoove Seattle to sign a glove-first backup (hellooooooo Jesús Sucre), Narváez should still be a viable option with his solid bat and good arm.