Omar Narvaez shouldn’t be in the major leagues.
This seems like a strange thing to say about a player who put up a 122 wRC+ last season. Or a player who ranks 5th in that category at his position (minimum 100 PAs). And especially about a player who walked 11.8% of the time and slashed .275/.366/.429.
Then, you look at those four seasons in rookie ball. You see seven total seasons in the minor leagues and a player who had climbed only as high as High-A. Born in Maracay, Venezuela (hometown of several major league players, including Jose Altuve and former Mariner Carlos Guillen), he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays organization at age 16. After appearing in only 39 games in Low-A during 2013, the Rays chose not to protect him from the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft.
Once a player becomes Rule 5-eligible, they can be placed on the 40-man roster and protected from the entire draft, or placed on a 38-man minor league list that protects them from the minor league phase. The Rays did not see Narváez as one of their top 78 prospects and allowed the White Sox to claim him.
At this point it’s easy to dismiss Narváez as a potential major leaguer. He’s been slotted into the role of role player, a minor leaguer that will stick around as long as there is a plate for him to crouch behind. In fact, players taken in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft rarely see a single plate appearance in the major leagues. According to Matt Cassidy of Chicago Now, just 7% of minor league phase Rule 5 draftees in the last 15 years have reached the majors. Of those, only 3.6% were worth a positive bWAR, and less than 1% have been worth more than 3 bWAR over the course of their major league careers.
Omar Narváez is the 1% (joining Alexi Ogando, Alejandro de Aza, Justin Bour, and Richard Bleier). In his eighth season of professional baseball, it took Narváez four months to rocket from Double-A to the major leagues. You wouldn’t think he’d get here, but he is here.
In 2016, Narváez started the season in Double-A. A series of injuries to White Sox catchers moved him up the ranks quickly, and in July he found himself playing Major League Baseball. He left the minor leagues behind, settled in to major league pitching, and began showing us that, actually, he should be here.
The White Sox found themselves with an abundance of major league catching talent, so it was with little ceremony that they shipped Narváez to the Mariners in exchange for Alex Colome. The Mariners needed a starting catcher to replace the recently departed Mike Zunino. They got a bat-first catcher who is, as Ben noted following the trade, Zunino’s polar opposite in nearly every way.
The basic outline of Narváez’s offensive career is a high average hitter with a high walk rate, a low strikeout rate, and little in the way of power. In his major league career he has exhibited good plate discipline, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone less than the average hitter. The knock against him has been a low percentage of hard hit balls, and the correspondingly low power numbers. Interestingly, that started to turn around last season.
In 2018, Narváez hit 9 home runs. It isn’t a huge number as far as counting stats go. However, those 9 home runs were more than he hit in his entire minor league career, and 1 less than his entire professional total. His hard hit ball percentage jumped from 14.6% in 2016 to 19.4% in 2017 to 28.6% last season. His line drives, ground balls, and fly ball percentages stayed roughly the same over his three major league seasons, but last year he was pulling the ball and going up the middle a little more. This newfound power produced an ISO of .154, the first time in his career it had been over .100, and a slugging percentage of .429, 34 points higher than his next highest total from rookie ball.
As compensation, his walk and strikeout number suffered a little bit last season, but both were still better than average. 2017 was the first season he had over 200 plate appearances, with 295. He topped that last season with 322. He claimed not to have made any major changes, telling the Athletic in August, “I’m just trying to hit the ball gap to gap, middle and waiting for a pitch I can handle.” It should be noted that part of Narváez’s improvement may be due to sharing the starting role with Kevan Smith following Welington Castillo’s suspension for PED usage. An erstwhile switch hitter, the left-handed hitting Narváez mainly faced right-handed pitching. (He only had 44 plate appearances against lefties. He did draw 11 walks, though) After struggling early in the season (.180/.275/.246 in 70 plate appearances), his bat sparked to life after Castillo was suspended for 80 games and Narváez began to see regular playing time.
While there’s reason for excitement over Narváez’s offense, his defense is another story. He ranks near the bottom among all MLB catchers last season in nearly every defensive category (if reading this brings to mind the Rob Johnson years, I don’t think he’ll be that bad). Connor took an in-depth look at his defense and found some reason for hope that he can improve this season. Catching the Mariners pitching staff and the low walk rate pitchers Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales in particular should help his numbers improve in comparison to the walk-happy White Sox staff. Backup catcher David Freitas has good enough defensive tools to balance out the needs of the pitching staff and the defensive capabilities of Narváez.
Having yet to play a full season as a starting catcher, Narváez must prove once again that he is up to a challenge. Going into his age 27 season, Narváez is under club control until 2022, and not arbitration eligible until 2020. If he can step up, he gives the Mariners payroll flexibility and an offensively minded catcher.
As the Mariners look to retool and make a run at those elusive playoffs in a few years, maybe a guy familiar with long odds and an unlikely path to success can spark the Mariners toward their own success. Without a catching prospect behind him, he’s won the job and all of its responsibilities. If he can continue hitting the way he has and improve his defense a little bit, the Mariners have something in Narváez. If he doesn’t, they’re going to have to go out and trade for another starting catcher. The expectations are low, as they’ve been his whole career. He doesn’t have to be Pudge Rodriguez for the Mariners, just the Omar he’s been.
Omar Narváez shouldn’t be in the major leagues. Yet, here he is, the starting catcher for your Seattle Mariners. Maybe he’s the spark they need.