I’ve never been a big fan of catchers in general.
They have a really tough job. They impact the game more than any position in baseball, with the exception of the pitcher. While sabermaticians are still working out how best to value things such as pitch framing, the latest Fangraphs update saw Mike Zunino’s 2014 season shoot up to 3.8 fWAR.
Mike Zunino hit .199 that year. His wRC+ was 87. At the plate, he was putrid.
That’s what bothers me about catchers, though. I understand the toll that their work takes on their bodies. It’s just annoying how low the standard seems to be for them. It doesn’t seem to take much to be a league-average catcher.
This year, we’ve seen the Dr. Jekyll to Mike Zunino’s Mr. Hyde. Omar Narváez is on pace for approximately a two-win season, and has contributed a little more offensive value than he has negative defensive value. And while some may find watching Narv behind the plate to be physically nauseating, I find his sub-20% K% to be a breath of fresh air.
The Mariners’ success this year at catcher goes beyond Narváez, however. Both Tom Murphy and Austin Nola have posted strong offensive seasons. Nola has spent most of this season in the infield, but has played catcher in a pinch. So while many MLB teams seem to roster two catchers only by necessity, the Mariners have rostered three hard-hitting catchers and have usually started two.
Narváez and Nola were the two catchers getting the call tonight, with Nola manning his usual first base. Tonight always had the potential to be ugly for the Mariners. Marco Gonzales was matched up nicely against the Pirates’ meh-at-best lineup, but the Pirates countered with flamethrowing prospect Mitch Keller. Keller regularly touches the high 90’s with his fastball. After he made quick work of the Mariners in the first, it was easy to see the team flailing against him all night.
It quickly became clear, however, that Marco was in full command of his repertoire tonight. He consistently worked the edges of the zone and initiated soft contact. For Marco to have success, he needs his changeup to be working. Tonight, it was quickly apparent that the changeup was working: he used it to retire two of three batters in the first.
The top of the second (finally) saw the Mariners’ dual catchers get to the plate. An Omar Narváez single and an Austin Nola double set the table for Dee Gordon to knock Narváez in with a sacrifice fly. The very next frame, Narváez caught a runner stealing to end the inning. Go figure.
For his part, Keller clearly had some nasty stuff. He recorded seven strikeouts over his five innings of work, including this one, where he just blew away Kyle Lewis.
Unfortunately for Keller, his command was as shaky as his velocity was strong. The Mariners worked long counts, and by the time five innings were over, Keller found himself at 95 pitches. He was pulled for a Pirates bullpen that is... not great.
That’s when the party started.
The two catchers each got a pitch up in the zone and absolutely obliterated it. With how locked-in Marco looked, the game felt all-but-over at this point. That isn’t something we’re allowed to say these days, what with the questionable state of the Mariner bullpen. Thankfully, Scott Servais blessed us with Good Reliever Sam Tuivailala, and Reggie McClain pitched a solid ninth to seal the deal.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Mariners solve this catcher “problem” going forward. Nola, Narváez, and Murphy are each under team control through at least 2022. Whether Nola and Murphy can build off of their strong campaigns remains to be seen. Knowing Jerry Dipoto, that question may not be answered with Seattle for at least one of them.
With the win, the Mariners “dropped” to just two games ahead of the Pirates for the sixth spot in the 2020 draft. Hey, at least it’s somewhat nice to feel okay about both wins and losses!