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2020 Mariners Exit Interviews: Catchers

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A quorum of Joes

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Pro rata, the Mariners’ best full-time position player this year was a catcher. Austin Nola emerged as one of the league’s premier backstops, but was dealt at the season’s mid-point to the Padres as part of a massive prospect return. Once Nola departed, things took a leaner turn, as Tom Murphy looked on from the wilds of upstate New York, rehabbing his broken foot with March 2021 circled on his ancient Gaelic backyard sundial. Luis Torrens took over full-time catching duties after arriving in the Nola trade, joining Seattle’s one-two Joe combo of Joseph Odom and Joe Hudson. Here’s a quick look at their season stats:

2020 Mariners Catchers

Player G PA wRC+ DRC+ OPS fWAR bWAR WARP
Player G PA wRC+ DRC+ OPS fWAR bWAR WARP
Austin Nola 48 184 126 119 0.825 1.7 1.1 1.7
Luis Torrens 25 78 97 92 0.696 -0.1 -0.1 -0.3
Joseph Odom 17 41 2 54 0.338 -0.3 -0.2 -0.2
Joe Hudson 9 20 33 75 0.440 -0.1 -0.2 -0.1
Nola and Torrens’ numbers are full-season totals, including pre/post-trade. FanGraphs/Baseball Reference/Baseball Prospectus

Entering 2019, it was hard to imagine we were about to witness a brief but gleaming golden age of Mariners catching, as Omar Narváez provided steady offense and, well, let’s end it there. He was joined by Tom Murphy, who blew away expectations on both side of the plate, and was expected to share this year’s load with the less-tested Nola. Murphy’s absence made Nola a full-time man, leading to what I can only describe as one of the most rapid appreciation’s in trade value from minor league free agent to best player traded at the deadline in a cool 108 big league games, and just 27(!!!) starts at catcher at the MLB level (34 games). Nola’s consistency and versatility made him the Mariners best player during his time in teal this year, but after being shipped to San Diego, the M’s were left with less impressive options.

Luis Torrens gave a promising peek, but with all three remaining players, there’s more to be gleaned from their careers thus far than the 65 PA he put together once he joined Seattle. One thing that stood out all the same was his contact, which was far firmer than in previous seasons, hinting at both a specific improvement and the not-too-shocking development that a 24 year old yanked around his development by being pulled to the bigs in 2017 due to Rule-5 Draft requirements is improving his recognition of high-level pitching. It’s a lot to expect the young Venezuelan to be a long-term solution behind the dish, but good exit velocities, decent plate discipline, and lower-than-average strikeout rates are a good toolkit for further success. Torrens’ next step will be to refine his glovework and framing to go along with good instincts and a strong arm. Depending on the Mariners’ activity this offseason, Torrens could easily be a decent second catcher option for Seattle behind a healthy Murphy.

As for the Joes, average wasn’t the watchword, unfortunately. Neither Hudson nor Odom were expected to be strong options, but neither did they separate themselves in their brief cameos. Hudson got just 20 plate appearances, but has struggled at the dish in the high minors for years. Odom had a slightly longer string, but was over-matched by big league stuff and had some defensive struggles to boot. Neither player should be expected as part of the M’s long term plans.

On the whole, the Mariners were the worst team in baseball at containing the run game, catching a ghastly 10% of runners who were 44/49 on stolen base attempts this year (league average is 25%, at 29/39). Some of that is on their pitching staff, who had a few particularly poor players when it came to controlling the run game, but the lack of concern with the arms behind the dish was apparent and well-deserved. Tom Murphy’s hopefully healthy return should alleviate some of those issues, but this is a position of clear uncertainty going forward.

If Murphy is healthy, he should be able to stabilize things defensively, but 2020 was not a sure thing for him. His 2019 breakout was fueled by a heightened BABIP and shadowed by a sky-high strikeout rate, giving him a Zunino-esque line to walk for success. If the M’s run it back with Murphy and Torrens, that’s a vote of confidence in Cal Raleigh as well, who will be in line to debut somewhere in the next year or two. The depth of the Mariners catching staff is slim, but it’s just about all here.