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40 in 40: Raising the roof with Mitch Garver

Playing (for) the hits.

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

As we’re fond of warning one another here at Lookout Landing, there is no floor. But in the midst of a crucial age-25 season with the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts in 2016, Mitch Garver had a different problem: there was no ceiling.

Garver’s frightening experience wasn’t merely a catalyst for him to be a poster child for the importance of the solidarity and unionization efforts to create the now-extant Minor League Baseball Players Union. Garver was given a Garth Marenghi-approved lesson from the universe on the fragility of a big league dream. Over eight seasons later, the words “fragility”, “big league”, and “dream” all still cling to Garver’s jersey more lastingly than any one particular uniform number. Where No. 18 now once more threads across his back, there are also stitched significant expectations.

Lured by a two-year deal guaranteeing $24 million, with a mutual option for year three, the 2013 9th-round pick by the Minnesota Twins is now the Seattle Mariners’ most highly-paid free agent position player in the Jerry Dipoto era, and the only one to receive a multi-year deal thus far. That most recent deal went to Nelson Cruz, another primary DH (albeit an outfielder still in his first campaign), a four-year, $57 million deal which was largely panned at the time yet became one of the best free agent moves in franchise history. The projections and hopes for Garver are not Cruz-level (nor is his compensation), so Garver’s shoulders will not have to lug the same weighty production goals, and his dodgy kinetic chain will be further relieved to be asked primarily to DH in Seattle instead of catching. However, due to John Stanton and the rest of ownership’s contentment with their reputations up and down the league as being uncompetitively content with high likelihoods of failure, Garver receives the knock-on burden of being the biggest addition to anchor a lineup that has seen massive turnover from a season ago.

The Mitch Garver of the last three seasons would have no trouble holding to that standard. In 802 plate appearances since 2021, Garver’s run a 128 wRC+, with a .249/.347/.479 line and a healthy 12.2% walk rate to a slugger-reasonable 25.7% strikeout clip. His career wRC+ is 123, in just over twice as many plate appearances, lest you worry I’m dramatically cherry-parsing the 33-year-old’s performance. That’s made Garver one of the better offensive backstops since he entered the league, but of course Garver is not expected to don the tools of ignorance. Part of that is due to Seattle’s blessing in the form of the man the Spanish refer to as Gran Volcador: Cal Raleigh. Garver’s intended cessation of practicing uninformed carpentry will hopefully allow him to focus on what he does best - hitting - and improve on something he’s not done best - being written into the lineup card in pen. Garver has spent time on the injured list every season since 2019, including surgery on his groin in 2021 and on the flexor tendon in his forearm in 2022. In 2023, a knee sprain sidelined him for nearly two months as well, painting a picture well-traced for catchers of a steady series of wear and tear reducing availability. Had Garver been a primary designated hitter before last year, his health history might remain pockmarked, but likely less wracked, and that is ideally the bar Seattle will hold him to, even as he is now stretching towards his mid-30s.

We’ve mentioned Nelson Cruz here, and I am not a religious man, so I will give with both hands by discussing another righty-swinging primary-DH to sign with Seattle a mere decade ago: Corey Hart. The long-time Milwaukee Brewers slugger is the dubious monster under the bed for anyone fearful of a righty hitter with lower body issues signing in Seattle. Hart, you’ll have repressed from your memory if your therapist is worth a damn, signed prior to the 2014 season with the M’s, having missed the entirety of the 2013 campaign having surgery on both knees, so you’ll forgive me for not indulging the comparison much further. There’s not a lengthy list of comparable players who signed multi-year deals to hit right-handed in T-Mobile Park/Safeco Field over the years, and as such it’s difficult to draw tidy conclusions from their numbers.

Notable RHH FAs to Seattle

Player wOBA in SEA wRC+ in SEA wOBA in last pre-SEA year wRC+ in last pre-SEA year
Player wOBA in SEA wRC+ in SEA wOBA in last pre-SEA year wRC+ in last pre-SEA year
Mitch Garver TBD TBD 0.374 138
Bret Boone 0.362 126 0.274 92
Adrián Beltré 0.327 99 0.423 161
Nelson Cruz 0.313 147 0.370 137
Richie Sexson 0.275 114 0.383 126
Kenji Johjima 0.270 91 N/A N/A
Scott Spiezio 0.215 57 0.331 102
I’m not sure how to gauge Johjima’s production prior to arriving in MLB, however it appeared to be about in keeping w/projections at the time. FanGraphs

None of the players quite match Garver’s circumstance, with our site logo Richie Sexson perhaps the closest facsimile, and if indeed Seattle managed to secure just the first two years of Big Richie, we’d see a lot more highlights of his, beyond his famous club commercial.

Garver stands fewer than 40 oxen tall, and hopefully will not inspire a SexyBack diss track, but his swing is fine-tuned for damage, and little else.

A huge part of what makes Garver successful, ironically, is that he is that he does swing and miss. For his career, Garver has connected with pitches outside of the strike zone - what Statcast refers to as “Chase Contact” - at just a 52.7% rate, well below the MLB average of 58.0%. Last year, that total was just 49.6%. No, it’s not inherently good to whiff, however if a player is going to swing at a pitch out of the strike zone, it is almost always better for the hitter to whiff than to make non-foul contact (excepting two-strike counts, usually). Feeble contact feeds defenses easy outs, particularly when the hitter is a plodding runner like Garver. However, as has been a hallmark for Garver his entire career, like a dog in an unincorporated area disconnected from mail delivery services, the man does not chase.

Min. 300 PA
Baseball Savant

Refusing to swing at pitches out of the zone is a skill, and while it is not a guarantee of hitting well, Garver was 8th out of 293 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, and his company in the top-15 is a who’s who of stellar hitters, as well as a few more mediocre bats like Cavan Biggio, Geraldo Perdomo, and Taylor Walls who lack the power to enforce their discipline. That is, categorically, not an issue for Mitch, who puts a Garvey Dent in the baseball with great frequency, turning outfielders around Two Face the wall and watch the ball sail over it.

Garver’s swing is relatively short for a slugger with his power, but he trusts his raw power to be effective so long as he gets the barrel to the ball. As such, he’s choosy with his hacks, swinging a vanishingly small 39.6% (19th-lowest out of 293) of the time. A true Mitch Garver highlight reel is like jazz, it’s all about the swings he doesn’t take. But here are a few more that he did.

Asking Garver to fill the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the lineup is a tall order night in and night out for a player who, both by the nature of catching and by injuries, has never played more than 103 games nor taken over 359 plate appearances in a regular season. Even the ideal scenario likely sees Garver take at least one IL trip this year, or a number of off days to keep him fresh. However, in a full-time DH role or close to it, Seattle has a true above-average bat again for the first time since the Boomstick departed. Taking your walks and looking to leave the yard is the most viable pathway to offensive success in T-Mobile Park, despite the amusing sample of Garver’s Seattle track record thus far. Temper your expectations to not match Nellie’s reign of brilliance, but expect far better things from the DH spot than Seattle’s .205/.297/.379 line with a 90 wRC+ and -3.0 fWAR since Cruz hit free agency prior to the 2019 season. Garver’s bat makes every bit of sense to raise the ceiling of this Mariners lineup. Thankfully now, his roof will be retractable.