The Mariners acquired one of baseball’s most improved hitters

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A few changes to batted ball direction made a huge difference for new Seattle Mariner Omar Narvaez

With one month of the offseason already completed, you could separate everything that has happened into two categories so far: everything the Mariners have done, and everything else.

Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners have had as active of an offseason as we’ve ever seen, making a total of four significant trades that included…

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I wouldn’t even expect things to stop here, with other pieces such as Kyle Seager, Mike Leake, Carlos Santana, and Ryon Healy still available.

In this busy offseason for the Mariners though, there was a trade that caught my attention probably more than it should have — and of the four trades mentioned above, it’s probably the one with the least amount of significance. This was the deal that sent serviceable setup man Alex Colome to the White Sox (acquired by the Mariners in the middle of last season from the Rays) for the surprisingly productive Omar Narvaez, a catcher who received the majority of playing time for the White Sox behind the plate last season.

Looking at the departing side of this deal for the Mariners makes sense. Starting a fully-fledged rebuild, the use for bullpen help becomes much less needed on a squad that is likely to sit at the bottom of the American League next year. They’ve additionally traded perhaps the best reliever in the game in Edwin Diaz, another two relievers that were set to play significant roles in their bullpen in 2019 (Juan Nicasio, James Pazos), along with an increasing likelihood that the recently acquired Swarzak being dealt. So setting up a trade for maybe the biggest remaining piece in their bullpen made sense.

As for the incoming side of the trade, Omar Narvaez replaces a void left by another trade, the one that sent starting catcher Mike Zunino to Tampa Bay. Before the acquisition of Narvaez, it briefly looked as if the career 64 wRC+ David Freitas was slated to get the majority of plate appearances at catcher. Not what you want.
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It may come as news to many, but in underrated fashion, Narvaez’ offensive production was actually one of the more productive of all 2018 backstops. Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, only Wilson Ramos, J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and Francisco Cervelli posted a higher wRC+ than Narvaez’s impressive mark of 122.

The success Narvaez is having in the big leagues comes as a bit of a surprise, especially if you take a look at what his production level was throughout the minor leagues. A career .277/.353/.336 hitter in the minors, it looked unlikely for him to pull out even a consistent career in the major leagues. It looked at best he was suited for a role as a backup catcher. He didn’t bring much to the table in terms of power (seven home runs in 1,764 career minor league plate appearances), as any of his success came from good plate skills (176 walks, 168 strikeouts for his career).

Narvaez saw his first big league time in 2016, appearing in 34 games for the White Sox. He held his own, hitting for a 90 wRC+, most of that coming from an even strikeout to walk ratio (14 of each over the course of 117 plate appearances). This secured him a spot on the 2017 Opening Day roster, not long before he started taking over the majority of playing time behind the plate for the White Sox.

Things looked better for Narvaez, as he hit for league average, with a respectable 100 wRC+, fueled by the usual good plate discipline numbers and some BABIP luck. His game still lacked power, hitting only two home runs on the season, good for a .063 ISO. But then, something changed…

All of the sudden, Narvaez started hitting for a level of power he’d never had for in his career. His final mark of a .154 ISO at the end of the season was a higher mark than he’d ever posted at any level of baseball. Perhaps not a coincidence, his 20.2 percent strikeout-rate also pulled off that same feat.

Among players that have matched Narvaez’s plate appearance totals the past two seasons, only six added more ISO than he did last year.

He was then near the top in added strikeout-rate, perhaps a sacrifice of the added power, ranking 19th in strikeout-rate increase.

Hitting the ball to the pull-side more often for Narvaez was huge, especially for the production on his fly balls. Only 15.3 percent of his fly balls in 2017 were hit to the pull-side. This year, 22.6 percent of them were pulled. This caused a major shift in his quality of contact, as he went from ranking 338th out of 339 qualified hitters in hard-contact rate on fly balls (15.3 percent) in 2017 to ranking 126th out of 334 (40.3 percent) in 2018.

There is one major caveat to Narvaez’s game though: for the most part, he’s a pretty terrible defender. He has trouble throwing out runners and is a pretty bad pitch framer. He contributed in -13 defensive runs saved for the White Sox last season. But with significantly above-average offensive production for a catcher, he’s still able to provide plenty of value. In the past seasons, essentially when started to become a regular appearing player, he’s ranked in the top third of the league in prorated fWAR among catchers.

At only 26 years of age, Narvaez is still young enough to where he can play a part in the Mariners’ future plans. If not, he gives them another chance to build stock into a player and trade him for a profitable return in the future.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.

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