The Seattle Mariners’ on-field product has been mostly forgettable this year. But the prolific bats of Mariners catchers are creating positive memories and perhaps chasing history. A noteworthy feat considering the underwhelming production of their backstops this decade.
Now, to be fair, the bar isn’t exactly set very high for catchers – baseball’s most offensively challenged position. The average wRC+ for the entire league is always 100, but backstops are averaging just 86 with a .237/.309/.404 slash-line this year.
Still, Seattle’s catchers have managed to be worse than mediocre. From 2010-18, the group collectively averaged a 76 wRC+ and slashed .214/.275/.369. During this span, only two players delivered meaningful results. One wasn’t a full-time receiver; the other possessed imposing power and an exasperating propensity to swing-and-miss.
John Jaso was an excellent hitter with the 2012 Mariners, but had more plate appearances as a designated hitter (188) than catcher (154) during his lone year in the Emerald City.
A player with considerably more time behind the plate was Mike Zunino. The former Florida Gator delivered an impressive 124 wRC+ during the 2016-17 campaigns. However, his 34.1% strikeout rate during six seasons as a Mariner is the highest of any player with 2,000-plus plate appearances in over a century.
Overall, Zunino had an 89 wRC+ with Seattle. An average-ish number for his position, although better than the Mariners’ other notable catchers – Miguel Olivo (74), Jesús Montero (85), Rob Johnson (65), and Chris Iannetta (78). Most had their moments; none delivered steady production.
The player spearheading this year’s resurgence is offseason acquisition Omar Narváez. The left-handed hitter has a chance to notch the best offensive season by a Mariners catcher in franchise history.
The following illustrates season leaders among Seattle backstops with 300-plus plate appearances at the position. Included for comparison, Narváez’s current totals.
Season Bests By Mariners Catcher
Ironically, Zunino leads in most categories. This serves as a not-so-subtle reminder to the volatile nature of his booming power and inability to make consistent contact.
Assuming good health, Narváez is close enough in every category to assume the top spot by season’s end. However, home runs and slugging percentage may be a bridge too far.
Narváez has already doubled his career home run total this year, so he’s in uncharted territory. Then again, with 40-plus games remaining and balls flying out of parks at a record rate, the 27-year-old has a slugger’s chance to surpass Zunino.
While Narváez may rewrite parts of his team’s record book, he’s not the only Seattle receiver making noise with his bat. Backup Tom Murphy has been a revelation since joining the club in late-March. In part-time duty, Murphy has 10 home runs – a career best. Moreover, the University of Buffalo product’s .506 SLG is tops among current Mariners with 150-plus plate appearances.
The unified production of Narváez and Murphy is proving to be as good as any catching combo in franchise history. Here’s a comparison of their 2019 stats to the best ever produced by Seattle catchers in a single season.
Best Seasons By Mariners Catching Crews
For those wondering, the Mariners’ primary catcher in 1993 was current ROOT Sports and MLB Network analyst Dave Valle. The Bayside, New York native’s .354 OBP was ninth best among MLB receivers. Backup Bill Haselman posted a .316 OBP.
Not only are Narváez and Murphy poised to make Mariners history, they’re forming one of the most prolific catching tandems in MLB.
Mariners Backstops Producing Top-Shelf Offense
As in Seattle, the Twins are receiving strong offense from a pair of catchers – Mitch Garver and Jason Castro. Manager Rocco Baldelli has masterfully melded the right-handed hitting Garver and Castro’s lefty bat into an effective left/right platoon.
In Milwaukee, switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal is the best at reaching base among MLB catchers. But the 30-year-old is a one-man gang when it comes to catcher offense – backup Manny Piña is slashing just .202/.297/.413.
The Other Guy
Rookie utility-man Austin Nola joining the team this year merits mention for his potential impact on Seattle’s catcher situation. Besides, Nola’s story is a cool one.
Primarily an infielder since being drafted by the Marlins in 2012, Nola didn’t begin catching until 2016 Arizona Fall League action. Since then, the former LSU Tiger has amassed 1,400-plus minor league innings as a backstop and 10 frames with Seattle.
Nola may not play a major role in the Mariners’ catcher rotation, but his presence provides unique depth and roster flexibility for manager Scott Servais.
As the 2019 campaign winds down, we’ll begin catching glimpses of the Mariners’ future as fresh faces from the minors appear this month and next. But what’s the outlook for the catcher position moving forward?
At first blush, the Mariners appear set with Narváez under club control through the 2022 season. If GM Jerry Dipoto prefers keeping the band together, he can. Murphy isn’t a free agent until after 2023 with Nola eligible a year later.
Still, several factors may motivate Dipoto to take the catcher position in a different direction.
Recently, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times quoted Dipoto saying, the Mariners were “halfway home” with their two-year step back. This implies the team expects to be competitive after next season. Will the fourth-year GM accept a group of catchers approaching or past their thirtieth birthday?
On Opening Day 2021, Narváez will be 29-years-old; Murphy will be entering his age-30 season; Nola will be the elder statesman at 31.
I’m not suggesting Seattle’s trio won’t deliver value as 30-somethings. But several catchers with a history of good offense began demonstrating noticeable skill erosion near age-30. Specifically; Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, and Chris Iannetta. Perhaps their decline influences Dipoto’s decision-making as he plots the future of the position.
Murphy’s power stroke is a positive development, but is it sustainable? Several metrics suggest trouble awaits the New Yorker.
The difference between Murphy’s wOBA and xwOBA (.042) is ninth largest in MLB. A sizeable disparity often means a hitter is overachieving, especially when other stats support the possibility.
Ominous Metrics For Murphy?
|* Standing among 338 hitters with 150+ PA|
As many of you know, xwOBA relies on quality (exit velocity and launch angle) and quantity (strikeouts and walks) of contact. For this reason, Murphy’s below average .289 xwOBA makes sense with his contact, strikeout, and walk rates ranking near the bottom of MLB. Furthermore, only Jorge Alfaro of the Marlins has a lower BB/K ratio (0.9).
Now, some of you may point out Narváez has a rather large wOBA-xwOBA difference too (.038). True, but his current production appears sustainable – at least to me.
Unlike Murphy, Narváez’s walk and strikeout rates are slightly above average, as is his .320 xwOBA. Additionally, the Venezuelan’s 80.4% contact rate falls within the top 25% of MLB and is second best on the Mariners behind Dee Gordon.
One metric Narváez trails his catching partner is exit velocity on batted balls. His 85.7 MPH exit velo falls in the lower 11th percentile of the league. For context, only Mallex Smith and J.P Crawford (85.1) and Gordon (83.4) have lower numbers on the Mariners.
Narváez’s low exit velocity helps explain his big wOBA-xwOBA difference, which doesn’t appear to matter since he consistently makes contact and reaches base. Perhaps there’s regression as age-30 approaches. For now, his offense is a relatively sure thing – at least to me.
On the other hand, advanced metrics suggest Narváez is a below average defender.
Statcast rates Narváez in the lower 15% for pitch framing and pop time (the time required to throw the ball to a base a runner is attempting to steal). Moreover, his -16 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranks last among 26 MLB catchers with 500+ innings.
Will Narváez’s defense factor into his future with the Mariners? Of course. Whether his glove work disqualifies him from being part of the club in 2021 and beyond is unknown.
Dipoto could opt to maximize Narváez’s trade value by flipping the four-year veteran to help a different part of the roster. Still, the return may not be as impressive as some fans may assume.
It only cost the Mariners Alex Colomé, a reliever with two years of club control, to pry away Narváez from the White Sox last winter. Moreover, Chicago replaced him with veteran James McCann – a 29-year-old Statcast profiles similarly to Narváez in framing and pop time.
Realistically, Dipoto receiving significantly more for Narváez than he was willing to surrender for the backstop nine months ago may prove problematic.
If Dipoto did feel compelled to start anew at catcher, it’s plausible he turns to Seattle’s improving farm system for the catcher of the future. The lone candidate would be Cal Raleigh.
Prospect Insider’s most recent rankings identify Raleigh as tenth best in the Mariners system. Plus, Seattle recently promoted the Florida State alum to Class-AA Arkansas after he scorched California League pitching with High-A Modesto.
Still, the Mariners drafted Raleigh just last year. So, the third rounder probably doesn’t factor into the team’s plans until 2021 at the earliest. As Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle recently noted, the previous regime rushed Zunino with disastrous results. The current leadership won’t make the same mistake with their catching prospect.
Sticking with Narváez as Raleigh develops in the minors may be Dipoto’s endgame. Considering the current landscape of MLB catching, doing so makes sense to me.
Let’s face it; the Mariners knew about Narváez’s defensive blemishes, yet were willing to acquire him last December. Rightly or wrongly, the team believes it can help improve their backstop’s glove work.
Additionally, I expect Dipoto’s club will be interesting by 2021, but not truly competitive until the following year. If I’m correct, the Mariners can wait on Raleigh.
As for this season, I suggest fans root for the Mariners’ catching crew to make franchise history. Plus, take notice of the impending arrival of kids from the farm.
Because baseball is supposed to be fun.
Even when your team is stepping back.
My Oh My…
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins