Let’s level-set the obvious: Every baseball team needs at least one catcher. Someone must be crouched behind the plate; receiving the throws, framing the pitches, and calling the games. It’s a demanding and thankless job where fans too often overlook significant contributions to winning because we evaluate a catcher’s value exclusively on their batting average.
And more often than not, catchers don’t have great batting averages.
For the last six seasons, the Seattle Mariners primarily featured Mike Zunino at catcher. For all his defensive excellence, the offseason saw Zunino traded away to the Tampa Bay Rays for Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. And what’s Zunino’s legacy in Seattle? Great defense, nice guy, bad hitter (his career batting average was .207, with a high of .251 in 2016).
That was the past.
If you haven’t noticed him yet, the man behind the dish this season for the Mariners is Omar Narvaez. He spent the last three seasons playing for the Chicago White Sox before being traded to the Mariners for right-handed reliever Alex Colome. And if you haven’t been paying attention to the Mariners and all the winning they’ve been doing this season, Omar Narvaez has been a very good piece of the puzzle.
Wait, scratch that, “good” doesn’t quite capture it. Omar Narvaez has been awesome.
Through this season’s 33 games, Omar Narvaez has been a solid contributor to the team’s success. Beyond averaging .291, smashing 5 home runs, 13 RBIs, and scoring 20 runs, he’s been a very productive member of the back-third of the M’s batting order, usually hitting around the 7 spot in the lineup. And just so we can all properly admire the context of this achievement, the Mariners’ 7, 8, and 9 hitters (usually Narvaez, Moore or Healy, and Gordon) have been among the best in “bottom of the order” hitting statistics. As almost anyone in baseball will tell you, if you can get quality production from the bottom of your lineup, you’re going to win a lot of ball games.
Oh, also, he’s incredibly fun to watch! A few weeks ago he went 3-for-4 with a three-run home run, four RBI, three runs and two walks in the Mariners’ 11-10 victory over the Los Angeles Angels.
In my opinion, Omar Narvaez is the 4th-best catcher in the MLB. At this moment, only Willson Contreras, J.T Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal have a better collection of offensive statistics, firmly cementing Narvaez among the league’s elite at the position. Before arriving in the PNW, he carried a .273 career batting average. This season, his .291 average is both a significant improvement over previous levels of production and impressive given the competitive context within which he’s succeeding.
In general, the catcher position is shallow, meaning there are fewer quality players available than there are teams. Like having a top closer, excellence is rare, and each team must balance their unique roster needs against payroll and/or positional-production. From the outside, letting Zunino go this Winter looked like a payroll purge and a “rebuilding” play. But based on what Narvaez has done in Seattle so far, I’m giving this one to Mariners GM, Jerry Dipoto. He reduced payroll, acquired young talent, and somehow, against all odds, improved production from the position.
It’s not all shiny gold stars, though. While Zunino was renowned for his defensive abilities (currently ranked 6th in the MLB), Narvaez is among the worst (ranked 29th) and has measurably set the team back. Not that the Mariners are defensive wizards in general, leading the MLB with 38 errors (next closest are the White Sox with 28 errors), but Narvaez is adding more his fair share enough to that disappointing leaderboard.
Is this the future?
As the league inches ever-closer to robot umpires (relax, it’s years away), the inevitability of the catcher’s ability to positively-influence the game is all but minimized into oblivion. With that in mind, it’s interesting to view the upper-echelon of players at the position today as a dwindling assortment of endangered creatures. Right now, that’s a serious exaggeration, but given a generational-perspective of evaluating player talent to come, Narvaez appears to be something of a unicorn that we should appreciate while he’s in Seattle, while he’s thriving, and while the position still holds the significance it does.
All three of those things will likely change before we’re ready. So, take time to appreciate what Omar Narvaez is doing offensively right now, because it’s unquestionably awesome. And if the Mariners have him behind home plate in a few years when the rebuild is “complete” and they really start their push, I for one will be excited.