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Omar Narvaez is fine

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Can you trust Omar Narvaez in 2020?

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

One of the goals of my offseason was to dig into players more. I wanted to see trends in plate discipline, launch angle, hard contact. Nothing extraordinary, but I wanted to get a sense of a player and what he brings to the table. That turned into some wordy rankings posts, which I’ll share here:

There’s nothing wrong with those. I think there’s quality information to sift through, if you’ve got the time. However, I think focusing in on one player can be done in this way and it might be more enjoyable for all involved. I don’t have to hold back on my word count, and since you clicked you must be slightly intrigued by what Narvaez can offer in 2020. So let’s scope out beneath the proverbial hood, eh?

The Basics

Narvaez was one of only eight catchers to hit 20 or more homers in 2019. He slashed .278/.353/.460, which is a very healthy line. Among all backstops with at least 300 plate appearances (30 catchers), Narvaez’s .278 batting average ranked second to only Wilson Ramos (.288). His .353 OBP ranked 4th, and his .460 SLG mark was tied for 9th.

We were tipped off to Narvaez’s 2019 potential due to his time with the Chicago White Sox in 2018. In 2018, Narvaez slashed a healthy .275/.366/.429 with nine homers in 97 games (322 PA). Those marks were again upper echelon, as the .275 BA (4th), .366 OBP (2nd), and .429 SLG (9th) were all Top 10 marks among catchers (min. 300 PA). So what gives? He’s posting quality batting average and OBP marks at a position that generally doesn’t offer such. And his slugging marks in each of the last two years are both better than Top 10. So while the bouncy ball caveat certainly applies for 2019, I think Narvaez is worth digging into.

Batting Average

Can we trust it? Based on Narvaez’s 213 ADP, I think most people aren’t trusting last year’s production. For reference, Narvaez is being drafted a solid round after 29-year-old Christian Vazquez, who is decidely boring in every way. Given the track record of Narvaez thus far in his career, I think this is a mistake. Consider the following with regard to batting average:

Omar Narvaez xBA vs. BA

Year xBA Actual BA
Year xBA Actual BA
2016 0.252 0.267
2017 0.270 0.277
2018 0.256 0.275
2019 0.254 0.278
Career 0.258 0.276

We talk all the time about players outperforming their peripherals. So why the muted interest in Narvaez? He is 27 years old (28 in February) and squarely in his prime. I sorted for catchers from 2016-2019, minimum of 500 PA (so not much to qualify). We are getting everybody and their mother in this sample, okay? During that time, Wilson Ramos (.296) led the majors in batting average among catchers. Narvaez was second, at .277. J.T. Realmuto (.276), Mitch Garver (.271), and Buster Posey (.270) rounded out the top five. Esteemed company on the batting average front.

We frequently we justify high batting averages with line drive rates and foot speed. Well, Narvaez isn’t fast, at 24.6 ft/sec on average in 2019 (just the 13th percentile). So maybe we should scope out the batted ball profile, instead.

Line drives for days

Right away, the line drives are staring me in the face. Narvaez has a career 27.5% line drive rate, which ranks FIRST among all catchers from 2016-2019 (min. 500 PA). So during his time in the big leagues, no catcher has had a healthier line drive rate. Noted line drive maven Alex Avila is second over this stretch of time, at a mere 24.9% rate. If we look from 2018-2019 (min. 300 PA), Curt Casali (28.2%) pops up at the top. But Narvaez is second with a 27.4% rate. It’s clear that when discussing line drives and catchers, Narvaez is at the top of the game.

Given his slow foot speed, I wanted to discern how Narvaez ranks among his peers with regard to BABIP. I assume that the high line drive rate is a good thing. From that same 2016-2019 sample (min. 500 PA), we get the speedster Jorge Alfaro atop the boards with an insane .385 BABIP over 973 plate appearances. Alfaro shatters all comers in this regard, as he’s basically 50 points better than second place, which belongs to Tyler Flowers (.333). But I digress...

Narvaez checks in at eighth here, tied with Welington Castillo at .317. The names ahead of him are: Alfaro, Flowers, Andrew Knapp, Alex Avila, J.T. Realmuto, Wilson Ramos, and Willson Contreras. Pretty nice grouping, again. Shouts to the Andrew Knapp sighting. Moving on...

If you sort from 2018-2019 (min. 300 PA) we see Narvaez in sixth with a .315 mark. Ahead of him are Alfaro, Tom Murphy, Ramos, Casali, and James McCann (who had some epic luck last year). And if we just consider 2019 (min. 200 PA), Narvaez ranks fifth on the list.

So, currently I don’t have an answer, except that he can clearly drive the ball and that he’s posted quality BABIPs compared to his peers.

(What) Hard Contact

Narvaez’s hard hit rate per Fangraphs has risen in every single year: 14.6%, 19.4%, 28.6%, 29.8%. Those marks are honestly horrible, but at least the trend is in the right direction. That, and the home park should lend itself towards covering up this flaw. More on that in a tick. Anyway, if you’re looking at Statcast instead of Fangraphs, you’ll see a 27.5% hard hit rate in 2019—which ranked in the 8th percentile in the MLB. Similarly, his 85.4 mph average exit velocity ranked in the 8th percentile. So Narvaez is producing despite not hitting the ball hard. It’s definitely a concern, especially if we get a different ball in 2020.

Miller Park and lefty hitters

Narvaez has some extreme splits for his career. He’s slashing .287/.358/.431 against righties, but only .224/.371/.317 against lefties. Manny Pina slashed .319/.395/.569 against southpaws last year, so it’s pretty clear how these two fit together. Anyway, Narvaez gets the strong side of this pairing, and it’s the lefty in Miller that is intriguing, despite the lack of hard contact. Park factors can vary from site to site, but I don’t think anyone is disputing that Miller Park is a great place for a lefty to be—regardless of the amount of hard contact.

Narvaez pulled the ball 41.0% of the time against righties last year, and he hit a lot of fly balls (40.4%) and line drives (26.8%) in this split. That’s notable, as 2019 was the first year he didn’t have a ground ball rate over 40%. His launch angle has essentially risen during his career, with marks (in degrees) of 14.1, 11.0, 13.0, and 17.8 during his four MLB seasons. A guy who generates loft and who is hitting the ball harder—albeit slowly—warrants our attention in the fake game.

Conclusion

The lack of hard contact is the only concern. Narvaez is in his prime and in a lefty hitter’s haven. He’ll contribute in batting average and he does a great job getting on base (career 11.3% walk percentage). Pulled fly balls in Miller Park will play, and it’s not like he’ll need to do much to justify his 200+ ADP. He’s the 10th guy off the boards, but I think he can be better than Wilson Ramos and Christian Vazquez, both of whom are being selected ahead of him.

The poor splits against lefties and the lack of hard contact mean I won’t go crazy, but this situation seems like one to turn a small profit on. He’s not someone I’ll reach for, but if he lingers a bit and falls into my lap, I’ll be just fine with that. And that’s really what it boils down to...Omar Narvaez is fine. You’ll probably get some BA help and some solid counting stats. Anything over the 15-homer total is just gravy. Which is fine. Again, don’t go crazy and expect 30 bombs. But I think he can hit 15, for sure. What say you guys?