The New Top-Tier Catcher

When you think of the top catchers in the league, chances are JT Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and perhaps Gary Sanchez are among the names that come to mind. Some might argue that Willson Contreras belongs in that category for his offense, though skeptics cite his shortcomings as a pitch framer. The one name that doesn’t come up as much as it should is Twins’ catcher Mitch Garver. 

Garver made his debut in 2017, though he didn’t show much promise in a small sample size. He slashed just .196/.288/.348 in 52 PA, and at 26 years old with a mixed minor league track record, it would’ve been easy to just dismiss him as, at best, a future backup. The Twins didn’t do that, and Garver not only made the roster from the jump in 2018 but stuck around for the whole year. He rewarded them with some moderate offensive success, slashing .268/.335/.414 in 335 PA, with a .325 wOBA and a wRC+ and OPS+ that were each 4% better than league average. 

Much of his offensive value in 2018 was erased by defensive shortcomings, as he ended up posting just a 0.4 fWAR and 0.9 bWAR. Once again, it would be easy to dismiss him as a future backup, and it would’ve seemed insane to expect him to become one of the best catchers in the league. 

His underlying numbers in 2018 didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. He posted a 5.6% barrel rate, below the MLB average, and his expected batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA were each below his actual numbers. 

Cred. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

That all changed in 2019, as Garver burst onto the scene as an offensive standout for the Twins. In just 359 PA, Garver hit 31 HR. By comparison, teammate Miguel Sano had the next fewest PA for a hitter with 30 or more HR in 2019, with 439 PA. Garver’s other numbers were equally impressive, slashing .273/.365/.630 with a .404 wOBA and 155 wRC+. He also posted 3.9 fWAR, and generated positive defensive value for the first time in his career. 

While his 2019 was no doubt impressive, the question is whether his success can be sustained. While the first thought is that his 29.0 HR/FB% can’t possibly be sustained, a look at some of his other numbers shows that may not even be necessary. Garver’s FB% as a whole soared to 47.3% in 2019, nearly 10% higher than the rest of his MLB career so far. He also made quality contact, with his 47.3% hard-hit rate (per Fangraphs) also being the best of his career by a wide margin. 

Garver’s StatCast numbers also inspire confidence. His 15.5% barrel rate in 2019 ranked in the 98th percentile of the league, and his StatCast hard-hit percentage ranked in the 96th percentile. His average exit velocity and xwOBACON both ranked significantly above league average as well. Additionally, while his xwOBA of .378 and xSLG of .570 both slightly lagged behind his actual numbers, they ranked among the best in the league as well. Moreover, Garver had the second-highest barrels per swing percentage among all batters with 400 or more swings in 2019, behind only Mike Trout. 

While it is true that Garver strikes out a lot, with a 24.2% K rate in 2019, he also draws plenty of walks. He walked at a 11.4% rate in 2019, better than both his career average and the league average. The above-average walk rate helps to make up for the strikeouts, and should provide for a relatively high OBP floor. 

Garver does have one area where he will likely need to improve in 2020 to maintain his success. In 2019, he struggled against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He posted just a .293 wOBA against breaking balls and an ugly .218 wOBA against offspeed pitches. He more than made up for that against fastballs though, slugging an insane .838 with a .503 wOBA and hit 25 of his 31 HR against fastballs. It remains to be seen if pitchers will attack Garver differently in 2020 because of this, or if Garver will make the necessary adjustments. 

While it’s unlikely Garver will continue to put up numbers as good as he did last year, there remains plenty of room for regression. Among catchers with at least 250 PA in 2019, Garver’s wRC+ was 28 points better than the next best, Willson Contreras. His fWAR/162 of 6.8 ranked second among catchers, just slightly behind Tom Murphy of the Mariners, who had an impressive showing of his own in 76 games. If he can put together a strong 2020 season, look for Mitch Garver to be universally considered a top tier catcher in 2021.