Of the many factors behind The Great White Sox Implosion of 2016 — from Jose Abreu’s inconsistencies on the field to Chris Sale’s meltdown off it, from David Robertson continuing to be overpaid to the entire Drake LaRoche fiasco — the team’s catchers didn’t get a lot of blame. Maybe they should have, though: As BtBS’s Evan Davis laid out back in June, Chicago’s catching tandem of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro left a lot to be desired. The two veterans combined for -0.4 WARP, sucking value away from the offense and hurting the pitching staff with their subpar framing.
Neither Navarro nor Avila will return in 2017; Chicago traded the former to Toronto in July, while the latter signed with Detroit in December. To replace them, the White Sox may look to Omar Narvaez. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts project the 25-year-old to earn the majority of the playing time behind the dish in 2017. Although he doesn’t have the track record of his predecessors, Narvaez’s plate discipline could set him apart.
Let’s back up for a second. Starting in 2002, Baseball Info Solutions began collecting plate discipline data for all major-league players. The metrics they’ve created from this include:
- O-Swing rate — the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a hitter swings at.
- Z-Swing rate — the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone a hitter swings at.
- SwStr rate — whiff rate, which, you know.
Last season, Narvaez put up a 23.5 percent O-Swing rate and 76.6 percent Z-Swing rate, compared to MLB averages of 30.3 percent and 66.7 percent, respectively. In simpler terms, he swung at strikes, and didn’t swing at balls. That sounds great, right? It is — and it’s pretty uncommon, too.
Since 2002, 1,100 rookies have stepped to the plate at least 100 times in a season. (Narvaez had 117 plate appearances last year.) 284 of them had an O-Swing rate at least 10 percent better than average; 147 had a Z-Swing rate at least 10 percent better than average. In the center of that Venn diagram, we find these seven players:
Rookie plate discipline leaders
This is a remarkably select group — fewer than one percent of the eligible rookies made the cut. It’s rare for someone as inexperienced as Narvaez to have pitch judgment that good. And to make things even better, he excelled in an area where the other rookies on the list struggled:
Rookie plate discipline leaders
Now we see the same players, with their swinging-strike rates added in. Everyone else on the list whiffed a lot — they all did worse than average, except for Narvaez.
In short, Narvaez had a superb eye at the plate, which helped him earn 14 walks and 14 strikeouts in those 117 plate appearances (for reference, the average big-leaguer struck out 2.58 times as often as he walked). Plate discipline tends to age pretty well, so this could mean Narvaez remains a solid hitter as he gets accustomed to MLB pitching. It’s easy for a rookie to fluke his way into a few home runs; it’s harder for him to grind out free passes and avoid the K.
Now, Narvaez has some weaknesses — quite a few, in fact. When he made contact last year, he didn’t do so with authority: In that 1,100-man sample, he ranked 1,074th with a 13.9 percent hard contact rate. That gave him a totally bland, in-no-way-noteworthy .069 ISO, along with a pedestrian .295 BABIP. Combine that weak contact with subpar defense, and you get a catcher worth just 0.1 WARP last year, and projected by PECOTA to be worth -1.2 WARP this year.
Still, the White Sox can hardly complain — they just forced their pitchers to endure Avila and Navarro, whose framing is far worse than Narvaez’s. The rookie was close to an average hitter last year despite his lack of power; if he can start to square up the ball just a little bit more, he could make an impact. He already has an idea of when to offer, so all he has to do is capitalize when he does swing.
After dealing away two of their biggest stars, the White Sox won’t vie for the AL Central crown in 2017 — or 2018 and 2019, in all likelihood. As the club rebuilds, it’ll give players like Narvaez a chance to prove themselves. He’s shown some potential to stick, and if he can continue to swing selectively (and make contact when he does), he should be able to stick around as a major-league regular.