“Catcher” Mitch Garver Sets Sail to Seattle

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners have made their first significant upgrade of the offseason, inking Mitch Garver to a two-year deal worth $24 million. Formerly a member of the Twins and Rangers, the soon-to-be 33-year-old Garver first made a name for himself in the peak of the juiced ball era, clubbing 31 homers in just 93 games while slugging .630 in his 2019 campaign. He hasn’t reached such heights since, but Garver has remained an offensive threat, even as he’s struggled to stay healthy and demonstrate his prowess over a full season.

Let’s take a look at the best-hitting catchers of 2023. In the modern era of lower catcher workloads and backstops moonlighting at first base, DH, and even in the outfield, you can define “best-hitting catcher” in many ways. But for now, I’ll just use primary catchers as defined by our leaderboards:

Best-Hitting Catchers of 2023
Name PA wRC+
Ryan Jeffers 335 138
Mitch Garver 344 138
Sean Murphy 438 129
Willson Contreras 495 127
Adley Rutschman 687 127
Yainer Diaz 377 127
William Contreras 611 124
Will Smith 554 119
Danny Jansen 301 116
Cal Raleigh 569 111
min. 300 PA

On the surface, Garver was the best offensive catcher in the league, along with former teammate Ryan Jeffers, who broke out in his first season as Minnesota’s “primary” backstop (his 82 starts behind the plate were barely a majority). Michael Baumann pointed out last month that Garver is masterful at waiting for his pitch and then pulling it out of the yard. Those pitches are usually fastballs, which he’s crushed with authority throughout his career to the tune of a +51 run value. Over time, pitchers have picked up on his tendencies, throwing him breaking balls at a 98th-percentile rate. And while 2023 marked an improvement in his results against bendy stuff, Garver’s success in spite of this has come thanks to his selective aggression, patiently waiting for heaters in his wheelhouse.

But it would be disingenuous for me to keep referring to Garver as a catcher, because there are a few reasons Garver won’t be doing all that much catching in Seattle. First, there’s the injury component. I sneakily set the plate appearance minimum on my catcher wRC+ leaderboard to 300 to include Garver, who had just 344 plate appearances last year and has only reached 350 in a season once. His career injury history looks like an occupational health poster plastered in a workplace break room, with arrows pointing towards each body part.

Second, unlike other names on the catcher leaderboard like Murphy, Rutschman, and the brothers Contreras, Garver isn’t a plus defender at the position. He’s graded out below average by Statcast in each of framing, throwing, and blocking, and has been worth -9.7 runs per 1,000 innings behind the plate. Now, that number may be exaggerated by an atrocious 2018, his full big league season. Since then, his defense sits at a more palatable -4.2 runs/1,000. If Garver cost his team four or nine runs a year from being a statue in the field, it’d probably still be worth it thanks to his tremendous offensive skills for the position. But luckily, he doesn’t have to catch. The Mariners already have a capable starting catcher in Cal Raleigh, a gifted home run hitter with excellent framing skills. And after losing former reserve backstop Tom Murphy in free agency, they traded for the out-of-options Seby Zavala, who looks to have a secure roster spot despite limited offensive skills.

Last season, the Rangers employed this exact logic in their use of Garver, who made two-thirds of his appearances as a DH after a knee injury wiped out his April and May. Instead, they relied heavily on starter Jonah Heim, especially down the stretch — he caught 26 of his team’s final 29 regular season games. And when Heim had the day off, trade deadline acquisition Austin Hedges took over, even with a measly 24 wRC+. Despite only catching 567 innings, Hedges accrued the second-highest framing value in baseball, and fittingly joined 2014 José Molina as the only player in history with a positive WAR value despite hitting so poorly. The Heim/Hedges tandem left Garver to focus on his skills with the bat, where he thrived in his first season of regular DH duty. On the hitting leaderboard for designated hitters, Garver’s 2023 wRC+ ranked fourth behind Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper, and Marcell Ozuna – not bad company to have.

Garver will likely spend most of his time at DH with his new team as well, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he hardly ever dons catching gear with Mariners branding. In addition to the stable presence of Raleigh and Zavala, Garver fills a significant hole at the DH position that has gone unaddressed for the past half decade. Last season, 14 Mariners swung the stick as a designated hitter, led by the recently non-tendered Mike Ford and his 210 plate appearances. Other than a few rest days from other starting position players, the rest of the playing time was taken by players you really don’t want DHing for a contending team. In 2022, no one surpassed Carlos Santana’s 154 plate appearances at DH; before that, Luis Torrens supplemented catching duties with 59 games as a hitter only. Garver is certainly a welcome addition at a position that hasn’t had consistency since the days of Nelson Cruz in 2015-18.

Garver’s signing represents the Mariners’ first addition after an uninspiring (to say the least) beginning of the offseason. Jerry Dipoto’s October comments about building a roster to “win 54% of the time” weren’t the first time his high-turnover style of roster construction has come under fire, nor was it the first time that Mariners brass has created an absolute nightmare for their PR staff. Given those words, it wasn’t surprising when they spent the first month of the offseason trading players away in the name of “financial flexibility” and “sustainability.”

Garver’s is the first major league contract issued by the Mariners this winter; in fact, it’s Dipoto’s first multi-year hitter signing of his tenure heading up Seattle’s baseball operations group. But this one signing is far from enough to declare the team ready for another 88-win season. Let’s consider the changes they’ve made to their position player group thus far:

Seattle’s Offseason Offensive Carousel
Position 2023 2023 wRC+ 2024 2024 Steamer wRC+
Backup C Tom Murphy 140 Seby Zavala 65
3B Eugenio Suárez 102 Luis Urías 103
LF Jarred Kelenic 108 Cade Marlowe 79
RF Teoscar Hernández 105 Dominic Canzone 108
DH Mike Ford and co. 91* Mitch Garver 115
*wRC+ figure comes from all Mariners appearances at DH, not just Ford

Of these swaps, Garver is the only one that can be truly called an upgrade. Some – like Zavala’s capture of the backup catcher slot – appear to be the exact opposite, a clear step down in production (and salary). Perhaps more concerning is the outfield situation, where their current plans seem to have Marlowe and Canzone, with a combined 282 big league plate appearances, immediately taking over the corner spots. With the Juan Soto market closed until November and no big fish imminently available in trade, any immediate additions will have to come from the current crop of free agents, a group lacking in star power. Outside of Cody Bellinger, no unsigned outfielder projects to amass more than 2 WAR. And while the likes of Jorge Soler or Joc Pederson would be welcome additions to the lineup, they shouldn’t be your biggest moves the winter after reaching the cusp of the postseason.

With Garver’s contract on the books, the Mariners now sit within $12 million of their 2023 payroll figure, a number that Dipoto claims will increase in the coming season. But even with added cash to spend, it’ll be difficult for Seattle to make meaningful upgrades in needed areas, especially the outfield. The Mariners have their work cut out for them if they want to build for a successful season – however you define it. At the very least, though, Garver is a solid start.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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Mitchell Mooremember
4 months ago

The Mariners trade a 32 yr. old, league average third baseman under contract for but one more year at $12m/year to get younger and cheaper for a replacement level back up catcher so they don’t have to pay their solid back up catcher $4m/yr, then they sign a 33 yr. old bat only guy for 2/$24m. I have no idea of the concept here.

4 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

In a vacuum this signing makes sense, but taken in total with the rest of the offseason moves is puzzling.

They essentially traded Suarez and Kelenic for Luis Urias, Garver, and $14M in 2024 payroll reduction (considering the total salary ATL retained/took on after flipping Gonzales and White).

I suppose you could give them some credit for reducing payroll while finding roughly equivalent production. But given the team’s near miss from the playoffs, young up the middle core, and being a year removed from a league leading $80M profit, they should be trying to get better, not trying get cheaper and hoping to tread water.

The massive negative goodwill from the trades, Dipoto’s comments, and general perception in Seattle that ownership couldn’t care less if the team wins or loses probably will cost them more in profits than they are saving in expenses with this approach. Even with the changing status of ROOT Sports, a big signing or trade this offseason that got fans excited would probably have gotten a lot of people willing to pay the extra $15 a month for the channel, but everything they have done since the season ended has actively driven fans away.

Even the one bright spot that might have gotten a bit of excitement going, this signing, was quietly slipped in on Christmas Eve. The ineptitude to do the salary dump Kelenic/Gonzales trade at the beginning of Winter Meetings during the Seahawks mini-bye giving it the maximum possible local media coverage while the Garver signing broke on Christmas Eve after a Seahawks game, ensuring that it would slip quietly by is really quite impressive.

4 months ago
Reply to  68FC

I think outside of packing Kelenic with the Marco Gonzales and Evan White dead money, the moves make sense. Suarez is teetering towards the edge of the cliff, his power numbers declined a bit and he’s going to be 33. Maybe they could have eaten a few million and get a better return than Zavala/random AAA flamethrower, but maybe it wouldn’t have made a big difference either way. Marco and Evan are barely replacement level at best, and that’s if they’re healthy. I won’t miss them much. Kelenic is the only guy with some upside who seemed to take a big step forward in 2023, and when he was packed in to make the salary dump more palatable to the Braves (who already have a bunch of everything and then some!) I was pretty miffed because A) why not roll with him for one more year and see if he truly breaks out at age 24-25, or B) trade him in a separate deal to get a better return? The Urias trade and Garver signing do make sense regardless of context because they do fill the perpetually glaring needs at INF/DH, are projected to play league average ball or better, and don’t cost a ton of resources. The Mariners aren’t a large market team like LA or NYC, but they aren’t a small market club either. They will have years when they have to subtract something to add elsewhere, just like they have years when they straight up add talent. That said, I think last offseason bit them in the ass really bad. They did nothing to build upon their drought breaking run and instead chose to wimp out with Pollock, Wong, and La Stella projected to get significant playing time. At least the Teoscar Hernandez trade kind of worked!

4 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

Sorry, who is the solid backup catcher making $4M? Murphy had 201 PA in two seasons and earned 1.3 WAR over those years, and signed with SF for 2/$13M.

4 months ago
Reply to  Kyle Kishimoto

Thanks for the clarification.

Mitchell Mooremember
4 months ago
Reply to  vbjd1111

Murphy has accumulated nearly 6 fWAR in but 1000 back up PAs because he’s competent behind the plate and mashes lefties. And teammates/coaches love him. That’s worth $4m/yr in the short run to a team hoping to contend. Good backup catchers are as hard to find as good frontline catchers.

4 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

5.7 WAR to be precise, of which more than half came in one year (3.2 in 2019). He did not play in 2020, and he was the lead catcher in 2021. He earned 2.3 WAR over the last three years. He’s projected to earn 0.8 next year. He mashed everyone last year (140 wRC+) but had a 28% strikeout rate and is projected to be at 102 wRC+ next year. He has a history of injuries and he will be 34 this April. He is a heck of a guy and I enjoyed his tenure as a Mariner, but I’d rather spend the $3.25M elsewhere.

4 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

I like Suarez but there has to be real concern that he will not remain league average as his contact rates and batted ball stats diminished greatly last season. I hope the best for him, but fear he might fall off a cliff this coming season.

4 months ago
Reply to  TerryMc

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot and don’t really understand where it is coming from. His contact rates didn’t decline last year they were slightly up from 2022. His barrel rate was down a bit, but exit velo was up a bit. Really his underlying batted ball data has been fairly consistent since 2020. He overperformed a bit in 2022 and underperformed a bit in 2021 and 2023. He looks like a roughly league average hitter and most of this decline that everyone is focusing on is his HR/FB rate dropping in his second year in Seattle after somehow staying consistent with his time in Cincy in 2022.

4 months ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

It’s Jerry DiPoto. This is par for the course.