Francisco Álvarez Is Catching On

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — It would be an understatement to say that the Mets have had catching issues in recent years as they’ve cycled through aging free agents, but they finally have a homegrown solution at hand in Francisco Álvarez. The 21-year-old Venezuela native entered the season as the game’s top catching prospect, and while he lacked a clear path to playing time, a double whammy of injuries cleared the way. So far Álvarez has impressed while gaining the trust of the pitching staff’s veterans, including Max Scherzer. On Thursday afternoon, the three-time Cy Young winner and the rookie clicked for the former’s best start of the season. 

Scherzer completed seven innings for the second start in a row, and struck out a season-high nine hitters. The effort helped secure a 4-2 win that completed a three-game sweep of the Phillies and pulled the Mets (30-27) to within 3.5 games of the NL East-leading Braves (33-23), the closest they’ve been since May 1.

Leaning on his four-seam fastball more than usual, particularly with two strikes, Scherzer set season highs for whiffs (22) and CSW% (called strikes plus whiffs as a percentage of total pitches, 36%) as well as strikeouts. Fifteen of those whiffs came via his fastball, which generated a 49% CSW%. Afterwards, Scherzer cited his catcher’s game-calling as the key to his performance:

“I thought today, the most important thing was sequencing, I thought we were mixing up what we want to do, he’s great with it. He’s understanding how I think and pitch. 

“When you catch that rhythm, you kind of know how to keep turning through a lineup and how you’re going to face them the first time, the second time, the third time. I had good stuff, but I thought the sequencing was even better.”

Scherzer credited Álvarez with helping him get more comfortable with the PitchCom system, of which he was critical last year while adopting it with reservations. “I want Alvy to call the game, I don’t want to have to override him, I don’t want to have to call a pitch unless I really know it,” he said. “We’re not using any fingers. And that’s a big change for me, it’s so foreign just being on PitchCom. But working with him, we’re in a good rhythm.”

It took the better part of the first inning to establish that rhythm on Thursday, as one of Álvarez’s weaknesses was spotlighted. After yielding a one-out single to Trea Turner, Scherzer walked Bryce Harper, and when he threw a low-and-away fastball to Nick Castellanos on 1-2, Turner led the way on a double steal attempt. Álvarez’s throw sailed to the left of third baseman Brett Baty and into left field as Turner scored on the error; Harper took third, then came home on Castellanos’ sacrifice fly, putting the Mets in a 2-0 hole.

The steals were Álvarez’s 35th and 36th allowed this season, the NL’s third-highest total; he’s thrown out just five baserunners, for a success rate of 12%. By Statcast’s catcher throwing metrics, which control for the distance of the leadoff, runner speed, pitch location, pitcher and batter handedness, and more, Álvarez’s -2 Catcher Stealing Runs is tied for the major’s third-lowest mark. His average pop time of 1.94 seconds places him in the 67th percentile but is notably higher than the occasional sub-1.80 times noted in his prospect report, neutralizing his plus arm at least somewhat.

(So long as we’re peeking at defensive data, it’s worth noting that Álvarez’s blocking and framing have both scored well in the early going via Statcast; he’s one run above average in the former category, and three runs above in the latter. By FanGraphs’ framing data, he’s 4.9 runs above average, good for fourth in the majors, and by the framing-inclusive version of Defensive Runs Saved — which is not used in the calculation of bWAR — his six runs above average is tied for the major league lead.)

Beyond the throwing mishap, Álvarez didn’t have any further troubles behind the plate. Facing old friend Taijuan Walker, the Mets scratched out a run in the third inning on two walks and a Jeff McNeil single, then took the lead in the fourth on Mark Canha’s two-run homer, and added an insurance run in the sixth via Mark Vientos‘ sacrifice fly. Scherzer scattered four additional hits but didn’t walk another batter or allow another run after the first, and the bullpen — Jeff Brigham, Brooks Raley, and Drew Smith — preserved the lead and wrapped up the win.

Álvarez has caught three of Scherzer’s last four starts, a span during which he’s allowed just four runs (three earned) in 25 innings while looking like a future Hall of Famer who’s still got plenty of good innings remaining. That’s a big change from a few weeks ago, after physical woes and an ejection for using a foreign substance limited Scherzer to 6.1 innings in a 33-day span: 

Max Scherzer’s 2023 Starts
Date Opp IP H R ER BB K P Catcher SwStr% CSW%
3/30 @ MIA 6.0 4 3 3 2 6 91 Narváez 14.3% 29.7%
4/4 @ MIL 5.1 8 5 5 2 2 95 Nido 14.7% 28.4%
4/10 vs. SD 5.0 1 0 0 3 6 97 Nido 12.4% 27.8%
4/19 @ LAD 3.0 1 0 0 2 3 47 Álvarez 12.8% 29.8%
5/3 @ DET 3.1 8 6 6 1 3 75 Álvarez 14.7% 29.3%
5/14 @ WSH 5.0 2 1 1 2 6 83 Álvarez 19.3% 30.1%
5/21 vs. CLE 6.0 3 0 0 1 5 86 Sanchez 8.1% 20.9%
5/26 @ COL 7.0 6 1 1 0 8 102 Álvarez 19.6% 29.4%
6/1 vs. PHI 7.0 5 2 1 1 9 101 Álvarez 22.1% 35.6%

Álvarez has started 32 of the Mets’ first 57 games due to the injuries of Omar Narváez and Tomás Nido, which wasn’t what the team initially planned for the no. 13 prospect on our preseason Top 100 list. He was initially assigned to Triple-A Syracuse, where he played 45 games last year after a 67-game stint at Double-A Binghamton. Álvarez hit a combined .260/.374/.511 between the two stops last year, earning a five-game cup of coffee with the Mets as well as a spot on the postseason roster.

Given the abysmal .217/.264/.306 performance the Mets got from their catchers (mainly Nido and James McCann), and the lack of offense they received from righty designated hitter Darin Ruf, fans clamored for Álvarez to arrive in Queens even sooner than he did. It’s not hard to imagine that heeding those calls could have made the difference in a division race where the 101-win Mets and Braves were separated only by a head-to-head tiebreaker that forced New York to play a Wild Card Series (which it lost) while Atlanta received a first-round bye.

The Mets signed the 31-year-old Narváez to a two-year, $15 million deal this past winter, hoping he could mentor Álvarez while upgrading a perennial weak spot. Since 2018 — when Travis d’Arnaud tore his ulnar collateral ligament early in April — through the end of last season, the team’s catchers hit for just a 76 wRC+, tied for 23rd in the majors, and produced a meager 2.8 WAR, which ranked 25th. Wilson Ramos, whom the team signed to a two-year, $19 million free agent deal in December 2018, accounted for more than half of that WAR (1.5) in ’19 while hitting for a 106 wRC+, the only average-or-better performance by a Mets catcher with at least 120 PA in that five-season span.

Ramos’ 2020 decline prompted the ill-advised signing of McCann to a four-year, $40.6 million deal in December of that year. He netted just 0.9 WAR in the first two seasons of that contract before being traded to the Orioles for a player to be named later (Luis De La Cruz) in December, with the Mets eating $19 million of the $24 million remaining on his deal. McCann was limited to 53 games last year due to a fractured hamate and an oblique strain. That’s how Nido, whose only previous full season on a major league roster since 2017 was in the pandemic-shortened ’20 season, made a career-high 86 starts. He hit a meager .239/.276/.324 (74 wRC+) but was good for 7.2 framing runs by our metric, and six by that of Statcast, with an additional three runs above average in blocking and one in stolen base prevention via the latter source.

Narváez, who hit for just a 71 wRC+ last year but owns a career 101 mark and was worth 2.8 WAR as recently as 2021, was slated to start ahead of Nido, but he played just five games before suffering a medium-to-high-grade strain of his left calf and landing on the 60-day injured list, which led the Mets to summon Álvarez from Syracuse. While team officials had insisted during the spring that if Álvarez was in the majors, he would catch regularly, manager Buck Showalter didn’t seem to be in a hurry to write him into the lineup, telling reporters that the rookie would receive “some” playing time but making clear he was the understudy by saying, “It’s kind of like a backup quarterback that gets drafted out of college. Everybody knows he’s going to be a really good player, but the time he spends as a backup is very valuable too.” 

Álvarez started just two of the first seven games for which he was on the active roster; the Mets lost both while winning the other five, all started by Nido. But whether or not Showalter needed a nudge from above, Álvarez soon began getting more reps. From April 15 to the end of the month, he started nine games to Nido’s seven, though he hit just .194/.216/.278 in 51 plate appearances for April. Nido was even less productive at the plate, however, and after getting just one more start on May 5, he went on the IL with “dry eye syndrome” and an eye-watering .118/.148/.118 (-25) batting line in 55 PA himself. 

Since the beginning of May, Álvarez has started 22 of the team’s 30 games, with Michael Perez and Gary Sánchez each starting two games apiece to give him a breather; both have since departed, with the former back in Syracuse and the latter in San Diego. Nido, who made a late-inning cameo after being activated on May 25, only made his first start since returning on Wednesday night. The repetitions allowed Álvarez to settle in, and it paid off handsomely, as he hit .292/.363/.667 with seven homers in May, including five in an eight-game span from May 17–26. For the month, he led the team’s regulars in slugging percentage and placed second in homers behind Pete Alonso. Even with an 0-for-3 on Thursday, he’s batting .252/.308/.523 for a 129 wRC+, third on the team behind Alonso (141 wRC+) and Brandon Nimmo (131 wRC+). His total of eight homers is already the most by any 21-or-under catcher since Ivan Rodriguez in 1993.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Justin Verlander of Álvarez recently. “I think we all know the bat is going to be there. But the work he’s done behind the plate, and the work he’s done to get to know the pitchers, and the improvements he’s made already, it’s just a great sign for him as a future major leaguer.” Grizzled veterans such as Carlos Carrasco and David Robertson have sung his praises for his preparation and handling of the staff, while hitting coach Jeremy Barnes has commended his willingness to make adjustments to what had too often been an all-or-nothing approach. Notably, where Álvarez struck out 35.1% of the time in April, he’s trimmed that to 19.3% since, and where he didn’t have a single barrel in April, he’s barreled 13.6% of his batted balls since.

With Nido now back and Narváez in Syracuse on his rehab assignment, the Mets will soon face a catching crunch. Showalter said back in April that he would consider DHing Álvarez when he’s not catching, “if he shows he’s an offensive force up here,” which he has. That could be bad news for Vientos, who has hit just .192/.214/.308 in 28 PA while serving mainly as a platoon partner for lefty DH Daniel Vogelbach.

Showalter didn’t mention DH duty on Thursday when asked about the potential crowd of catchers, sounding as though he expected to carry all three. “I’m gonna make use of all of ’em,” he said. “Tomás had a good game last night behind the plate, got a base hit, I think we won’t forget he’s been a good catcher for us. Omar’s around the corner, but I kind of like where Francisco is. I’m not gonna box anybody out.”

All of which suggests that at the very least, the kid stays in the picture. While Álvarez is far from a finished product, he’s clearly a special one.

“He just has instincts. You can never teach instincts, you either have it or you don’t. He’s kind of got that it factor to him,” said Scherzer. “He just needs to continue to learn and continue to get experience, and he’ll continue to get better… As long as he has that attitude, and wants to get better every single day, he’s gonna be a great player.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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David Klein
11 months ago

The Mets clearly still have a self scouting problem as they brought in Narvaez to block Alvarez and gave Nido a two year deal and had Martino write that they think Alvarez needs looks of work defensively. They thought both Baty and Alvarez were bad defensively and Baty has been solid and Alvarez is a excellent pitch framer and blocker. No question both guys worked hard to improve but again the Mets missed the ball. There are still too many Alderson/Wilpon leftovers in the front office that the game passed by. Buck sure doesn’t seem to realize that Alvarez is one of the teams best hitters as he continues to hit him ninth and I’m worried that Narvaez’s return will cut into Alvarez’s playing time as Buck is gonna Buck. Alvarez has been great and I haven’t been so excited about a very young position player prospect since Wright nearly twenty years ago please don’t Met him up guys.

11 months ago
Reply to  David Klein

They also thought Pete Alonso was a liability at 1B

David Klein
11 months ago
Reply to  fartinyourface

And Amed Rosario was a elite defensive player.

11 months ago
Reply to  fartinyourface

They also signed like 12 different veterans over the years in various attempts to prevent Brandon Nimmo from playing

David Klein
11 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Jay Bruce come on down!