Help! I Can’t Stop Getting Hyperbolic About Mitch Garver!

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Before Ben Clemens puts together the official Top 50 Free Agents list, he posts a rough draft in Slack and asks for everyone’s opinion. I, personally, didn’t give him much in the way of feedback, because he’s a floating brain in a jar and I’m the guy who’s mostly interested in baseball as a conduit for making stupid jokes in headlines. As long as Shohei Ohtani is no. 1, I’m good. Beyond that, I trust Ben. He knows more than I do anyway.

With that said, I do want to share what little feedback I did offer, because I’ve been thinking about this for weeks: “I have no idea where Mitch Garver should go. I balked at him being as high as no. 18 and then immediately started talking myself into putting him closer to 10.” (Garver was 18th on the first list I saw; he migrated up a spot by the time it was published.)

So let’s do it. Let’s talk ourselves into Mitch Garver as a top-10 free agent.

First, let’s look at the scoreboard. How did Garver’s 2023 season stack up against some of the other top hitters in the class?

Top Free Agent Hitters in 2023
Name Age PA HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG WAR wRC+
Shohei Ohtani 28 599 44 15.2% 23.9% .304 .412 .654 6.6 180
Brandon Belt 35 404 19 15.1% 34.9% .254 .369 .490 2.3 138
Mitch Garver 32 344 19 12.8% 23.8% .270 .370 .500 2.1 138
J.D. Martinez 35 479 33 7.1% 31.1% .271 .321 .572 2.2 135
Cody Bellinger 27 556 26 7.2% 15.6% .307 .356 .525 4.1 134
Jorge Soler 31 580 36 11.4% 24.3% .250 .341 .512 1.9 126
Jeimer Candelario 29 576 22 9.2% 22.0% .251 .336 .471 3.3 117
Adam Duvall 34 353 21 6.2% 31.2% .247 .303 .531 1.9 116
Joc Pederson 31 425 15 13.4% 20.9% .235 .348 .416 0.6 111
Matt Chapman 30 581 17 10.7% 28.4% .240 .330 .424 3.5 110
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 29 592 24 5.6% 17.4% .261 .309 .463 2.1 106
Teoscar Hernández 30 678 26 5.6% 31.1% .258 .305 .435 1.8 105

Obviously Ohtani is his own species, and a few other players — Bellinger and Chapman most significantly — are going to get giant paychecks not just because of their bats, but because of their gloves. But in terms of who had the best offensive season among these players, Garver is in a virtual tie for second place with Belt and Martinez, both of whom are older, strike out more, and can’t play catcher.

(“Can Garver play catcher? Really?” I can hear you asking. And that’s a great question, but we’ll get to it later.)

Garver is a throwback. To, like, the early 2000s. He is an incredibly selective hitter who, when he makes contact, hits the stuffing out of the ball. Out of 293 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2023, Garver had the sixth-lowest O-Swing% and the 21st-lowest swing rate overall. When he makes contact, he makes good contact; Garver was 40th in wOBACON and 47th in xwOBACON. If you want to check Garver’s numbers for selective aggression based on Robert Orr’s work at Baseball Prospectus, he’s among the league leaders in SEAGER too.

What kind of contact does Garver make? Mostly in the air and to the pull side. In that same set of players last year, Garver had the 11th-lowest GB/FB ratio and the 25th-highest pull rate. On fly balls and line drives — i.e. balls in the air — Garver hit to the pull side 47% of the time, the third-highest mark in baseball (minimum 110 balls in the air).

If you hit the ball in the air, hard, and to the pull side, what’s going to happen? That’s right, lots of home runs. Garver played just 87 games, batted 344 times — a little more than half a season for a full-time starter — and hit 19 home runs. This is not a fluke. In similar playing time in 2019, Garver hit 31 home runs. Over his career, Garver has averaged one home run every 19.8 plate appearances, which is in the top 10% among active players with more than 1,000 career plate appearances. It’s a fraction off Nolan Arenado’s career pace, and better than (among others) Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Rafael Devers, and Salvador Perez.

So Garver hits tons of dingers, and he gets on base. (He would’ve been about 15th in the league in both walk rate and OBP if he had enough playing time to qualify.) He’ll turn 33 before Opening Day, but that still makes him younger than Belt, Martinez, and Duvall, and not that much older than Soler and Pederson.

Oh, and he doesn’t have serious platoon issues either. That’s usually the assumption for a power hitter who consistently plays no more than half the season. Sure enough, Garver crushes left-handed pitching. Last season, among players with at least 50 PA against lefties, Garver was 12th out of 333 in wRC+ and first in OBP. (By a huge margin, I might add: an even .500 to Aaron Hicks’ .446.)

But Garver faced a right-handed pitcher in 84 of his 87 games, and took three quarters of his plate appearances against righties. And he did just fine: .250/.326/.517, including all 19 of his home runs. That’s a wRC+ of 127, which would play just fine at DH.

Only Garver is a catcher. (I KNOW! WE’RE GETTING THERE!)

So why did Garver only play 87 games in 2023? Why has he never played more than 103 games in his seven-season big league career, or batted more than 359 times in a season?

Well, most recently he’s been backing up Jonah Heim, who’s really good. As much as I clearly like Garver, I would not start him over Heim. But even in his early days with Minnesota, Garver wasn’t an everyday player. The best he could do was the slightly bigger end of a time share with Ryan Jeffers or Jason Castro. Surely a top-10 free agent could make that job his own.

Now we can talk about whether Garver is a catcher.

Part of the story is injuries. Garver missed almost two months last year with a sprained knee. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but catching can be bad for your knees. It can also be bad for your back, groin, arm, core, and head, all of which Garver has injured at some point or another during the course of his career.

Eventually, most catchers get to a point where they just can’t physically hack the position anymore. Those who can hit move to a corner position or DH; those who don’t retire. Garver, luckily, would be a valuable player if he threw his mitt and face mask in the trash right now and never replaced them.

And nobody would miss his defense. Garver isn’t a great thrower; for his career, he’s caught just 19% of would-be basestealers, and routinely posts pop times over two seconds. His framing has been average at the very best, though he should get credit for improving over the years. His first full season in the majors, 2018, Garver bled nine defensive runs on framing alone, in less than 700 innings behind the plate.

The best you can hope for from Garver is basically what he did for the Rangers last year: Spell an established starter for 20 or 30 games a season, and DH the rest of the time. Maybe a team that’s wary about committing to a full-time free agent DH could teach Garver to play first, where he’s spent just 51 innings in his major league career.

In ancient Rome, a victorious general would be celebrated with a triumph, basically a big, fancy parade through the city. In some versions of the story, the general would be followed by a slave who would periodically whisper “memento mori” in his ear — “You’re only mortal.”

In an excitable moment, I came very close to convincing myself that Garver is somewhere between Christian Walker and Goldschmidt, and nobody realizes it yet. It would probably be good to have someone follow me around and ask, “Are you sure this isn’t the Millennial Ryan Doumit?” every so often.

Because Garver is either the poor man’s Goldschmidt or the modern man’s Doumit. Maybe both. Backup catchers who hit like this are so rare, Garver doesn’t really fit the category. He defies the crude taxonomy of ballplayers.

Kind of like Ohtani.

No. Stop this. You’re embarrassing yourself.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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tz
3 months ago

Anyone old enough to remember Cliff Johnson? 😉

Michaelmember
3 months ago
Reply to  tz

Bigly! Loved when that guy came up.