The Brewers Found Their Grandal Replacement

On Monday, no other team non-tendered more players than the Brewers. In addition to the 10 free agents lost from their roster, the five players let go earlier this week add to the mass exodus from Milwaukee. Those 15 players accounted for 14 WAR in 2019. More than a third of those wins were accumulated by Yasmani Grandal, their All-Star catcher. The Brewers failed to bring him back on a long-term deal after he signed a four-year pact with the White Sox worth $73 million.

With plenty of holes on their roster and division-rivals gearing up for next year, the Brewers entered this offseason with plenty of work to do. Trading for Luis Urías and Eric Lauer was the first step towards rebuilding their roster. Now they have their replacement for Grandal in hand. Early Thursday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Mariners had struck an agreement to trade Omar Narváez to the Brewers. Greg Johns later reported the return from Milwaukee: RHP Adam Hill and the Brewers’ Competitive Balance draft pick (currently slotted in at 71 overall).

With the catching market rife with buyers and few quality catchers to be had, a number of teams moved quickly to secure a deal with a new backstop. Grandal, Travis d’Arnaud, Tyler Flowers, Yan Gomes, and Stephen Vogt all signed new deals or re-signed with their previous club in November, leaving the free agent market rather bare. With the Mariners basically telegraphing their intent to move Narváez this offseason, the only question was which contender would partner up.

Narváez was likely the only available catcher who could come close to replicating Grandal’s performance beside the plate. Among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2019, Narváez’s 119 wRC+ ranked fourth, two points behind Grandal. This offensive outburst didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere. He did post a 122 wRC+ in 2018 while splitting time behind the dish for the White Sox. But this season, Narváez’s power output truly exploded. He launched 22 home runs in 2019, more than doubling his previous combined professional total.

Some significant changes to his batted ball profile fueled his power breakout. He put over two-thirds of his balls in play in the air last year, a huge jump over his previous career norms. His fly-ball rate increased to over 40% and he continued to hit line drives. But despite all those lofted balls, his Statcast peripherals paint a curious picture. His average exit velocity sits in the 15th percentile and his hard hit rate is even lower. But despite his lack of hard contact, he managed to post a BABIP over .300. Like I showed with Luis Arráez earlier this year, Narváez has optimized his launch angle to make the most of his contact.

Flares hit between 70 mph and 80 mph have an expected wOBA around .672. If you don’t have much power in your swing, these are the types of batted balls that will maximize the contact you make. Narváez thrives by hitting tons of flares that drop in the middle of no man’s land between the infield and the outfielders.

That explains how he’s been able to post a batting average right around .275 for three years straight. But all those extra fly balls — along with the dragless ball — helped him maximize his home run per fly ball rate. Among all batters who hit at least 10 home runs in 2019, his average launch angle on his home runs sat in the 93rd percentile. When he lofted his fly balls with a little bit of oomph, they carried far enough to fly over the wall in right field.

With a good eye at the plate and the discipline to lay off bad pitches, his offensive profile has a strong foundation even if there’s some risk that his power regresses if the ball changes again. An offensively competent catcher is a rarity, particularly nowadays. The reason why the return for Narváez seems so light is related to his struggles behind the plate. He was rated one of the worst pitch framers in the majors last year and his ability to control the running game is below average. Going from one of the best pitch framers in the game in Grandal to one of the worst in Narváez will definitely have an effect on the Brewers pitching staff.

Catcher Framing Runs, 2019
Player FG Framing Runs Statcast Framing Runs BP Framing Runs
Yasmani Grandal 17.0 13.0 19.4
Omar Narváez -10.4 -5.0 -8.2

No matter which framing metric you prefer, going from Grandal to Narváez could cost the Brewers between 20-30 runs. Framing is a skill that can be taught, and the Mariners worked with Narváez to develop his receiving. But the improvements weren’t enough to make him even an average receiver. Now the Brewers take up that mantle, hoping to continue his development behind the plate.

For the Mariners, an offensively minded catcher was a luxury that didn’t fit their rebuilding plan. A poor receiver behind the plate was a liability for a young pitching staff that needs all the help they can get. With Tom Murphy and Austin Nola on the roster and Cal Raleigh quickly moving through the minors, the Mariners cashed in on Narváez’s bat to add more talent to an improving system.

In Hill, the Mariners get a former fourth-round pick who has been traded twice in the past year. The 6-foot-6 righty ranked 15th in the Brewers organization. Here’s Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report:

Hill is 88-91 touch 93 from a lower slot, so the fastball has a lot of tailing action. He’s got some mechanical funk and it takes hitters a bit to get comfortable the first time they see him. His changeup is his best secondary, it has late diving action and is used against left and right-handed hitters. The slider is closer to average but doesn’t always play like a viable pitch because Hill doesn’t locate it consistently. He’s a below-average athlete with a softer build, he’s mechanically inconsistent and his command wavers. I don’t think he’s a traditional starter, but because of the repertoire depth and unique mechanical look he should be a suitable reliever, possibly one who can get more than three outs at a time.

While Hill is an interesting project for the Mariners player development team, the draft pick could be more valuable. This year’s draft class appears to be rather deep and the Competitive Balance picks come with a slot value around $1 million. There is some risk since the draft pick isn’t an actualized player that can be projected, but the flexibility it gives the Mariners to choose the player they want to add to their system and the addition to their bonus pool makes up for that.

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Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Hm. A player who hits the ball about as hard as Jose Peraza, but who runs as fast as Pablo Sandoval, getting lucky by dropping flares in the gaps. Also, who is one of the worst defenders at the position that has to catch a ball on every pitch. And on top of that, he’ll continue to get great jumps in arbitration money as long as he keeps hitting homers, making him a great candidate for a non-tender as next year’s CJ Cron/Maikel Franco.

Jake makes about as strong a case as you could, but he’s one bad streak away from being John Hicks. He’s kind of terrifying, especially for a team that supposedly wants to win now.

dl80
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dl80

I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think the price was all that high. If he is good/decent for one year, it’s probably already worth it for the Brewers.

John Wick
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John Wick

Agreed — there are some obvious yellow flags with Narvaez, but they gave up a comp pick (the more valuable part of the return) and a marginal, low-ceiling prospect to plug a hole. Alternatives were signing someone like Jason Castro or Robinson Chirinos. I don’t mind them cashing in this price in prospects for Narvaez given those alternatives; he’s cheap and can form the strong side of a platoon with a defensive-minded catcher who hits LHP well.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I would have strongly preferred Castro or Chirinos, frankly. Neither of them are going to cost that much more than Narvaez, both of them are more than adequate hitters for the position, and both of them are so much better defensively.

John Wick
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John Wick

You could convince me on Castro as another lefty bat. Chirinos’ age scares me more than regression for Narváez. I’m sure Stearns had a good idea of what those two are asking for (at this point in the offseason) before making this trade. There’s value in solving this need now and being able to move on to other areas, and at the Brewers’ payroll levels, an extra million or two — and particularly an extra year of commitment — matter more than they might elsewhere.

Michael
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Michael

2007-2016 #71 pick in MLB draft:David Kopp, Jason Knapp, David Holmberg, Cartier Goodrum, Cory Mazzoni, Matt Reynolds, Chad Pindar, Andrew Morales, Tanner Rainey, Reggie Lawson.

Michael
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Michael

Greater than 95% chance the 71st pick will be a bust. Statistically speaking. 10 years of data shows that 60% of the top 5 picks of the first round will be busts. Picks are worth way less than people think.

frank
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frank

I agree with sadtrombone on almost everything said here, except “getting lucky by dropping flares in the gaps.” One of the points in the piece is that such flares are a product of launch angle and other skills Narvaez possesses.

What I would like to know is if this skill is sustainable, and how much we can expect it to carry over this year.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think the main point here was: Narvaez is rather productive right now and also is really, really close to being totally unplayable. He has quite literally, a narrow target he has to hit in terms of launch angle or he’s bad at everything. The cost is reasonable, but it’s still terrible value if he’s below replacement.

Brewtown_Kev
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Brewtown_Kev

I think your takes are generally quite reasonable, but in this case, I think you’re underrating Narvaez.

He’s entering his 5th major league season, and he’s put up positive WAR in all 4 of his seasons at about a 1.5 to 2 WAR/600PA rate, which means he’s been about an average player for all of his time in the major leagues. And this is using fWAR, which is unkind to him as compared to bWAR, where he’s about a 3 WAR/600 PA player over the past couple of seasons.

Although you can never say never, it seems pretty unlikely at this point, given his track record, that he’s suddenly going to devolve into a below replacement (negative WAR) player. He’s no All Star, but he plugs a hole and he happens to fit perfectly into a platoon with the guy the Brewers already have. Can’t ask for much better than that.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I sure hope you’re right but slow guys with no power and almost no defensive value are not the sorts of players you want on your team. It’s worth noting that the guy he’s been the last couple of years is not who he was when he broke into the league–back then, he was a functional catcher but didn’t have the same offensive ability. Even slightly changing that launch angle (or a team changing how they position their outfielders) is going to make him totally unplayable, given how his defense has collapsed. He has trouble even catching the ball, much less framing it or throwing out runners once he’s caught it.

Brewtown_Kev
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Brewtown_Kev

But you’re kind of picking on his weaknesses here, no? Slow? So is pretty much every catcher. And it really doesn’t matter what statcast says–the dude is a good hitter who’s made it work over multiple seasons.

Over the past three seasons, his 115 wRC+ is tied for the 2nd best (with W. Contreras and G. Sanchez) among all catchers with at least 750 PAs (a total of 38 players). First is Grandal, at 117.

His .362 OBP is 2nd in that group of 38 over the same time frame, behind Buster Posey’s .363. He’s top 10 in BB%, OPS, and BA, and has the 10th-lowest K%, leaving him tied for 2nd in BB/K ratio.

Maybe it could all fall apart because he doesn’t blow us away with his exit velocities, but since he’s been doing it for a few years now, I’d think teams would have figured him out by now if it were as simple as a defensive shift.

There’s no question that he’s no Grandal, but he’s just a step below Grandal as a hitter when you look at their actual results, and he’s just a step below Grandal–who is also quite bad– as a receiver, aside from the wide disparity in framing. He’s also 27—entering his prime—and comes with 3 years of control, where Grandal is 31 and will probably be declining before the end of his new deal.

Milwaukee definitely could have ponied up for Grandal, but they’re also never really going to swim with the big market fish in terms of free agent spending. They can make a splash signing or two, but they also have to make some under-the-radar moves to compete with the big boys. This looks like one of those under-the-radar moves that leaves room in the budget for a splash signing elsewhere.

gostros
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gostros

Grandal is a good framer

Dag Gummit
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Dag Gummit

I’ll say that I think you’re making some fair points. However, I’ll have to disagree with the basal assertion that Narvaez has “no power”. Does he have a high hard-hit rate? No, but hard contact isn’t everything associated with power. Power as a skill is a combination of hard contact and launch angle. Narvaez has demonstrated that he’s got strong skills in the latter and this shows up empirically in the Power metric (ISO). In addition, his offensive value isn’t even tied completely to his power. He has a very, very strong Eye skill.

His ISO ranks reasonably well among Catchers. Using split seasons of 2019 and 2018, we can see MLB Catchers with 300+ PA in either season sorted by ISO:
https://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=c&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=300&type=8&season=2019&month=0&season1=2018&ind=1&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&startdate=2018-01-01&enddate=2019-12-31&sort=12,d

On the list, Narvaez’s 2018 ISO of .154 ranks 36th out of the 57 qualified and his 2019 ISO of .182 ranks 22th. The average of the list comes out as .171 with a Standard Deviation of about .050. All this goes to show that it’s very, very reasonable to say Narvaez’s power among Catchers is average — a far cry from the “no power” assertion you made. Using a pool of all MLB players with the same set of restrictions above looks like the following:
https://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=300&type=8&season=2019&month=0&season1=2018&ind=1&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&startdate=2018-01-01&enddate=2019-12-31&sort=12,d

On that list, Narvaez’s 2018 ranks 360th out of 551 and his 2019 at 273rd. The average ISO is .187 range of ±1 Standard Deviation goes from .131 to .243. Now, while his 2018 Power seems a bit low-average, his 2019 his right around league average (among players good enough to get ≥300 PA). All of this to show, again, that Narvaez certainly does not have “no power”.

Other things we can see when looking at the tables is that Narvaez has had average-to-good BABIP skills despite his low-ish-to-weak Baserunning scores. This trait is, as demonstrated in the article, due to him having been able to optimize his launch angles. There is also, as mentioned, his strong Eye skill — his true bread and butter. Even if he were to lose his power and revert to the .060 ISO hitter he was in his first ~400 MLB PA, he’d *still* be right around a league average hitter. If that situation were to occur, would that make him a fantastically great hitter that balances out his iron-glove defense “skills”? No. He would, however, likely play a respectable role on an MLB roster as a part-time catcher (which he was at the time).

All of this has been to show that you’ve simply been too hard on your assessments and that the standards you’re trying to hold him to are too high. A slow, no power, bad gloved catcher is still rosterable in MLB so long as he can still take a BB better than league average — and Narvaez has demonstrated that he’s not a “no power” catcher and that extra addition is what takes him from “reasonable LH platoon catcher” to “MLB starting catcher who pairs with a glove-first backup really well”.

sgp2204
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sgp2204

“One of the points in the piece is that such flares are a product of launch angle and other skills Narvaez possesses.”

Is hitting the ball in the air softly really a “skill”?

Dag Gummit
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Dag Gummit

I interpreted that part as to be referring to Narvaez’s zone control skills.

Kevbot034
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Kevbot034

This seems overly pessimistic, given the other catchers in MLB at the moment.

archibaldyeats
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archibaldyeats

The Mariners pitchers started bailing on him as the season wore on…did not want to throw to him. Gained weight, focused solely on his batting…indifferent to getting better as a catcher. As an M’s fan, bon voyage Omar.