Rest for Success
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TodayThe catcher position is really difficult. Not only is the backstop responsible for calling a game with each day’s pitcher, but he gets beat up physically over a long baseball season. With all the responsibility placed on a catcher behind the plate, it’s understandable that hitting has been considered a luxury for catchers throughout most of MLB history. In 2019, Twins catcher Mitch Garver not only improved his defense immensely, but he had a monster season at the plate too.
How much did rest factor into his success?
His manager, Rocco Baldelli, recently pointed out. “One thing that we know and we’ve had some brief discussions with Alex (Avila) about it as well. We try to make sure that our guys feel good when they take the field. I think one thing that we haven’t done a lot in the game is take our catchers into consideration and actually think, ‘Hey, if these guys could actually feel their legs, maybe they’d be able to perform better.’”
He continued, “We don’t really think about it like that in baseball. We run our guys out there a lot, and I think we were able to see some of those benefits last year and the guys really showed up and stepped up and really seemed to come alive when given a day here and there. They’re able to recharge a little bit, take care of themselves.”
We’ll dive more into that in a bit, but first, let’s take you back in time just a bit to see where Mitch Garver’s career has come over the past six years.
Mitch Garver was the Twins 9th round draft pick in 2014 out of the University of New Mexico. He was a senior sign. He was touted as a bat-first (or to many, a bat-only) catcher and worked slowly up the minor league system. Twice Twins Daily named him the Twins minor league hitter of the year. He was recognized for his season in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and for his terrific 2017 season with the Rochester Red Wings during which he also made his MLB debut.
In 2018, he struggled behind the plate. He saw the pitch framing stats and noticed that he was one of the worst-ranked in all of baseball. He went to work, as has been well documented, with former Twins minor league catching coordinator Tanner Swanson. A new approach and set up behind the plate, and Garver made himself into a league average defensive catcher. That’s more impressive since the ‘average’ defensive catcher improved from 2018 to 2019 too.
But Garver also continued to work on his offense too. His focus was to swing at strikes, hit the ball in the air and pull the ball. As we all know well, it was a philosophy that worked. First, Garver knows the strike zone really well. He is one of the best in the league at not swinging at balls outside the strike zone. After hitting a respectable .268/.335/.414 (.749) with 19 doules and seven homers in 102 games in 2018, his first major-league season, he was incredible in 2019.
In 93 games, he hit .273/.365/.630 (.995) with 16 doubles and 31 home runs. For his efforts, he won his first of hopefully several Silver Slugger Awards for the best catcher in the American League.
Sure, maybe his college coach wasn’t surprised, but I think most diehard Garver fans were a little bit surprised at that level of success.
You’ll notice the 93 games played. First, remember that he went into the season as a backup to Jason Castro behind the plate. You may remember (and maybe you were one of them) who thought Garver should have even started the 2019 season in the minor leagues with Willians Astudillo the backup.
Can you imagine?
But back to the 93 games. Remember that gruesome injury to his ankle that he sustained while blocking the plate and keeping an Angels runner from tying the game in the ninth inning. The fear was that he could miss an extended period. Instead, he returned to game action after missing just 17 games. So hey, maybe if not for that, he may have played in another nine or ten games.
He played in 93 of the 145 games that he was on the Twins active roster in 2019 about 64%
In reality, he started 73 games behind the plate, just over 50% of games that he was on the active roster.
There’s no question that the rest helped and contributed mightily to his 2019 success. He was able to stay strong, with fresh legs. But if Mitch Garver starts behind the plate for just 50% of the Twins 60 game season, that would be surprising and disappointing.
Both Garver and Baldelli noted that they had not (as of Monday) had any conversation about playing time.
Baldelli siad, “I anticipate getting Mitch out there as much as we can. But again, Mitch is going to get his days off. Alex is going to get a fair amount of time out there as well. We’re going to get into a rotation.”
Wisely, Baldelli stopped short of giving any sort of estimate of games played. There are many variables in that, plus in this shortened 2020 season, there are COVID-19 concerns along with the regular injury and wear that a catcher’s body goes through.
That is a factor that Garver brought up as well. He pointed out the time off. ‘Obviously shutting down the body for a couple of months, then turning it back on. There’s weird things that can happen. You’ll see it across the league.“
But Garver simply wants to play as much as he can. Sure, he wants to play as much as he can, but he understands the bigger picture for himself and for the team. “Obviously everybody wants to play as much as they can. I’d like to play 40-45 games. I think that’s a pretty good number. Maybe even 50 games. That’s a nice number to get to. Obviously I’d like to get out there every chance I can to help contribute, but we’ll see how it goes. Everybody wants to get out there.”
Baldelli seemed to acknowledge that Garver has earned the spot and the playing time that comes from it.
“I think with the year that Mitch had, he’s definitely proven himself to be not just a capable catcher, but a really productive backstop. It was fun to watch that happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and say ‘Mitch is going to catch four out of five games, here we go.’ There’s a lot more that goes into it than that. We’ll feel it out starting on Day 1.”
Four out of five feels like a lot, doesn’t it. Over a 162 games season, that equates to about 130 starts. Few catchers do that, and with the success-with-rest in 2019, he doesn’t need to do that. That would be starting 48 out of 60 games behind the plate.
But what about two out of three? That’s 67%, an earned bump from his 50% rate in 2019. That particularly makes sense in a three-game series. Maybe he starts three games during four-game series, and maybe just one game during two-game series? But if Garver can make about 40 starts, veteran Alex Avila can stay fresh with about 20 starts. If Willians Astudillo is on the roster, maybe he gets into the final innings of some blowouts to make sure even a few innings of rest is available.
While Garver posted a .902 OPS, with 19 of his 31 homers against right-handers, he was even better facing lefties. He hit .321 with an OPS of 1.170 against southpaws and hit 12 of homers. Meanwhile, in 2019, Avila posted a .795 OPS with 14 of his 17 extra base hits against right-handers. No, I’m definitely not advocating a straight split that would mean very little playing time for Garver, but I am saying that they can be strategic about when Garver gets his days off.
And hey, if the Twins find themselves in a division or playoff race down the stretch, hopefully he will be strong enough to play a little more frequently.
But now it’s your turn. If you are in charge, how would you handle the Twins catching situation. In an ideal, while still-realistic world, how many games would you like to see Mitch Garver start?
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