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Twins Daily 2019 Awards: Most Improved Player

When the life blood of an organization with a strong belief in player development, it is crucial that players continue to develop, continue to improve. That improvement is needed to work through the minor league system, but it is especially important once a player gets to the big leagues.

For the Twins to have improved from 78 wins to 101 wins, it required individual improvements from several players. There were many solid candidates for 2019 Twins' Most Improved Player, but ultimately the runaway choice was second-year backstop Mitch Garver.
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today (graphics by Finn Pearson)
Yesterday, we handed out our award for the 2019 Twins Rookie of the Year to Luis Arraez. In 2018, that award was presented to catcher Mitch Garver. Garver is no stranger to Twins Daily awards. He was named our Minor League Hitter of the Year in 2014 and again in 2017.

After posting an OPS over 1.000 as a junior at the University of New Mexico, Garver went undrafted. He returned to the Lobos and put up a second great season. The Twins used their ninth-round pick (260th overall) to select Garver, their third catcher selected in that 2014 draft.

There were always concerns about his defensive abilities, but he worked hard and kept hitting. He earned his first big-league promotion in August of 2017. In 2018, he hit a solid .268/.335/.414 (.749) with 19 doubles, two triples and seven home runs in 335 plate appearances.

It was a very solid season for a rookie who spent most of that season as the team’s backup catcher. Turns out, it was just a building block. Garver went to work.

IMPROVEMENT AT THE PLATE

In 2019, Mitch Garver went from a backup, part-time catcher role to being the must-play catcher late in the season and in the playoffs. Garver was given plenty of time off throughout the season. That is one potential reason for his improvement. Another reason might just be the confidence shown in him by new manager Rocco Baldelli. While Garver would typically hit near the bottom of the lineup in 2018, he was a middle-of-the-order bat much of 2019. In addition, Garver was usually in the leadoff spot against left-handed pitching.

The results showed right away. He hit seven homers in 335 plate appearances in 2018. This year he hit his eighth home run on May 10th, within 75 plate appearances. I feel it important to point out that Garver had 359 plate appearances in 2019, just 24 more than he accumulated in 2018. He went from seven homers to 31 home runs. His batting average increased from .268 to .273, but his on-base percentage jumped from .335 to .365. His slugging percentage jumped from .414 to 630, and his OPS from .749 to .995. If you’re into wOBA, he went from .325 to .404. And, he did so while seeing his BABIP drop from .330 to .277 .In other words, it wasn’t based on luck at all.

It was a concerted effort. In a post-game interview with Marney Gellner on FSN, Garver said, “It’s something that I wanted to do with this season. I want to be a force in the lineup.”



He got more specific. He said he wanted to “focus on hitting it hard, pull side, in the air.”

Well, he hit the ball hard. His Average Exit Velocity of 91.1 mph ranked behind only Miguel Sano (94.4 mph) and Nelson Cruz (93.7 mph) on the Twins roster. He was 13th in MLB in Barrels per Plate Appearance (4th on Twins). In 2018, he pulled the ball 38.8% of the time. In 2019, he pulled the ball 51.3% of the time. His Line Drive percentage dropped from 22.5% to 13.7% Meanwhile, he increased his Fly Ball percentage from 37.7% to 47.3% It’s fair to say that Garver gave his hitting philosophy a lot of thought, developed a plan and he not only stuck to it, but he succeeded with it. He succeeded with a season that should result in the American League Silver Slugger Award for catchers.


IMPROVEMENT BEHIND THE PLATE

It isn’t as easy to see, but as much as Garver improved at the plate, he took huge strides forward behind the plate as well.

In 2018, according to FanGraphs, Garver’s DRS (Defensive Run Saves) was at -16.His FRM (Catcher Framing Runs Above Average) was at -9.2. Those are the kinds of numbers that create need for self-evaluation. Garver needed to improve, and he knew it.

During spring training, Twins Daily talked to Garver, and he was very upfront about his need to improve on defense.

“If I don’t fix things right now, I will not be in the game in two years, three years,” Garver says he told himself. “I won’t be a catcher anymore.”


Garver went to work with the help of Twins Minor League Catching Coordinator Tanner Swanson in the offseason. So, what did those defensive metrics look like in 2019?

DRS: 0
FRM: 0.8

From those numbers, it is fair to say that Garver has made himself into an average defensive catcher. And while ‘average’ may not be exciting, when you consider how far he came in just one season, it was a huge improvement. Coupled with his offense, average defense makes Garver extremely valuable.

Also something to consider, the bar for “average” is a moving target. Organizations much better understand the value of catcher defense. It has become more and more of a focus every year. In short, the “average” catcher has become a better catcher. So not only did Garver go from posting poor defensive metrics to average defensive metrics, but he moved up to the higher ‘average” level.And he did so without it effecting his throwing or blocking.


DESIRE TO IMPROVE

Garver has played with a chip on his shoulder going back to college when he was a walk-off. He wasn’t drafted after his junior year and became a “senior sign.” He was never considered a top prospect. People questioned his defense. And through it all, Garver was humble and kept on working.

Late in the season at Target Field, Twins Daily asked Twins manager Rocco Baldelli about the improvement he's seen from Garver, particularly behind the plate. Baldelli said, “I think he’s coming into his own in a lot of ways.”

The Twins rookie manager continued, “Experience matters behind the plate. It’s difficult to develop into a major-league player of any kind. There are challenges, but to develop into a major-league catcher. There are just so many more responsibilities that you have, and they're not even just personal responsibilities. You’re responsible for other people and what they’re doing out on the field. That’s tough for a lot of guys, but I think Mitch is certainly making huge strides in those areas. What we ask those guys to do behind the plate compared to what we ask everybody else to do, it’s kind of wild. Mitch has taken to it and he’s shown a very open willingness and desire to improve, whether it’s come to his flexibility and his body, or his receiving, or his game-calling, he spends a lot of time. He’s very diligent. I’ve been very happy with the work he’s put in this year.


LOOKING FORWARD

And as his college coach at New Mexico, Ray Birmingham, told us recently, that there just might be another level of improvement to come. “He has worked his butt off to get there, and he’s making an impact, and you haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s sure of himself now. He’s sure that he can do this now, and he will only continue to get better.”


OTHER CANDIDATES

While Garver was the runaway winner, as you can see from the results below that there were several strong candidates. After three seasons with very similar numbers, Max Kepler knocked 36 home runs, easily his best season. Jorge Polanco went from a solid start to his career to an All-Star Game starter. Miguel Sano showed great improvement midseason. He was struggling immensely while working on his swing. It took about a week, but after that, he took off. Tyler Duffey had been frequently up and down from the big leagues to Rochester over recent seasons and even began 2019 at AAA. He became one of the best, most dominant set-up men in the game in the season’s second half.


THE BALLOTS
Here’s a look at the ballots from our 17 voters.

Seth Stohs: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Max Kepler
Nick Nelson: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Max Kepler, 3) Tyler Duffey
John Bonnes: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Miguel Sano, 3) Max Kepler
Tom Froemming: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Jorge Polanco, 3) Miguel Sano
Cody Christie: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Max Kepler, 3) Jorge Polanco
Ted Schwerzler: 1) Miguel Sano, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Max Kepler
Steve Lein: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Miguel Sano
S.D. Buhr: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Max Kepler, 3) Jake Odorizzi
Matt Braun: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Miguel Sano
Cooper Carlson: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Max Kepler
Andrew Thares: 1) Miguel Sano, 2) Tyler Duffey, 3) Jake Odorizzi
JD Cameron: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Max Kepler, 3) Jorge Polanco
Matt Lenz: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Jorge Polanco, 3) Max Kepler
Nash Walker: 1) Jorge Polanco, 2) Miguel Sano, 3) Byron Buxton
Patrick Wozniak: 1) Mitch Garver, 2) Max Kepler, 3) Tyler Duffey
Thieres Rabelo: 1) Max Kepler, 2) Miguel Sano, 3) Jorge Polanco
Sabir Aden: 1) Tyler Duffey, 2) Miguel Sano, 3) Mitch Garver
AJ Condon: 1) Tyler Duffey, 2) Miguel Sano, 3) Max Kepler


POINTS
Mitch Garver: 38
Tyler Duffey: 20
Max Kepler: 19
Miguel Sano: 19
Jorge Polanco: 10
Jake Odorizzi: 2
Byron Buxton: 1

Do you agree with our pick? Who would be your choice for Most Improved Twin and why? How would your ballot look? Leave a comment and make your case.


Previous Twins Most Improved Player Award Winners

2015: Aaron Hicks
2016: Brian Dozier
2017: Byron Buxton
2018: Kyle Gibson

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20 Comments

Hicks, gone

Dozier declined and gone

Buxton injured again

Gibson E Coli hell

 

You all might want to rethink most improved player award. 

    • Oldgoat_MN, tarheeltwinsfan, the_brute_squad and 1 other like this

I agree Garver is the winner of this award for 2019. And he still can get better.

Since we're talking about catchers, I have a beef I want to ask if anyone else has an issue with. I noticed this year when throws were coming to home plate Garver and Castro still had their catchers masks on as they attempted to catch the ball. At least 3 times during the season I saw them totally whiff at a well thrown ball (or one wiht a normal bounce) when they had a play to make on the runner. Being old school, this drives me crazy as I say - take the mask off and catch the ball first.

 

I'm sure the reason is to protect the catcher's face from the runner coming home. But with the rules already in place to try to prevent runner/catcher collisions, I see little chance of a collision that would normally cause injury to the face. Otherwise, we should get the masks out for the infielders covering 2nd and 3rd base as well. 

 

Is anyone else on board with me on this?

    • tarheeltwinsfan and PDX Twin like this
Some odd comments here so far! A lot of deserving guys this year, with Garver leading the pack. I would have Sano just behind him. A year ago we didn't know what we would be getting from Sano and now he is in line for a mega contract. My ballot would go Garver, Sano, Duffy, Max
    • Seth Stohs and railmarshalljon like this

 

I agree Garver is the winner of this award for 2019. And he still can get better.

Since we're talking about catchers, I have a beef I want to ask if anyone else has an issue with. I noticed this year when throws were coming to home plate Garver and Castro still had their catchers masks on as they attempted to catch the ball. At least 3 times during the season I saw them totally whiff at a well thrown ball (or one wiht a normal bounce) when they had a play to make on the runner. Being old school, this drives me crazy as I say - take the mask off and catch the ball first.

 

I'm sure the reason is to protect the catcher's face from the runner coming home. But with the rules already in place to try to prevent runner/catcher collisions, I see little chance of a collision that would normally cause injury to the face. Otherwise, we should get the masks out for the infielders covering 2nd and 3rd base as well. 

 

Is anyone else on board with me on this?

As a former catcher that's how I was taught growing up playing the position...guessing those guys were as well coming up when plowing was still legal so I'm sure it's a small habit that will die hard, with the instruction possibly(?) not reflecting that rule change as well. 

Also, if they can catch 100 mph heaters and block 80-90 mph offspeed in the dirt from 60 feet away, I'm not worried about a majority of throws from the IF/OF. Even though they can't be plowed any longer, they still have to catch the ball and find the runner on a play at the plate. 

    • Oldgoat_MN and Huskertwin like this

Odorizzi dropped his ERA by almost a full run with his FIP dropping nearly as much. His K%-BB% goes from 13% to 19%. For old-school stat fans, his W-L record went from 7-10 to 15-7. He gained 1.7 fWAR. Yet he finished as the 6th Most Improved Player. Crazy thing is, the ranking seems about right.

 

    • Seth Stohs, birdwatcher, Twins33 and 2 others like this
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birdwatcher
Oct 16 2019 09:31 AM

It's hard to find players who were on the 25-man during the year who did NOT improve statistically in 2019 over 2018.

 

If MLB gave out a reward for the most improved field staff and development staff, the Twins would win it.

    • Riverbrian, Oldgoat_MN and Vanimal46 like this
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yarnivek1972
Oct 16 2019 11:49 AM
The Twins need to figure out how to get Garver’s bat in the lineup more. I think they can slightly increase his catching workload. It ranked 27th in MLB in 2019. Maybe another 100 innings, or roughly 12 games. But he needs to get time at first base. Especially since it seems probable that the Twins will go into the offseason without an established first baseman.

MItch Garver has long been a favorite prospect of mine and he has done nothing but hit in his professional baseball career. I think the Twins dwaddled too much in moving him along through the minors and have been too reluctant to use him at the major league level.  

I assumed Buxton would get more than a single vote... His 2018 was an epic disaster, and he showed this year he can hit MLB pitching better than league average.
    • diehardtwinsfan likes this

I assumed Buxton would get more than a single vote... His 2018 was an epic disaster, and he showed this year he can hit MLB pitching better than league average.

On a team that gained this many wins, there will be no shortage of "most improved" candidates. Buxton improved his hitting results, but there was another area where he didn't improve at all. :)

    • Vanimal46 likes this
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birdwatcher
Oct 16 2019 04:00 PM

Here are some fun facts that should make Garver's emergence seem even more remarkable:

 

49 catchers had plate appearances in 2019 who were drafted in an earlier round than Garver was. Only one of those players could possibly say he had a better season. JT Realmuto posted a 4.4 WAR compared to Garver's 4.0 WAR in b-ref, and he had about 200 more AB's. Garver's 156 OPS+ was decidedly better than Realmuto's 108 OPS+. Oh, and Garver didn't cost $5.9M, Sixto Sanchez, Will Stewart, Jorge Alfaro, and IFA slot money. 49 catchers, 16 first rounders and 19 2nd or 3rd rounders. But every one of them an earlier pick.

 

18 catchers were selected ahead of Garver in his 2013 draft class, 6 of them in the first 3 rounds. Garver was the 260th player selected in the draft that year.

 

 

 

    • railmarshalljon likes this

Several of these Twins had what could be described as career years in 2019. Rosario definitely had a career start. Whether this will be parlayed into success in 2020 is the question. Not for just the Twins, but for all but a select few in all of pro sports, every season quickly reveals its own identity. Off seasons usually mean hope for fans of a methodical improvement from the year before. The reality is no one, including the Twins, has a clue except for those select few in Major League Baseball. The permutations and combinations over 162 games are totally unpredictable.

    • birdwatcher likes this
Photo
birdwatcher
Oct 17 2019 07:53 AM

 

Several of these Twins had what could be described as career years in 2019. Rosario definitely had a career start. Whether this will be parlayed into success in 2020 is the question. Not for just the Twins, but for all but a select few in all of pro sports, every season quickly reveals its own identity. Off seasons usually mean hope for fans of a methodical improvement from the year before. The reality is no one, including the Twins, has a clue except for those select few in Major League Baseball. The permutations and combinations over 162 games are totally unpredictable.

 

So true, Harmon. I think we often forget about how much performance volatility players have year to year, especially pitchers. And even when things go mostly to plan, like they did for the Dodgers for example, performance is unpredictable in the postseason. All a FO can do is build enough depth and have enough dry powder (budget room) to go with a Plan B and even a Plan C like our favorite team the Yankees have done.

    • Riverbrian likes this

Comparing Garver to the other hitters in the entire league, Garver hit a home run in a full 10% of his at bats. The next highest was Trout at .096, followed by Nelson Cruz at .090. Alonso, who led the league with 53, only hit home runs in 8.9% of at bats.So, not only was Garver the most improved Twins player, but he was the most likely player in MLB to hit a home run in a given at bat. 

    • SQUIRREL and birdwatcher like this
Easy choice. He needs more at bats.
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the_brute_squad
Oct 18 2019 04:50 AM

 

Hicks, gone

Dozier declined and gone

Buxton injured again

Gibson E Coli hell

 

You all might want to rethink most improved player award. 

This award is the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated and Madden jinx!

Photo
Nine of twelve
Oct 19 2019 07:18 AM

I think Sano showed more improvement over 2018 than Garver. Slightly. I'd vote as follows:

1: Sano

1.1: Garver

3: Duffey

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diehardtwinsfan
Oct 19 2019 08:15 AM

 

I assumed Buxton would get more than a single vote... His 2018 was an epic disaster, and he showed this year he can hit MLB pitching better than league average.

 

I was thinking the same thing when I read this... Garver is the right answer, not disagreeing there, but I really expected to see a lot of votes for Buxton.

Hicks, gone
Dozier declined and gone
Buxton injured again
Gibson E Coli hell

You all might want to rethink most improved player award.

it’s like the cover or Madden Football

How could Dozier go downhill so quickly? Last year was a complete flop.He only has gotten 7 at bats in the playoffs with zero hits and 2 strikeouts.He is only 32.


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