Report From The Fort: Can Confidence Carry Garver To Success?
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA TodayA year ago, Garver was a fringe candidate for the backup catcher job that eventually went to Chris Gimenez. He was realistic about his chances at the time.
"I'm excited to get the opportunity," Garver told me last March. "If that means I've gotta be in Triple-A for the year, that's fine with me. I just want to improve my game and be ready when I get there."
Sure enough, that's about exactly how it went down. The Twins sent Garver to Rochester, and improve his game he did.
In the International League, the 26-year-old experienced a breakout of epic proportions, slashing .291/.387/.541 to rank second in OPS (min. 350 PA). The only superior IL producer was Philadelphia's Rhys Hoskins, who of course went on to bash 18 homers in 50 games for the Phillies and place fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
To what does Garver owe his sudden offensive elevation?
"I think it was just that confidence that kind of grew throughout spring training and then the early parts of last year," he said. "It carried over throughout the rest of the year."
Now, it's the team's confidence in him that is most conspicuous. The Twins let Gimenez walk during the offseason and didn't add anyone with significant big-league experience in his place. Garver rebuts the notion that the job is his – "By no means do I have a backup spot or a spot on this roster locked up" – but the reality is that he pretty much does, even with a .105 batting average thus far in Grapefruit play. And while the club's faith is both logical and commendable, it presents a key point of uncertainty for an offensive unit that is otherwise quite solidified.
Garver was called up to the majors in August last year and went on to make 52 plate appearances, batting just .192 with a .636 OPS. During his six weeks with the big-league club, he started only three games at catcher.
"When you’re in a playoff push, you’re not really going to throw a rookie behind the plate too often," he acknowledged.
Of course, he's still got his rookie status heading into 2018 and the Twins hope to be making a playoff push from the get-go. But you've got to take the leap sometime, and the team is ready to do so. With confidence.
A BETTER PLACE
Asked for an assessment of Garver's performance behind the plate this spring, you'll never guess what Paul Molitor led with.
"I think he's a lot more confident back there," the manager said. "You kind of watch him how he’s handling signal-calling and blocking and framing pitches. He watches [Jason] Castro. He’s learned a lot and he’s in a lot better place than he was even a year ago."
Garver started at catcher in Port Charlotte on Thursday, with Kyle Gibson on the mound. Developing rapport and gaining the confidence of his pitching staff is a key priority for the backstop, even more so than carrying over his strides at the plate from last year. And at a time where even the incumbent starter Castro is in learning mode with recent additions Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn, Garver's going through an intensive crash course this month.
Thursday's game represented his first time working with Gibson this spring, but the two do have history.
"When I got sent down he was the guy in Triple-A and I felt like I developed a pretty good relationship with him there," Gibson explained, adding that he also had a chance to work with Garver a bit when both were in the majors late in the season.
For what it's worth, the right-hander had his best outing of the spring Thursday, firing five innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts and no walks.
Garver is also well acquainted with another critical member of the Twins rotation. He and Jose Berrios worked together a few times at Triple-A early last season, and one of Garver's three starts at catcher in Minnesota came with Berrios on the mound. It happened to be Berrios' best performance of the second half: seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts against the White Sox on August 30th.
Those are the kinds of results that'll inspire confidence on both ends.
THE RIGHT STUFF?
As I mentioned on Wednesday's Nightly Wrap podcast, Garver is a pivotal piece of the Twins roster because of his defensive flexibility and right-handed bat.
In addition to catcher, he spent time at first base, left field and designated hitter with the club in 2017. The Twins have lefty-swinging starters at all those positions. If Garver can prove himself an asset against southpaws he has a chance to increase his own playing time and reduce the lineup's vulnerability versus tough left-handed pitchers.
Last year in Rochester, Garver was especially effective against opposite arms, slashing .290/.408/.530 with a disciplined plate approach evidenced by his 33-to-20 K/BB ratio in 120 appearances. And despite his lack of overall success in Minnesota, he did put up a .762 OPS against lefties, compared to .530 against righties.
This will be a decisive factor in Garver's ability to provide substantial value. The Twins can live with middling results against right-handed pitching so long as he keeps delivering the goods in platoon situations.
Fortunately, his history in that department should give him plenty of confidence.
ALL SYSTEMS GO
Coming off the best season of his career, with endorsements from rotation members and the full faith of an organization that's going all-in on him in a crucial role, Garver has every reason to be feeling as confident as ever.
Best of all, he's beyond confident in the group around him, especially after some of the late additions.
"You look around this locker room, we have a team that’s going to win a pennant," Garver said. "This is the team that’s gonna do it. So I’m really excited to be a part of it, we’ve really got a shot."
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