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.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.
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?
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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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