A Breath of Fresh Air for Mitch Garver

A look at Garver's injury-plagued 2020 and what to expect in 2021.

The shortened 2020 season was unfriendly to many players, but perhaps none more than Twins catcher Mitch Garver. After a power-crazy breakout in 2019, where he hit 31 home runs, turned in a 155 wRC+, and led the MLB in ISO (min 350 PA), Garver’s stock skyrocketed. Heading into the 2020 season, he held an average draft position inside the top 115 and was consistently being picked as a top-four catcher.

But as we prepare for the 2021 fantasy baseball season, Garver’s ADP has dropped out of the top 230 and has fallen to the 12th-ranked catcher. To add salt to the wound, Ryan Jeffers‘ 2020 success (.273/.355/.436) calls for concern over Garver’s playing time going forward.

I say we hit the brakes and instead entertain the idea that Garver is the perfect rebound candidate for 2021.

 

Hold Your Breath

 

Garver’s 2019 vs. 2020

 

Garver stunk in every way possible and, by wRC+, finished as the 14th worst hitter among those with at least 80 plate appearances. His batting average tanked and he lost all signs of the great power he displayed in 2019. Garver’s BABIP fell right in line with the league average (.294), and his expected stats were only marginally better.

 

Garver’s 2019 vs. 2020 xStats

 

The 2019 Silver Slugger whiffed and struck out at a career high. If we want to make this even uglier for Garver (we definitely do!), we should lower the qualifying plate appearances to all hitters who had roughly as many as Garver. Here are your leaders in strikeout rate.

 

2020 Strikeout Leaders (min 80 PA)

 

Garver’s 2019 saw him strikeout just 24.2% of the time, just 1.2% more than the league average. But this past season he struck out nearly twice as often, and although 81 PA is still an extremely small sample size to draw major conclusions, it is technically enough to provide a stable sample for strikeout rate.

The main driving factor in the rise in strikeouts comes from a gigantic hole in Garver’s bat. Garver swung at nearly the same rate as he did in 2019, but he whiffed at 15.6% more pitches. His swing/take statistics over the past two seasons look more similar to a David Fletcher vs Javier Baez comparison.

 

Garver’s Swing/Take 2019 vs. 2020

 

Plate discipline didn’t present much of an issue. The walk rate dipped slightly, but in what would still be considered an unstable sample for walk rate, and his O/Z-swing rates were nearly identical. The biggest problem was simply an inability to make contact.

What’s even more problematic is where in the zone Garver was whiffing the most. As we just saw, he wasn’t chasing out of the zone, so his largest increase in whiffs were in an effort to hit strikes. More specifically, strikes over the heart of the plate.

 

Mitch Garver 2019 Swing/Take Run Values; source: Baseballsavant.mlb.com

Mitch Garver 2020 Swing/Take Run Values; source: Baseballsavant.mlb.com

 

2019 Garver was a top-40 hitter in runs in the heart of the plate and total swing/take runs, but 2020 Garver was in the bottom 65 by the same statistics. Pitches over the heart are crucial for a power hitter. Over the past two seasons, the league has yielded a .605 and .582 xSLG against these pitches. In layman’s terms, these pitches provide a hitter with the most opportunity to hit with power. They are easy to crush! Garver’s failure to damage these pitches impacted both his power and overall offensive production.

A year ago, Garver held a .468 xwOBA against pitches in the heart, and he did a whole lot of this:

 

But in 2020, Garver mustered just a .295 xwOBA against similar located pitches, and traded in the taters for the walk of shame.

 

 

Time to Exhale

 

But this isn’t the crucifying of Mr. Garver; it’s the resurrection. For as much poor-hitting Garver showed us this season, there are some silver linings that are encouraging.  First, 81 plate appearances are nothing! C’mon, this was like a month and a half of PAs for him. It could have just been an early-season slump that would have been forgotten about a month later after a resurgence.

But you didn’t come here to read that, so here’s the data argument for Garver. To start, Garver’s contact was actually pretty solid. His barrel rate was nearly cut in half, which is never a positive, but still remained above the league average mark. Even better, Garver maintained the 50% hard hit rate that produced his power surge and put him in the top 4% of the league in 2019. And while his xwOBA still declined, his hard-hit rate trended in the right direction.

 

 

Garver hit the ball hard consistently and still put up a max exit velocity of 109.8 mph — nearly identical to his max EV in 2019.  If we take his hard contact one step further, by considering the effect of the batted ball’s launch angle, we can see how effective his hard contact truly is.

Fortunately, there is a stat for that! Dynamic hard-hit rate (DHH%), created by Connor Kurcon, attempts to quantify the true skill of a hitter in a way that’s a bit different than StatCast’s hard-hit rate. DHH% provides a hard-hit rate that changes as the launch angle changes and it correlates well with a hitter’s wOBAcon in the following year, which is great in the case of Garver.

Why? Because Garver saw an 8.8% increase in his DHH%, jumping from 19% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2020. For 2020, that is the same DHH% as Marcell Ozuna and is even slightly better than Juan Soto. Yes,  Garver fared better in DHH% than the hitters that produced a 179 wRC+ and 200 wRC+, respectively.

If we pair his evident power-ability with his consistent plate discipline, we begin to paint a picture of the perfect rebound candidate for 2021. Garver displayed plate discipline that, over time (like the course of a normal 162-game season), should be producing a much better BB/K ratio.

For three years in a row, Garver has posted a BB/K of at least 0.40, consistently above the league-average, but all of a sudden his BB/K in 2020 is 0.19. We know his Zone%, Chase%, and Swing% are all nearly identical, so something isn’t adding up. Garver’s past season doesn’t seem fair to me, and with the use of Alex Chamberlain’s tableau (pointed to me by the amazing Michael Ajeto), we begin to see Garver definitely got the short end of the stick.

 

Garver 2020 xStats

 

If you’re unfamiliar with these stats, they are pretty simple. Anything with a “d” at the beginning is the “deserved” version of that statistic. So although Garver actually struck out 45.7% of the time, it can be said that he deserved to strike out 13.4% of the time less than he actually did. He also deserved to walk more and deserved to find more barrels.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Everyone gets unlucky from time to time, what’s the big deal?” Well if we take every hitter in 2020 that had at least 35 batted-ball events, here’s where Garver stacks up.

 

Garver xStat Ranks (min 35 BBE)

 

Relative to his actual stats, Garver’s deserved stats say that he was definitely one of, if not THE, unluckiest hitters in 2020. For a hitter with pop, strikeouts can make or break you. Garver is not a hitter who strikes out half the time, and if we had ourselves a full season, we probably would have seen that level out. That is definitely a big deal.

 

Why All The Breathing References?

 

This is where my conspiracy theory begins. Well, not really a conspiracy, but rather some conjecture that’s being made based off of little statistical evidence. And it is: Garver was just hurt! If we go back to Aug. 20, Garver hit the IL with a right intercostal strain. It sidelined him for nearly a month.

Your intercostal muscles aid you in breathing. The relaxing and contracting of the muscles help pull the ribcage upward and outward when you breathe in, and downward and inward when you exhale. I can only imagine how painful it must be to breathe through an intercostal strain, but let’s apply this to baseball.

Hitting takes a ton of rotational force and the separation between a hitter’s upper and lower body places massive amounts of stress around the core (the rib cage). It’s probably safe to assume re-injury can easily occur through hitting if the muscles aren’t properly healed. It seems exactly like the kind of injury that can persist and bother a hitter if they resume activities too quickly. I have no clue whether or not Garver took enough time to heal properly and fully, but I think it’s perfectly plausible that in a season with just 60 regular-season games, a reigning Silver Slugger might want to get back to the field as soon as possible. Right?

If we take a look at all intercostal injuries reported since 2009 (both day-to-day and IL injuries), the average days missed for an intercostal injury is 22.31 days. The median days missed is 18. Garver missed 29 days with the injury. Of course, not all injuries are created equal and not all athletes recover from injuries at the same rate. But it’s safe to say that Garver’s injury was pretty serious and it begs me to raise question if we can see its impact in other areas of his 2020 season. Take his speed for example. Not that the 29-year-old catcher has ever been a speed demon, but Garver’s sprint speed this year was down by nearly a full foot per second.

 

Garver Sprint Speed Rankings

 

Maybe Garver is just slowing down as he creeps up on 30 or maybe he packed on a few extra pounds during quarantine. I don’t know. But I think it’s a fair assumption that an intercostal strain would hinder your ability to sprint, and if Garver came back from the IL a bit too soon, it’s reasonable to believe that it would also hurt his ability at the plate. It might just put a hole in his swing that doubles his strikeout rate and cripples his ability to damage pitches over the plate.

Mitch Garver is going to rebound in 2021 and he’s not even being drafted as a top-10 catcher. You best believe in the GarvSauce.

 

Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Kyle Horton

Kyle is a former Division 1 baseball player and Quinnipiac University alumni. Please follow him on Twitter @Hortonimo, he already told his mom that you did.

Account / Login
>