Following the suspension of Welington Castillo on May 24th, the Chicago White Sox appeared to be in dire straits regarding the catcher position. At the time, Omar Narvaez was hitting in the .160s and Kevan Smith was injured. Inexperienced call-up Alfredo Gonzalez wasn’t very inspiring either.
Smith’s recovery period ended soon after, setting up an epic battle between two star catchers on the South Side—Omar Narvaez vs. Kevan Smith.
In May, the above sentence could only be uttered sarcastically, but now in July can be said without fellow Sox fans questioning your sanity. While neither of the duo has produced enough to warrant “star” consideration, they both have exceeded expectations since Castillo’s suspension, playing like average or better MLB catchers. Moreover, the battle between the two could have serious repercussions on contending White Sox squads in the next few years. Given all that, it’s time to seriously dive into the fight between Kevan Smith and Omar Narvaez.
How do the two compare offensively? Through Sunday’s series against the Astros, the season numbers are intriguing. While both get on base at about the same clip, there’s large discrepancies between their average and slugging percentage.
Narvaez is slashing .280/.348/.392 after a scorching hot June, good for an OPS+ of 108 through 154 plate appearances. Smith, meanwhile, boasts a .321/.346/.346 line, equating to a 96 OPS+ through 81 PAs. In their careers, through a similar number of plate appearances, Narvaez sports a perfectly average 100 wRC+ while Smith is behind at a career wRC+ of 82.
All things considered, Narvaez appears to be a more valuable hitter. There’s a lot of intricacies within that statement, however.
First and foremost, both are young and haven’t played day in and day out at all in their three-year careers. Last year they shared the catchers’ responsibilities almost evenly (295 PAs to 294) and this year will presumably doing the same for the rest of the year. So it might take longer than usual for one of them to blossom, as that second or third season growth typical of many prospects can’t be applied because neither have attained that amount of playing time (591 career PAs for Narvaez and 391 for Smith).
Staring into the translucent crystal ball of the Sox’s future, Chicago could easily have to pick between this duo for the backup catching job. As a backup, they could provide extra value in pivotal pinch hitting moments, as you don’t often get pinch hitters with near-100 wRC+ clips. Narvaez may have a solid argument as the overall superior hitter, but Smith could make an argument that he’s a better clutch pinch hitter—because he hits better for average and therefore would be better at scoring a runner from second and third when absolutely necessary.
Still, if forced to pick based on offensive ability alone, I’d have to go with Narvaez. Does Smith make up for it elsewhere? Enter the convoluted, messed-up world of defensive sabermetrics which tells you…maybe.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the integral defensive aspect of catching is throwing out base-stealers. In that category, Narvaez is undoubtedly better. This season, the Venezuelan native has gunned down 23% of runners, a tick below the league average of 27%. Smith has retired just 1 of 18 base-stealers in 2018 for an abysmal 5% mark. Comparing career numbers reveals Narvaez still holds the edge, 21% to 12%.
Unconventional, or at least uber-modern, wisdom might lead you down other paths. Recently statistics have emerged detailing the impact of catcher framing, and this is where Smith gains ground on Narvaez.
Baseball Reference uses RszC to measure catcher framing, a stat that essentially values how many runs above or below average a catcher is worth based on pitch framing. Smith is at an even 0 for his career, while Narvaez is well behind at -10. Even adjusted for the innings difference, Smith is still clearly better.
Next, Smith also appears to be the superior fielder. He’s yielded just five passed balls and three errors in his time on the South Side, while Narvaez has surrended 17 passed balls and 10 errors behind the plate.
When you put it all together, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs agree that Smith is just better defensively. BR’s Rtot (Narvaez -17, Smith -6) and Fangraphs’ DRS (Narvaez -20, Smith -8), which both seek to quantify the total value of defenders in runs, support this conclusion.
Still, I believe that Narvaez’s offensive merit overshadows his defensive vulnerabilites. Looking to to the future, opposing teams can exploit poor-throwing catchers much more than they can poor-framing catchers. Over time, ballclubs will learn to run wild on Smith, something they haven’t done yet, as Narvaez has racked up more attempted steals per inning than Smith. In turn this could minimize Smith’s defensive importance.
Turning once again to statistics (because where else would you go?), my belief is verified. Narvaez has tallied a 2.2 career fWAR and 1.9 career bWAR to Smith’s 0.3 and 0.1 marks, respectively. Offense over defense, baby.
Yet Smith’s MLB power numbers are abnormally short of his minor league clips. While I remarked before that both have good chances of improving, Smith almost certainly has more room to grow.
So congratulations, Omar Narvaez, you are the lucky winner of the 2018 “Better White Sox Catcher” award. Your prize: The unnerving fear that you haven’t done enough and that Kevan Smith could still usurp you for your job.
Realistically, though, Narvaez should benefit from having a close competitor. So long as their rivalry doesn’t transcend their positive, team-first attitude, it’s a healthy competition.
Whether these two catchers are duking it out for a starting or backup spot in the future remains to be seen, but it’s certainly an impactful battle. In a season short on adrenaline-pumping, exciting baseball games, perhaps these two young backstops can provide some worthwhile entertainment down the stretch.