Narváez aims to get bat, glove on same page

Catcher made strides on defense in 2020 as offense waned

February 22nd, 2021

They met in Miami in mid-January, Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines and catcher . The latter was coming off an offensively challenged debut season in Milwaukee and the former was eager to spend a couple of full days talking about it and working in the cage.

First things first, however.

“Omar knows I love Cuban coffee,” Haines said, “so he had that ready for me.”

Once caffeinated, they got to work. While much has been made this winter of the importance for Haines and the Brewers to get back to MVP form, to reacclimate to Major League pitching after a year at home and to replace should Braun opt to call it a career, there is also the matter of getting production from the bat of Narváez.

When the Brewers acquired Narváez before last season from Seattle, he had a reputation as a solid hitter and a shaky defender. Instead, Narváez proved exactly the opposite.

Narváez rated as MLB’s best pitch-framer while posting a woeful .176/.294/.269 slash line. That’s not the player the Brewers expected, not after Narváez posted a .276/.361/.411 line in more than 1,200 big league plate appearances for the White Sox and Mariners in the four years before the trade.

In 2019 with the Mariners, Narváez’s 119 wRC+ ranked fourth-best among catchers who made at least 300 plate appearances, just behind Yasmani Grandal’s 121. In other words, Narváez was 19% above average at the position. In ’20 with the Brewers, his 60 wRC+ meant he was 40% below average.

Haines went to Miami looking for answers. It was a two-for-one trip, as he also spent time with outfielder .

“It’s different usually than how I see them in the season because they’re in their [game] preparation mode,” Haines said. “So I’ve always thought it has a lot of value. As many guys as I can see in an offseason, just kind of being ahead of it and being with him and discussing a little bit about last season, following up on some things we had discussed and also really looking ahead.

“How can we support him? How can we help him and making sure he agrees with what we have for him? I just think it kind of catapults you into Spring Training.”

Haines spent several days watching Narváez in the batting cage, providing feedback and dissecting video. Narváez doesn’t expect his swing to look different in 2021, but he has ideas about being in a better position -- mentally and physically -- to make louder contact. He admitted to being mentally drained when the ’20 season came to a close.

“I showed [Haines] all the adjustments I made in the offseason, and I think everything went well,” Narváez said. “Everything is showing up here, and, hopefully, it keeps showing up.”

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What does he think went wrong last year?

“I don’t know,” Narváez said. “Everything got out of control. To me, it feels like there’s no excuses. It was a short season; everyone talks about that. I feel like as a professional I cannot have excuses. It didn’t go well. I tried to learn from it and make adjustments for next year.”

That’s one factor working in Narváez’s favor: a full slate of 162 games.

“Regardless of what guys will say, the magnitude of it, the 60 games and trying to play catch-up and knowing those at-bats are running out on them, that played for the whole league,” Haines said. “I said it not about Omar, but about a lot of hitters I was watching, they're literally trying to have a good season with every swing they took. You can see it. And baseball cannot be played that way. It can't. If the game's ever sent us a reminder that it can't be played that way, it sent us a pretty strong one in 2020.”

Narváez has a backer in , a fellow Venezuelan who is now the Brewers’ longest-tenured player with Braun’s departure. Piña is back from last year’s right knee surgery and is expected to pair with Narváez behind the plate at the start of 2021.

They are part of a well-stocked catcher corps that also includes free agent pick-up and , plus prospects and .

“When Omar got here, the manager -- [Craig] Counsell -- and all the staff [asked] if I could help Narváez with his defense because he’s new and doesn’t know our pitching staff,” Piña said. “Narváez was my friend before he came here, so I talked to him the day they traded him and told him where he could improve. He took it very seriously. He put in the work. He always asked me what he could to do improve his defense and his framing. I’m proud.”

Narváez, too, focused on the positives.

“Everybody says it was a bad year for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like it. Offensively, yes, but on the defensive side it was a good year for me. I take a lot of pride in that. Everybody said the strong part of my game is hitting, but now I can say my defense is a strong part, too. I feel like I am getting better as a complete player, and I really take pride in it.”