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Drayer: Mariners’ catchers a bright spot in step-back season

Mariners catcher Omar Narváez has nine home runs this season. (AP)

In a season where the priority is to learn more about, and ultimately help, better key players who the Mariners have acquired to be a part of their long term future, this month has been a good one. Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana have showed improvement in the outfield and both have hit well, with Smith recording a hit in every game played in June to the tune of a .309/.356/.426/.792 slash and Santana enjoying his season longest hitting streak at 8 games with a line of .306/.375/.510/.885.

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After hitting just .187/.288/.429/.717 in May, Daniel Vogelbach has bounced back with a .366/.490/.561/1.051 performance in June while also displaying a steadier performance at first base (with increased opportunity to play there as the team looks to give Edwin Encarnación a bit of a break). And while they haven’t put up the big numbers with the bats, both Shed Long and Dylan Moore have each had key hits and at bats that have helped the team. Moore has displayed that he can be an everyday backup at shortstop and Long looks like he has made improvements at second base and is well-suited for the challenge of playing both the infield and outfield.

As for the catchers? This appears to be a win for the Mariners with the duo of Omar Narváez and Tom Murphy currently ranking first in baseball in offensive WAR and fourth in overall WAR, making good impressions from day one while earning high marks for their continuing development.

“I’m really happy with them,” Scott Servais said recently. “I think they work well together. It’s a nice tandem to have and when they are hitting the way they are, it’s great.”

Narváez is currently matching his 2018 numbers with the White Sox, hitting .274/.352/..446/.799, but showing more and somewhat unexpected power having already matched his career high in home runs.

“We knew Omar was going to be a pretty good offensive player and he continues to get better and change things,” said Servais. “He’s got a good approach — early in the count, he is looking to do damage. Later he will shorten up and look to put the ball in play and it works for him.”

The improvement at the plate with Murphy is more dramatic, with him eclipsing what he has done in parts of five big league seasons with the Rockies by putting up numbers far closer to what he did in the minors — he’s currently hitting 289/.314/.590/.904 and has homered five times in his last five games. On his arrival to the Mariners on Opening Day, Murphy made it a priority to seek out hitting coach Tim Laker, who had a reputation around baseball thanks to success with players like J.D. Martinez. Servais credits that work with the increase in numbers from his number two catcher.

“Murphy has done a lot of tinkering in the cage with Tim Laker to make adjustments with his swing, and it’s paying off,” Servais said. “I like the tandem. We’re really happy with it.”

Behind the plate, the two have different strengths and weaknesses defensively. Both are graded daily on their performances and the improvements are coming, according to Servais, despite some unique challenges.

“We’ve had a lot of turnover with our pitching so it has been very challenging for those guys,” he pointed out. “When you are catching guys that you have no history with, or that trying new things or are trying to add new pitches, its pretty challenging. You are not in any rhythm with anyone, you don’t know what to expect and that’s not fun.”

Both catchers are active in the game-planning sessions, sharing prior experience and what they have seen behind the plate with the coaches and analytics staff. Servais and staff look to continue to develop the catchers in how they think, how they understand the Mariners pitching process, and ultimately how they call their games.

“They are doing well,” said Servais. “They have got a lot of questions and that’s good. They are wanting to seek answers and do the right thing. You are just giving them information and different choices where to go. Once and awhile they look over for help, sometimes we give it to them, sometimes we just point right back at them. Go ahead. That’s how you learn in this game.”

The Mariners are utilizing Narváez and Murphy more and more as a tandem rather than a number one and backup combo. They are looking to get Murphy, who has been Mike Leake’s personal catcher, more experience with the other starters while taking advantage of the ability to platoon the two, with Narváez hitting from the left side and Murphy the right. If the two continue to display what they have in the first two-and-a-half months of the season, with Narváez under club control through the 2022 season and Murphy the 2023 season, catcher may not be something the Mariners need to worry about for some time.

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