Did Dioner Navarro's 2013 Mean Something?

Dioner Navarro smacking a baseball, as he's known to do. - Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays don't need Dioner Navarro to recreate his 2013 production to justify his contract, but they need him to show flashes of what made him so effective as a Cub.

When the Blue Jays signed Dioner Navarro on Monday the reactions among Jays fans were mixed. Most were happy to see J.P. Arencibia go, but there was a fair amount of uncertainly as to whether Navarro was capable of handling a starting catching job given that he hasn't been a full time starter since 2009. Many thought that the Blue Jays were overpaying for Navarro based on the fact that he excelled at the plate in limited action last year. In 2013 Navarro produced a .300/.365/.492 line in 266 plate appearances. Among catchers with 250+ plate appearances Navarro's slugging percentage was 1st in the major leagues and his wOBA was second to Joe Mauer.

The concern is that there is no way Navarro will replicate those numbers and therefore this is a foolish signing. However, Navarro isn't getting paid to produce numbers like that again. Dioner Navarro is only 29, if teams were confident he could hit .300/.365/.492 as a starter going forward then his contract would be worth tens of millions not eight million. He doesn't need to repeat last year's results to be a capable starter who is worth his contract. Steamer projects a .251/.321/.398 line for Navarro with 1.7 WAR next year. That line would be just fine given what the Blue Jays are paying him and what they had in J.P. Arencibia.

However, to believe Steamer's projection you have to buy into at least some of the improvements Navarro displayed last year. After all between Dioner Navarro's All-Star season in 2008 (even then he was only a 2.2 WAR player) and last season his career numbers have looked like this:

Year

PA

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

WAR

2009

410

4.4%

12.4%

.104

.231

.218

.261

.322

-0.6

2010

142

8.5%

14.1%

.065

.223

.194

.270

.258

-0.4

2011

202

9.9%

17.3%

.131

.210

.193

.276

.324

-0.3

2012

73

2.7%

16.4%

.159

.321

.290

.306

.449

0.3

Total

827

6.3%

14.3%

.109

.233

.215

.270

.323

-0.9

That is pretty putrid. In fact, among catchers with 800 or more plate appearances Navarro had the 2nd worst WAR during this time period. The only guy who was worse was Jeff Mathis, and considering Jeff Mathis might have magical powers there is probably a fairly solid argument that Navarro was the worst. Overall it's not very encouraging to hear your team has signed the worst catcher of a fairly recent four year period.

However, in 2013 Navarro was fantastic with the bat. While hitters who break out in their late twenties are rare, the phenomenon is not unheard of. The Blue Jays have the two most obvious examples in recent history with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. I'm not comparing Navarro to those players and crowning him a bona fide stud, but at the same time I think it's unfair to just dismiss everything Navarro accomplished outright and label it a fluke. As a reminder this is what Dioner Navarro did in last season:

PA

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

WAR

266

8.6%

13.5%

.192

.307

.300

.365

.492

1.7

Looking at this line it is an interesting one to try and pick apart. When trying to figure out whether a performance is a fluke or real improvement the first place the eyes go is to the BABIP. On the surface Navarro's .307 BABIP in 2013 looks downright normal, but he is a notoriously slow runner who has had some trouble with pop ups in the past which has resulted in a career .273 BABIP. As a result, the .307 BABIP appears to be inflated, but not grossly so. The next thing I like to look at when evaluating changes in a player is walk and strikeout rates. Walks and strikeouts are hard to fake, and they stabilize early, so a significant change in either, even in a relatively small sample, could indicate something significant. Fluctuations in walk and strikeout numbers could be indicative of changes in aggressiveness or swinging more for power or contact. The problem here is that Dioner Navarro's walk and strikeout rates last year are almost exactly in line with his career averages.

Really the thing that stands out the most is his power. Navarro's .192 ISO is well above his career average of .120 and by far the best mark of his career. His 13 home runs were a career best with his second best being the nine home runs he hit in 2008 in 168 more plate appearances. One explanation that has been put forth for this increase in home runs is the conditions at Wrigley Field that favor hitters. However, according to ESPN park factors the Rogers Centre is easier to hit home runs in than the friendly confines (1.289 vs. 1.115 last season). The following picture shows Navarro's home run landing spots courtesy of the ESPN Home Run Tracker:

While this isn't an array of moonshots it doesn't look like Navarro is leaning on cheap dingers either. It's hard to see a home run of that bunch that wouldn't be gone in Toronto. According the ESPN home run tracker Dioner Navarro's home runs would leave an average of 21 MLB ballparks each. He did have three dubious home runs that would leave only 2, 5, and 9 parks respectively, but he also had five home runs that would be gone in any ballpark and two more than would leave the yard in 28 out of the MLB's 30 venues.

It's clear that Dioner Navarro was hitting the ball harder in 2013 than he ever had before. The question is how he was doing it. Looking deeper into the number it appeared that Navarro was doing something he's never really done before: mashing fastballs. Here is what Navarro did to "Hard" pitches (fastballs, cutters and sinkers) in 2013:

Dioner Navarro laid waste to fastballs in the strike zone last year. That isn't altogether uncommon, but the extent to which he did so was impressive. In the years between 2007 (the beginning of the PitchFx era) and 2012 Navarro's production against "Hard" pitches looked like this:

Not nearly as impressive. When we break out the charts the difference seems even more significant:

Time Period

AB

AVG

SLG

ISO

HR

BABIP

2007-2012

842

.265

.404

.139

23

.272

2013

150

.360

.620

.260

11

.350

Navarro hit almost half as many home runs on Hard pitches in a single year as he did during the majority of his career, including his best seasons. Measuring how a player does against a particular pitch is flawed because it only really looks at the end of the at-bat, but when Navarro put fastballs into play last year he destroyed them.

In particular, Navarro did much better than he had before against traditional four seam fastballs:

Time Period

Foul%

Whiff%

Line Drive%

Pop Up%

HR%

2007-2012

21.65%

5.53%

3.61%

2.65%

0.67%

2013

17.26%

7.95%

6.58%

1.10%

1.64%

It's never nice to see more whiffs, but that is consistent with a player selling out for power more often. The increase in line drives and home runs and decrease in foul balls and popups suggests to me that he is putting better wood on the heaters he's seeing. His career low popup rate (7.6% compared to a career 12.6%) really sticks out in his spray chart:

At the end of the day the sample size for Dioner Navarro's 2013 season is too small to say anything definitive. A lot of different things can happen in 266 plate appearances and Navarro's increased production may well be nothing more than a glorified hot streak. When in doubt it is always best to assume a player will perform around his career averages. The problem with the Navarro is that his career averages are the product of such lows and highs (comparative to the lows, it's not like he's ever been Miguel Cabrera) that it's hard to pin down what you are getting offensively.

I don't think that anyone truly believes that Dioner Navarro is the big time hitter he was last year. That doesn't mean that we should pretend like 2013 never happened. Navarro's 2013 production is definitely a massive outlier from what it is reasonable to expect from him. However, the man was on pace for 25-30 home runs over a full season having never cracked double digits before. It's hard to believe he isn't doing anything differently. Small things like Navarro controlling his pop up rate and perhaps doing a better job of catching up to the fastball could help him carry over some of his gains from last season into 2014.

When the Blue Jays signed Dioner Navarro they weren't counting on him being one of the top offensive catchers in the league. However, given that his defense is somewhat suspect he will have to produce something with the bat. Next year is unlikely to be a repeat of the previous year for Navarro, but I think he will show that 2013 isn't quite as much of a fluke as some people imagine. The Blue Jays are counting on it. Although they haven't bet too much on Navarro financially they have tabbed him as their starting catcher in a year where they have aspirations of competing. If 2013 means nothing and Navarro is more like the player we saw from 2009-2012 then the Blue Jays fans are going to have another punching bag to drive off of Twitter and out of town. I suspect we'll see a different story this time around.

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