In a way, last week’s Texas-Toronto series in Canada served as a microcosm of Mitch Garver’s career. In the series’ third game on Wednesday, Garver slugged a three-run homer as part of a 10-0 Texas win that aided their wild-card playoff position. Then on Thursday, Garver fouled a Kevin Gausman splitter off the top of his left foot and left the game for injury. Those two outcomes juxtaposed against one another define Garver’s last several seasons.
Garver burst onto the scene when he bopped 31 homers in just 93 games in 2019 with the Twins, helping that team set the all-time single-season, team home run record (307).
He hit .273/.365/.630 as part of a catching platoon with veteran Jason Castro and dealt with injuries to his ankle, heel, face, and hip at various points throughout the season. Garver’s .404 wOBA and 155 wRC+ were easily the best among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances.
Moreover, as a bat-first catcher who was a former 9th-round draft choice because of concerns about his defense behind the plate, Garver posted positive defense marks for the first time after adopting a one-knee down catching stance that enabled him to frame low pitches more effectively.
The Parade of Injuries
Heading into the 2020 season, Castro had left Minnesota in free agency, and Garver was locked in as a well-rounded primary catcher. That season, bad in so many ways for everyone, was a disaster for Garver. Just a couple of weeks into the season, Garver succumbed to an intercostal strain that would cost him time and nag the rest of the way while he produced a disappointing .167/.267/.264 line over 81 plate appearances.
That came with a 45.7% strikeout rate that was about double his career average, despite his 16% chase rate being the lowest of his career (and about 12.5 points better than the league average). The lack of reps with a condensed “spring” training and missed time with the injury wrecked any chance Garver had at finding his timing. While he maintained his discipline and was making good swing decisions, he just whiffed through what seemed like everything (39.6%, up from 24.5% in 2019).
Garver’s absence in 2020 opened the door for Ryan Jeffers, a former 2nd-round pick who was also seen as a bat-first, defensively limited backstop. Jeffers impressed with a 122 wRC+ over 62 PA, despite jumping to the majors with just 24 games above A-ball to his name and the pair entered 2021 in an unconventional right-right timeshare behind the plate for Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
Jeffers proved a bit overmatched offensively once exposed to major league pitching over a longer stretch in 2021 and hit .199/.270/.401 with a 36.9% strikeout rate on both sides of a mid-season option to AAA for a reset.
For his part, Garver rebounded to .256/.358/.517 (.372 wOBA, 139 wRC+) with 13 homers as he arrested his strikeouts down to 29.2% and whiffs down to 30.0%. Once again, Garver was among the best offensive catchers in the game – ranked 3rd by wRC+ among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances – but he was again besieged by injuries to his shoulder, knee, groin, wrist, and back that limited him to just 68 games.
That offseason, the Twins, who needed a shortstop at the time, decided Jeffers was their guy behind the plate and traded Garver to Texas for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and AA pitching prospect Ronny Henriquez. Garver started out slow for Texas in 2022, producing just 61 wRC+ in the season’s first month, but he started to heat up (177 wRC+) when the calendar flipped to May. Then a familiar story – an injury. This time it was a forearm strain that would eventually require surgery and knock him out for the season after just 54 games.
Garver’s rehab went well and he was on the Rangers opening day roster to begin this season. That was short-lived, though, as he was back on the injured list after just 6 games with a left knee sprain that kept him out of action until early June.
A Return to Form (And Health)
Since then though… finally… Garver has played in 71 games (his most since 2019) and once again started to mash. Over his last 282 PAs, Garver has hit .267/.367/.498 (.371 wOBA, 136 wRC+) with 15 homers. His overall seasonal 138 wRC+ leads all catchers and is tied with Bryce Harper and Kyle Tucker for 14th-best among all players with at least 200 plate appearances this season.
I just dragged you through a lot of Garver’s personal injury history point by point. In general, his last five seasons can be summed up like this: when he’s been healthy and playing regularly, he has hit the stuffing out of the ball. When he’s been injured (which he has been, A LOT) and working his way into form after injuries, he hasn’t.
You don’t come to Pitcher List for that kind of analysis, though. So, I’ll go deeper.
Patience is his Virtue
What stands out about Garver’s approach is his selective, bordering on passive, approach at the plate. He’s swung at 38.3% of the nearly 6,700 pitches he’s seen in his career, a rate that is roughly nine percentage points below the league average. Of the 687 hitters with more than 500 plate appearances in the Statcast era, Garver’s swing rate is the 15th-lowest, tied with such plate discipline luminaries as Matt Carpenter and Max Muncy.
A byproduct of that approach is that Garver doesn’t often chase out of the zone, as previously mentioned, and he’ll take more than his share of walks. His 18.7% career chase rate is about 10 percentage points lower than the league average and his 11.1% career walk rate is just shy of 3 points better than average. That selectivity and willingness to take a free pass have remained true, even through the production ups and downs and injury interruptions, in the context of the overall league:
While Garver remained one of the most selective hitters in the game, he did swing and chase slightly more often in small samples the past couple of seasons than he had in 2019. This year, Garver has arrested those trends, as you see above, and his strike zone judgment, per our metric, has been near the top of the scale and significantly improved over the past couple of seasons:
Contact has brought Production
Because of the lack of swing volume in Garver’s approach, he needs to be very productive when he does decide to cut it loose. Unsurprisingly, his overall seasonal numbers have generally tracked with his ability to make contact in the zone:
You can see from the table above that Garver’s contact and whiff rates this season are nearly on par with his breakout 2019 campaign for the first time since then. That renewed ability to put the ball in play, combined with his excellent swing decision-making, has enabled Garver to again be optimally productive on contact, as evidenced by his 8.6% barrel per plate appearance rate and .439 xwOBAcon mark.
Moreover, Garver is again punishing pitches over the heart of the plate, especially fastballs, in a way that he hasn’t since 2019:
Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Don’t chase. Get good pitches to hit. And then hit them hard on a line or in the air. That’s what Garver has been doing this season.
With the Rangers fighting for a playoff spot in the tough American League West division, and Garver’s newest catching timeshare partner Jonah Heim fighting through his own wrist injury that has sapped his offense in the second half, they’ll need every little bit of production from Mitch Garver. Fortunately, Garver is healthy for the first time in a long time and back to mashing opposing pitches once again.