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October 24, 2008
It seems like it took forever waiting for it to happen, but Dioner Navarro finally cranked out a full, productive season as the starting catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. Since Navarro was first handed the job all the way back in 2006, it's easy to forget that he is in the midst of just his age-24 season, and that he hasn't even hit his peak years yet. His production this season-his first as an All-Star-makes it look as if he's ready to enter his prime. What changed for the young catcher in 2008, and what can we expect from him going forward?
Dioner Faviau Navarro was signed by the Yankees as an undrafted amateur free agent back in 2000, when he was just 16 years old. The Venezuelan would get his professional start for the Gulf Coast League Yankees the next year, and hit well (.280/.345/.406), though that was in fewer than 150 at-bats. This performance was enough to get the attention of Baseball America, and they rated Navarro the 19th-best prospect in the Yankees organization heading into the 2002 season. Navarro was already a switch-hitter and was considered to be better from the right against left-handers. He wasn't yet driving the ball much, but as a catcher with defensive skills, that isn't always a necessity.
His time at Greensboro in the Sally League would not go nearly as well as his debut, with Navarro putting together a meager .238/.326/.360 line. The low batting average kept his numbers from looking solid, though there was nothing wrong with either his Isolated Patience or Isolated Power figures; his strikeout rates weren't absurdly high, and he just had problems making solid contact for base hits. Defensively, he was developing well, as he threw out 35 percent of baserunners for the second year in a row, thanks to what Baseball America called "a quick release and above-average arm." Heading into 2003 he was ranked 21st overall in the Yankee system among its prospects. His bat was coming along slowly, still projecting for but not showing any power, and he wasn't fulfilling the reputation of his nicknamesake, "Pudgito" (Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, a player that the five-foot, nine-inch Navarro shared both shape and defensive skills with) at the plate, but given his age that was not entirely unexpected.
The 2003 season in the Florida State League would change that, as Navarro exploded, hitting .299/.364/.467 with 23 extra-base hits over 197 at-bats before a promotion sent him to Double-A Trenton, where he would continue to pump out hits while hitting .341/.488/.471 overall. That second bit was clearly batting average-driven, as he walked little and posted a lower ISO than his time at the lower level, but it was still good to see him move up without falling on his face, especially since he was dealing with an inner thigh infection and a hand injury caused by a collision at the plate.
This performance made him the top prospect in the organization via Baseball America, and they rated him 41st overall in the minors. They may have been a little overanxious about his ability, comparing his switch-hitter swing from both sides of the plate to that of Roberto Alomar, despite the fact that he had only shown any power at one level. Baseball Prospectus 2004 was more on the money, stating:
Navarro's 2003 season has him all over the prospect lists, and as a catcher who hit .341 in the Eastern League and just turned 20, there's a lot to like. When you look deeper, though, you see some problems. Most of his offensive value is in his batting average; he doesn't walk a lot, although his strikeout-to-walk ratio is acceptable. His isolated power was OK given his age, but his power potential is limited by his size (his listed height of 5'10" is generous). He is almost certain to be less productive in 2004 than he was last year, so keep expectations down and see how the rest of his offense develops before buying into the hype.
A repeat at Trenton in 2004 showed us just what that comment meant, as Navarro hit .271/.354/.369 over 255 at-bats. His plate discipline had returned to that of his time at the lower levels, but his power output was the worst of his professional career, a far cry from the figures he had reached the year before. This was not a huge surprise (see the BP comment), as his production was largely dependent on an inflated batting average, though part of his problems seemed to be health-related. Navarro attempted to bulk up to add power over the offseason, but instead showed up overweight with a slower bat. The Yankees moved him to Triple-A Columbus (his production wasn't bad, just not top-prospect good) and he would hit .250/.316/.360, roughly the same production but with a lower batting average.
That would be the end of Navarro as a Yankee, as he would find himself traded to the Dodgers in a nesting set of deals that netted New York Randy Johnson, the Snakes Javier Vazquez and Shawn Green. Baseball America would rank Navarro 14th in the much more stacked Dodger system, saying that he needed to work on his game at Triple-A before coming to the big leagues; he still wasn't hitting for power and now faced questions about his conditioning. The Dodgers would send him to Triple-A, and Navarro would do all right for himself at Las Vegas with a .266/.366/.390 line. The power still wasn't there-doubly surprising, given he was in the PCL-and his batting average had yet to pick up, but he had improved slightly from his time at Triple-A Columbus the year before. Los Angeles would call Navarro up in July, and he would finish with 176 at-bats in the majors, hitting .273/.354/.375 with 21 punchouts and 20 walks. All in all, it was a solid debut in Dodger blue, and it was enough to get Navarro a shot at the starting catcher gig in 2006.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 noted the improvements, saying "Navarro's performance in his first extended taste of big-league action was a rare positive in the Dodgers' otherwise dismal season. Not only did he hit for average, he took a big leap forward in the plate discipline department, almost reaching the golden ratio of one unintentional walk for every ten PAs." He wasn't alone in the battle for catcher though, as Russell Martin, the fourth-best prospect in the organization, looked to be ready to give the majors a shot himself. Navarro won the job in spring training, and though his performance with the Dodgers was decent-.280/.372/.387 in 75 at-bats-the emergence of Martin made Navarro expendable. He was dealt to the (then) Devil Rays in the deal that brought the Dodgers Mark Hendrickson.
Once dealt, Navarro's production plummeted, as he hit just .244/.316/.342 the rest of the way. He had struggled mightily against right-handers, bringing back memories of his troubles in the minors from the left side of the plate. His paltry .245/.312/.349 showing against northpaws obscured his solid work against southpaws, a group he hit an impressive (for a catcher) .286/.403/.375 against. Navarro was going through a rough time in his life at this point as well, and part of his failure to hit was attributed to this. Baseball Prospectus 2007 pointed out that "Navarro didn't hit much after the trade, but he can be excused as, just days after he arrived in Tampa, his SUV-which also contained his wife and nine-year-old son, both of whom have survived serious illness in recent years-was rear-ended and flipped twice. Fortunately, Navarro and his family were unharmed."
His struggles at the plate would continue in 2007, and he would put together the least-productive season of his career at any level: .227/.286/.356 over 388 plate appearances, and just 30 extra-base hits on the season. That translated to just a .233 EqA, which is right around replacement level, and Navarro would need to get his act together before all memories of his previous promise had disappeared. Amazingly enough, Navarro did begin to hit well by putting together a line of .285/.340/.475 following the All-Star break, a solid run of production that improved significantly on his godawful .177/.238/.254 showing early in the year. Focusing on the silver lining, Baseball Prospectus 2008 said of this breakout that "It's hard to see him putting up an 815 OPS over the course of a season, but it's easy to see him being productive enough to be in the middle of the pack among starting catchers."
PECOTA didn't agree, giving Navarro poor numbers at every level except for his 90th-percentile forecast; his 75th percentile gave him a .268 EqA, just a tick above league average. Navarro did manage to keep things going in 2008, however, though he did see a dip in his power. He hit .295/.349/.407, mostly due to right-handers not getting him out as easily as much as they had in the past; he hit .308/.361/.406 from the left side, and .257/.314/.413 from the right; considering he's normally better against southpaws, a repeat against right-handers next year with his normal numbers from the right would make for an even more impressive campaign in the future.
The inability to hit from both sides of the plate had made his use as a switch-hitter problematic, but if he really has overcome those issues, Navarro is capable of being one of the better catchers in the American League on a consistent basis. He's only in his age-24 season, and seems to have cleared the hurdles that his youth, inexperience, and personal life had set before him. He's easily the best catcher in Rays history, though that's not saying very much considering who their team has had to trot out in the past. Going forward, catcher should be a bright spot on the roster though, as Navarro and the Rays attempt to reverse their previous fortunes beginning with this year's World Series appearance.-Marc Normandin
The 24-year-old Navarro has seemingly found a home in Tampa Bay following stints in the Yankees and Dodgers organizations. In the 2008 regular season, he made it into 120 games, putting together a .295/.349/.407 line, with 27 doubles and seven home runs. The average catcher in the American League hit .258/.322/.393; Navi was right in line with the slugging percentage, but well above average in the batting average and on-base percentage categories. This year, he showed marked improvements on offense, as his .269 EqA and 6.6 WARP1 were both significantly higher than the .233 EqA and 1.6 WARP1 of 2007, making him a very valuable catcher on the offensive side of the game, and that's before even getting into his contributions on defense.
Navarro produced a walk rate identical to a year ago, but cut his strikeout rate from 17.3 percent to 11.5 percent. A primary reason for this improvement is that he swung at pitches out of the zone less often than he had last season, simultaneously increasing his contact rate on pitches out of the zone from 57.8 to 71.7 percent. Not only was he swinging at poor pitches less often, but when he did he made contact almost three-fourths of the time. Overall, his entire swing percentage dropped, and his rate of contact on all pitches rose from 83.8 to 88.9 percent. In short, Navarro became more patient, but was also able to get his bat on the ball much more often.
When these balls were put in play, they generally were not bouncing their way to the warning track, as his .112 ISO was actually lower than his .129 mark from 2007, but his power output was still above average for a catcher. Dioner's BABIP saw a significant improvement, skyrocketing from .253 to .321, a huge reason why he jumped from .256/.286/.356 to .295/.349/.407. One potential reason for the higher BABIP is his shift in the kinds of balls he was putting into play. In 2007, he hit line drives 17 percent of the time, with 41.8 percent landing grounders and 41.2 percent going for fly balls, essentially an even split between his fly balls and grounders. This year, however, he hit line drives 23.5 percent of the time, and also improved his total of grounders to 46.4 percent of the time; naturally, this had the effect of reducing his fly-ball rate to just 30.1 percent. The drop-off in fly balls, coupled with an almost identical HR/FB percentage, resulted in the slight decline from nine home runs to just seven, in about the same amount of playing time both years.
Navarro's defense is extremely solid, making him an even more valuable commodity for his age. Using Clay Cavenport's Fielding Runs metrics, his defensive rate was 118; for every 100 games, he was 18 runs above average behind the plate, and with some statistical normalization, his adjusted rate rises to 123. The numbers may be meaningless on their own, but for reference, Joe Mauer's rate was 104 this season, and he has never been higher than 118 in his career. Based on scouting reports and the general consensus, Mauer is widely believed to be the best defensive catcher in the league.
PECOTA sees some significant upside for Navarro in the years to come, with his WARP either rising or staying in the same higher range until 2011, when he will be 28 years old. He defied PECOTA this season, and his projection moving forward should shift upwards as a result; if he can sustain or improve upon his stellar defense, there is no reason why he could not continue to find himself participating in the Midsummer Classic. Starting against a Phillies team that is historically the best ever at stealing bases, while many analysts predicted that the running game would loom large in this Fall Classic, that's not if Navi has anything to say about it from behind the plate.-Eric Seidman
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.