The Cactus League is running wild on Kevan Smith

Throwing issues won't help in battle for backup catcher job

On this week’s Sox Machine Podcast, everybody picked Omar Narvaez to beat out Kevan Smith for the privilege of backing up Welington Castillo. Handedness is the obvious reason, as the lefty Narvaez compliments the righty Castillo, who was especially productive against lefties.

But for due diligence, I took a glance at the numbers to see if anything could have tilted the scales in Smith’s favor, since he and Narvaez entered the spring at about the same level.

Sometimes you can surmise managerial preferences from playing time …

  • Narvaez: 27 PA
  • Smith: 24 PA

… but nothing’s there. Sometimes players can force the issue with performance, the way an impressive spring helped Smith in his fight back on the 40-man roster last season …

  • Narvaez: .273/.407/.273
  • Smith: .273/.333/.318

… but those performances are very Narvaez- and Smith-like for small samples. Given that they’re catchers, maybe one is logging more time than the other behind the plate …

  • Narvaez: 49.1 innings
  • Smith: 51 innings

… but there’s still little separation to be seen.

You can finally distinguish them by parsing the defensive numbers. When it comes to passed balls, and wild pitches, Smith’s performance is better than all catchers, Narvaez included (with passed balls/wild pitches itemized):

  • Smith: 2 (1/1)
  • Narvaez: 5 (0/5)

For additional context:

  • Welington Castillo: 6 (0/6) over 48 innings
  • Seby Zavala: 4 (0/4) over 30 innings
  • Zack Collins: 5 (1/4) over 27 innings

So that’s a point in Smith’s favor. What about the other main category for catchers? How many runners did they cut down in how many chances?

  • Narvaez: Two kills
  • Smith: Three kills

Yes, but that’s only half of what I asked for, Smith fan. Again, how many chances?

  • Narvaez: Five attempts

    /looks down
    /kicks ground
    /mumbles
  • Smith: 16 attempts

Sixteen attempts is a lot! Even if you didn’t anticipate great things from Smith. I mean, one would expect teams to run on the White Sox because they did so last season. Smith was a little worse than Narvaez in this area, but not dramatically so for one season:

Starts Innings SB CS CS-PO
Narvaez 75 648.1 52 16 13
Smith 70 622.2 56 8 7

(The last column is the number of runners the catchers killed themselves.)

This spring, teams are running on Narvaez as frequently as they did last season, and he’s holding his ground. However, if you were to extrapolate the rate of runners Smith is facing this spring so it applied to his workload from last season, he’d face 195 stolen base attempts, which is obscene.

Going through the game logs, those 13 steals happened while working with nine different pitchers. If you want to try to cushion his reputation, Smith was victimized for three stolen bases during one ugly Thyago Vieira outing, and three more across two Lucas Giolito starts. Narvaez hasn’t yet caught either of them.

We don’t know much about Vieira because they don’t seem to itemize stolen bases by pitcher in the minor leagues, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a struggling rookie fireballer lost control of the basepaths. The problem is that you can eliminate the Vieira game and the numbers remain ugly.

Plus, Giolito is a different matter. We saw him last season, and while it seems like he should be easy to run on, baserunners were only successful on two of six attempts last year. One of the successes was a Buster Posey swipe of home on a double-steal brain fart, although the Sox evened that column by thwarting Kansas City’s double-steal attempt on the same battery.

If you’re looking for a traditional out at second base by a catcher, Smith has indeed gunned down a runner with Giolito pitching before.

When the Angels went 2-for-2 against Giolito and Smith last Thursday, they stole a base on each. Kaleb Cowart swiped second with a great jump on Giolito. Eric Young spun his wheels, but Smith’s throw was both late and to the shortstop side of second. I could GIF more, but it’d belabor the point. Baseball Prospectus said he was already the easiest catcher to run on last year on according to Swipe Rate Above Average, and Statcast now itemizes his pop times and arm strength. Accuracy isn’t in his favor, either.

Smith has been throwing from his knees this spring, which I’d guess is an attempt at improving one of these categories. It’s resulted in one of the kills, but it hasn’t changed how quickly teams have picked up on the scouting reports.

Smith has Narvaez beat handily as a framer, and the Sox might like his game-calling and pitcher management skills. However, if this spring is any indication, his throwing is about to blow up on him. Should Carson Fulmer land the fifth starter job — and we’ll find out more about that later today — then the Sox will have a rotation full of righties that won’t make a catcher’s job any easier.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Patrick Nolan

Kevan Smith: Squatting Green Light.

35Shields

It’s pretty hard to make a case for him vs Narvaez for backup:
– He doesn’t have youth on his side (29 vs. 26 years old)
– He doesn’t have the platoon advantage on his side
– He has no standout tools (Narvaez has solid on-base skills)
– Even in the areas where he is better than Narvaez, he’s still not very good. He has more power but his ISO is still an atrocious .099. He’s an average framer, but overall below average on defense.

Trooper Galactus

I’ll take the sub-par catcher with the .373 OBP, thank you.