The fact that Dioner Navarro has been Alex Anthopoulos’ “biggest” acquisition this offseason is slightly concerning, and downright unacceptable for many Jays fans. It’s been discussed over and over again about what the Jays are going to do in terms of assessing their issues in the rotation and second base, so I won’t dive into that, instead I’d like to take a closer look at Navarro.
After signing him, the overall perception of the deal was that is was a solid signing. It was an upgrade at an awful position, he was coming off his best offensive season, and it was a cap friendly deal. But many were calling it an upgrade simply because Navarro isn’t J.P. Arencibia.
Navarro’s .300/.365/.492 was by far his best slash rate of his career, and his power numbers spiked considerably. His ISO finished at .192, much higher than his .159 mark in 2012 (only 73 PA), and .131 in 2011 with the Dodgers. His HR/FB took a huge leap to 18.8, crushing his previous marks.
Many were saying his year was bloated due to it being a contract year, and others were saying it was his breakout season, but it seemed that the majority agreed he would fall somewhere in the middle between his career year offensively in 2013 and his worst years from 2009-2012 that had him getting limited AB’s.
Worst-case scenario for the Jays, which is something we’re all too familiar with when it comes to free agent signings, is that he sinks back down into 2011 territory and becomes a backup or AAA catcher. Best case is he continues what he was doing in 2013 and sustains it over 500+ PA.
But I wonder why he suddenly had a productive year at the plate after years of being terrible at the dish. Did he change his approach? Did he change any mechanics? Why the sudden bump in the power numbers? Was it luck driven?
I’ll be disregarding 2012 in terms of statistics due to a lack of PA’s.
According to Pitchf/x at Fangraphs, Navarro swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 26.7% of the time in 2013, which was a career low, and much lower than his marks of 30.1, 31.2, and 31.9 from 2009-2011. He also swung at pitches in the zone 65.8% of the time, which was a career high, and much higher than marks of 63.6, 58.1, and 64.5.
His overall swing percentage was right under his career norm, but his contact numbers on pitches outside of the strike zone were way down, even 20% when comparing it to 2009. His contact rate on pitches inside the zone was even down a little bit, making his overall contact rate 79.8%, much lower than his career mark of 85.4.
Looking at these swing and contact rates suggests an approach that was altered. He swung at less pitches outside of the zone, showing more plate discipline, but he made far less contact on all pitches he faced. That makes me believe that he started to sacrifice a little bit of contact in order to hit the ball harder. This could be a reason why his power numbers received a jolt. Making consistent hard contact will result in a higher BABIP, which can help explain his career high AVG.
His K% didn’t raise above his career norm, which is a good sign as well. I can see an approach that relied purely on contact changed to an approach that sacrificed contact for power but shortened up with two strikes. It’s one plausible reason why his SLG%, ISO, and HR/FB were well above career norms.
Along with a philosophical change at the plate in terms of plate discipline, and an increased focus on power over contact, mechanical changes in his swing could also be a reason why he had a career year in 2013.
I’ve reviewed hitting samples from both 2013 and 2011, and while there aren’t any dramatic changes, there are a couple things that have been altered that could help explain his outburst last year. Since he’s a switch hitter, it’s a lot of info to absorb, but let’s take a look.
Let’s start with reviewing things from the left-handed batters box. This home run from 2011 when he was a Dodger, shows his backside was weak. When he makes contact with the ball, his upper body is pushed back, and he fails to keep his body strong and upright throughout the entire swing. His hips also leak a little bit too early, which makes it difficult to cover all regions of the plate and use all fields.
This home run from 2013 as a member of the Cubs shows he stayed kept his backside strong, and left his front side closed just a tad longer, giving him increased torque for when he attacks the ball, and letting his hands work when he received offspeed or breaking pitches.
I realize he hit a home run on both pitches, but his strong backside in the 2013 video will make it easier for him to hit the ball with authority when he doesn’t get a fastball in the wheelhouse, and allow his hands to get on top of the ball more often. That strong backside, better hip drive allows him to use all fields, and handle offspeed and breaking pitches much easier. This can help explain why he had a 25.4 LD% in 2013, which placed him 25th in the MLB for players with 250+ PA.
These screenshots from Navarro’s video archive on mlb.com allow you to see the ever so slight differences in his mechanics when he makes contact. It may not be a huge difference, but even the smallest changes to mechanics in a swing can have a big impact. He also added a leg kick from the left side, and that could have had a positive impact on his timing.
The spray charts acquired from Brooks Baseball below show how these mechanical adjustments have impacted his ability to use all fields in a positive way.
Navarro’s 2010/2011 chart is on the top, and his 2013 chart is on the bottom. Whether it was the potential change in approach, or the adjustments made mechanically, it’s clear that Navarro hit far more line drives in 2013, and used all three fields more often.
The two zone charts above from Brooks Baseball (2010/2011 on the top, 2013 on the bottom) shows the plate coverage that improved, especially low and away. Along with being able to cover a larger portion of the plate, he still hit the ball out of the park seven times from the left side, more than 2010, 2011, and 2012 combined from both sides. He showed an increased ability to handle pitches inside the zone, while still being able to increase his plate coverage and lay off pitches outside of the zone.
The mechanical/approach adjustments made turned his .196/.273/.324 slash line from 2011 into a .279/.333/.430 slash line in 2013.
Now let’s take a look at what he did differently from the right side. Understand that the sample size from the right side is much smaller, so the chances of his .316/.415/.672 slash line in 2013 coming down are higher than his slash line from the left side coming down.
What did Navarro do differently in 2013 to make him a machine against lefties? A change in approach could lead towards it, but I’ll once again look through some video footage to see if mechanical adjustments were made.
This home run from 2011 shows a couple problems very similar to issues he had from the left side. His upper body is once again pushed back, and he isn’t in a strong position when he makes contact. Doing this doesn’t allow him to use his lower half like he would be able to if he kept his backside strong. He also lets his front side leak, just like he did from the left side.
He hit the ball hard in this video, no doubt, but more times than not this ball ends up as a pop-up, or a lazy fly ball because he’ll struggle getting his hands on top of the ball, and make hard contact because his backside is weak. He also pulls off the ball quite a bit, hence why he rips this ball down the line, despite the pitch being in the heart of the plate.
In this home run from 2013 he is in a much stronger position when making contact with the ball. His backside is strong, his hips don’t leak and he uses the big part of the field because he isn’t pulling off the ball like he was in the video from 2011. These slight changes should allow him to get his hands on top of the ball and square up the ball on a more regular basis.
These screenshots from Navarro’s video archive on mlb.com give you a chance to see the differences in terms of backside positioning and front hip placement at the time of contact. These key mechanical adjustments were likely a large reason why he had a successful 2013 at the plate.
These spray charts from Brooks Baseball (2010/2011 on the top, 2013 on the bottom) don’t show a big difference in terms of using the entire field, but there’s far more line drives, and less ground balls, suggesting he started squaring up more balls in 2013. There’s also far less infield pop-ups, which could suggest he had an easier time getting his hands on top of pitches up in the zone. You can also see he hit simply just hit the ball farther by looking at the blue and red dots. He’s primarily a dead pull hitter from the right side, but if he can hit for some power, and continue hitting line drives, that won’t matter.
As you can see from these zone charts acquired from Brooks Baseball, the 2013 chart on the bottom showed that Navarro struggled with pitches down and in, but had much better plate coverage on pitches up in the zone. He also improved on his plate coverage on low and away pitches, which suggests he did a better job of keeping his hip engaged longer than he did in 2011/2010.
The success on pitches up in the zone could be attributed a stronger backside and giving his hands a chance to get on top of pitches. His massive power numbers from the right side in 2013 could be attributed to being able to handle pitches that are up. It’s a small sample size from the right side, so there’s bound to be differences next year, but it’s a positive sign nonetheless.
Since he’s a switch hitter, it’s a lot of information, but the mechanical changes seen in the video, and his changes to contact and swing rates look as though they’re directly related to his results on the field. He’s bound to hit some rough patches where his mechanics or plate discipline slide, but if he can prevent those slumps from being too long, he’ll be in a good spot.
It’s obviously not an exact science, and his numbers could very well retreat to career norms, but if he can show the ability to continue his improved plate discipline and change in approach with his adjustments made to his swing, he could very well put together a solid season at the plate for the Jays in 2013.
If he can stay healthy, get 500+ PA’s, and provide average to above-average defense, which he’s shown he can do, you could be looking at an absolute steal in the free agent market. Don’t necessarily expect a .900 OPS like he put up last year, but the expectations that he’ll be minor upgrade, or that he’ll automatically return to career norms aren’t warranted.