Has Dioner Navarro Been Framed? Another Blue Jays Non-Crisis


In November, 2014 Dioner Navarro was flying high.  He had proven that his 2013 fangraphs WAR (fWAR) of 1.8 in only 266 plate appearances was no fluke by recording a 2014 fWAR of 2.0 starting for the Blue Jays.  Further, his 139 games played (112 as catcher) had – he hoped! – put to rest the whispers that he would never have the stamina to be more than a backup.

Life was good.

Then, on November 17th, everything changed with the Jays’ signing of Russell Martin to a 5-year, $82-million deal.  Suddenly Dioner was a backup again.  But there was hope – Alex Anthopoulos promised to try to find him a full-time gig elsewhere.

That was November.  It is now March, and Dioner is still a Blue Jay.

What happened?

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At an

average value per win of ~$7 million

, Navarro’s $5 million contract should have been a relative bargain.  And with only one year left on his contract, he should have been an attractive stopgap for a team looking to bridge a short-term weakness behind the plate.

There have been many possible explanations put forward.  Some say that AA has been too demanding in trade negotiations.  Others say that it has just been bad luck – that an appropriate fit has simply not materialized.  But the most common reason cited is that Dioner’s defense at the catcher position is bad – so bad, some say, that he is no longer a major league catcher.

On the face of it, this position is surprising.  According to fangraphs’ defensive metrics, in 2014 Dioner was above average in defensive runs saved from Good Fielding Plays (rGFP) and only marginally below average in Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB).  Fangraphs also rated Dioner above average in blocking pitches, and gave him a positive defensive rating overall.  Baseball Reference, another highly-respected baseball stats site, has shown Dioner as having a positive defensive WAR (dWAR) for every year since 2006.

The defensive shortcoming  most frequently cited is pitch framing.  Pitch framing – the ability to maximize favourable strike calls – is a relatively new concept, but it is receiving increasing attention, particularly among baseball writers.   Dioner had a particularly bad year in 2014 in this area, and is even held by some to have been the single worst framer in baseball in that year.

But 2014 does not tell the whole story.

Pitch framing is highly variable from year to year.  Based on figures from StatCorner, there were 76 catchers who caught in at least four of the five years from 2010-2014.  That site rates their framing performance using Favourable Calls Per Game (FCPG) – a statistic that tells how many (net) balls they were able to “convert” to strikes per game caught.  For these 76 pitchers, the average FCPG was -0.16 over this period.  But interestingly, the average standard deviation of their FCPG was 0.92.  Statistically, that means that 68% of the time this figure would be between +0.76 and -1.08, a very large range.  Put in non-statistical terms, this means that these numbers were all over the map – you could generally not assume that the figure from one year would be the same in following years.

If looking at a single year is dangerous, what about Dioner’s previous years?  Well, from 2010-2013 he averaged a FCPG of -0.07.  And what was the average of the 76 catchers for that same period?  -0.07.  It follows that, up to 2014, Dioner was pretty much exactly average.

So how do you interpret 2014?  Did something fundamental change in Dioner’s framing game that dramatically affected his performance?  Or is this just an example of the random variance shown above?  And given this uncertainty, should teams be radically discounting Dioner’s trade value based on a single year?

Jun 29, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher

Miguel Montero

(26) warms up the pitcher as fans look on before a gme against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Before you decide, let me give another example.  The top framing catcher in 2014 (per StatCorner) was Miguel Montero.  His +1.48 FCPG, along with his 9535 pitch sample, gave him an impressive 24 runs saved.  But in 2013, his -0.16 FCPG and -2.3 runs saved placed him 27th among catchers with at least 3,000 pitch samples.  And in 2012, his FCPG was 0.40 and his runs saved were 6.6, placing him 16th.  So, based on those three years, Montero is either the best … or Dioner-level … or somewhere in the middle.

The bottom line?  With any player who has played many years, a radical change in statistical performance in a single year should be taken with a grain of salt (unless there is an identifiable reason).  To write off Dioner based on a 2014 framing stat that is almost a full FCPG higher than his career average is a mistake that – I would hope! – a trade partner would be unlikely to make.

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