How Mitch Garver Became the Top Free Agent Catcher on the Market

Fresh off of a World Series title, Mitch Garver looks to get paid this offseason as the top catcher available in free agency.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 04: Mitch Garver #18 of the Texas Rangers rounds the bases after hitting a home run during a game against the Houston Astros at Globe Life Field on September 02, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images)

Mitch Garver is in the midst of the best stretch of his baseball career. After recently winning a World Series title with the Texas Rangers, he is now in line to secure a hefty contract as he enters free agency as the top catcher available.

Garver is coming off of a tremendous season at the plate. He was a key piece in the Rangers’ high-flying offense all season long, and now he’s looking to capitalize on that success on the open market.

To most, Garver is simply the top backstop in the free agent class. However, given his particular role on the Rangers for the past two seasons, he makes for an especially interesting free agent target.

While he can hold his own behind the plate, he was primarily a designated hitter for the Rangers in 2023. In the 87 games he played, nearly 70% of his starts came as the DH, with the other 30% coming at the catcher position. It was a similar story for his 2022 season.

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Because of this, there are questions about how much time Garver will spend catching in the future. Will an organization bring him in to hold down their designated hitter spot, or will a ball club pay him to be their primary catcher moving forward?

One thing is for certain: Garver is hitting free agency at the right time. He has an impactful bat that can immediately upgrade a team’s lineup, and he stands out as, without a doubt, the top offensive catcher in a weak free agency class. Regardless of his specific role with his new team, he is in store to secure a luxurious multi-year contract this offseason as a premier offensive weapon.

Improved Contact Numbers

In his second year with the Rangers, Garver put together one of the best offensive seasons of his career. His improved bat-to-ball skills, impressive walk totals, and continued disciplined approach led to some of the most efficient offensive output of his career in 2023.

Garver posted a zone contact rate of 83.9%, a 3.6% improvement from 2022. Likewise, his overall whiff rate of 23.7% was nearly a two percent drop from the year prior and was about one percent better than league average.

His improved contact rates allowed for him to put the ball in play more often, and that led to noticeably more efficient at-bats. Garver hit for an average of .270, the second-best mark of his career, and he got on base at the highest rate of his career as well (.370). Additionally, he posted a wOBA of .374, which was significantly higher than league average (.316).

Not only was he able to cut his swing-and-miss rates, but Garver also managed to drastically improve his chase rate as well. He ended the year with an out-of-zone swing rate of just 17.4%, which was in the 98th percentile, per Baseball Savant.

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In turn, Garver ended the year with a 12.8% walk rate, which was in the top 10 percent of baseball. His patience at the plate not only improved his ability to draw walks at one of the league’s highest rates, but it rounded out his overall offensive game in 2023.

Perhaps being in a lineup littered with elite hitters allowed Garver to be more patient at the plate. Because he was sandwiched between two of the most dangerous hitters in the game – Corey Seager and Adolis Garcia – pitchers had no choice but to be more aggressive with Garver. It allowed him to be more selective with his pitch types, knowing that he would likely get good pitches to swing at, given the players around him in the lineup. Needless to say, he did damage on the pitches he chose to swing at.

While his improved contact rates are noteworthy and influential for the rest of his offensive game, they only tell half the story of how Garver came to be one of the Rangers’ most important hitters in 2023.

Garver’s Return to Power-Hitting Form

The 2022 season was a down year for Garver offensively. He battled through several stints on the injured list, and he never found his grove at the plate. However, he rediscovered his power stroke in 2023, and it played a large role in the Rangers’ offensive success.

In his 344 plate appearances, Garver notched 30 extra-base hits, including 11 doubles and 19 home runs. In turn, he posted a strong isolated power number of .230, which was the third-best among American League catchers (min. 300 PA).

Similarly, Garver posted a slugging percentage of .500, the second-best among AL catchers, and an OPS of .870, the best among AL backstops. Garver also posted a wRC+ of 138, which ranked second on the Rangers only behind Corey Seager and was tied for the best mark in the AL at his position (min. 300 PA).

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Garver’s aforementioned ability to command the strike zone played a factor in his power output as well. It allowed him to pounce on mistakes and do greater damage on pitches he was hunting for, and he yielded higher quality-of-contact numbers because of it.

Garver ended the year with an above-average exit velocity of 90 mph, and his hard-hit rate increased to 42.1%, a 3.4% boost from 2022. Additionally, his barrel rate of 12.6% was nearly double the league average number and was in the top 20% of baseball.

What’s more, Garver not only saw a boost to his quality of contact, but he was able to keep the ball off the ground more than he ever has. He posted a ground ball rate of just 29.9%, which was easily the lowest mark of his career and was a 4.4% decrease from 2022.

In turn, he bumped his line drive rate to an impressive 26.2%, the highest rate of his career and a five percent boost from the prior season. He has managed to put the ball in play more often, improve his quality of contact numbers, and drive the ball in the air more than he ever has. That is a recipe for sustainable success at the plate, and a ball club is going to take a shot on him to hold down the heart of their lineup in 2024 and beyond.

Potential Fits

Garver stands as the lone impact bat in this year’s group of free agent catchers. When considering his numbers across the board and how that translated to run production for one of the league’s best offenses, it’s clear he is going to get paid this winter. Here is how his 2023 numbers stack up against the top catchers on the free agent market:

Mitch Garver (344 PA).270.370.500.870.374.230138
Gary Sánchez (267 PA).217.288.492.780.329.275111
Tom Murphy (159 PA).290.335.538.873.367.248140
Victor Caratini (226 PA).259.327.383.711.312.12494
Austin Hedges (212 PA).
Yasmani Grandal (405 PA).234.309.339.647.288.10580
Tucker Barnhart (123 PA).
Mike Zunino (140 PA).177.271.306.578.261.12964
2023 stats courtesy of FanGraphs

Clearly, there are few reliable bats on the catching market. Tom Murphy stands as the only player with comparable numbers, but Garver had more than twice the number of plate appearances on the year, which makes a meaningful difference.

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Garver’s consistency at the plate, coupled with his ability to do damage with both power and contact, is going to generate a hefty paycheck from whichever team brings him in. The question is, which team will that be?

Landing Spots for Garver

Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres

Several teams could be in the market for Garver’s services. The teams listed above are those who should be competitive in 2024 and will be willing to spend some money in free agency. They are also clubs that need reinforcements at the catcher position and/or the designated hitter spot.

On top of his offensive production, Garver also brings valuable veteran experience to the clubhouse. Fresh off of an impressive World Series run, he now has the postseason experience and success that will be highly desired by any organization. He proved he can be an impact bat for a team contending for a World Series title, and that is extremely valuable.

On the other hand, there are some reservations with Garver. Mainly, his durability remains a concern as he hits the open market. He has been hampered by various injuries throughout his career, and he has only surpassed 350 plate appearances just once in a season, and that came back in 2019 with the Minnesota Twins.

Similarly, he has played just 209 games over the last three years. He’ll be 33 years old at the start of the 2024 season, and there are questions as to whether he can handle an everyday workload as a catcher.

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What’s more, the free agent market hasn’t been particularly kind to backstops in recent years, with the exception of a select few. Willson Contreras signed a five-year, $87.5 million deal with the Cardinals last offseason, yielding an AAV of $17.5 million. Outside of that contract, most of the top deals for free agent catchers have hovered around the $10 million AAV mark.

Granted, Garver’s upcoming deal will surpass that number, but it will be interesting to see by how much. In all likelihood, the AAV on Garver’s new deal will land around the $14 million mark, but the demand for his bat, plus his standing atop a weak free agency class at the catcher position, could boost that number even higher.

Contract Prediction: Three years, $42 million

Team Prediction: Tampa Bay Rays

Garver might not be the flashiest name on the market, but he brings a tremendous amount of value with his offensive production and his recent postseason success. When healthy, he is a coveted hitter, and any contending team would love to have him in the middle of their lineup. It’s looking as if Garver could be one of the more underrated free agents this winter, as his offensive potential has big upside for any contending ball club.