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Does Mitch Garver have positive regression coming?

Was Garver the victim of a small sample size in 2020?

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In 2019, Mitch Garver broke out. He was, by almost any statistic, the best batter at the catcher’s position in all of MLB.

In 2020, Mitch Garver was barely playable (when he was even healthy).

What can we expect from Garver in 2021?

As I covered last week, we should be careful with how much stock we put in 2020’s player statistics. Even for players who were healthy the entire season, a 60-game sample is hardly something to draw conclusions from. In Garver’s case, he was injured for a long period of time and only played in 23 games, which is a minuscule sample size. And while I don’t think many out there are really convinced that Garver is actually as bad as he was in 2020, there is a certain amount of worry on that end. What do that numbers suggest we should expect from Garver in 2021?

Now, we have to take all these numbers with a grain of salt, as Garver only put 36 batted balls into play in 2020 (see what I mean about a minuscule sample size?). However, Garver actually improved his batted ball profile over 2019. He had his highest average launch angle ever (18.6 degrees, which is pretty optimal). His average exit velocity was the highest it has ever been, at 92.4 MPH, which was a believable increase over his 91.1 MPH average in 2019. His hard-hit percentage of 50.0 matched his number in 2019. So, where’d all the positive results go?

It was making contact, in the batter’s box, with the bat, that killed Mitch Garver in 2020. He saw almost identical pitch mixes in 2020 as he did in 2019, and actually improved his plate discipline. Yet, his K% sky-rocketed to a career-high (by almost 20 percent) 45.7%. His contact percentage cratered from his career norms (77-80%), falling at a career-low 64.0%. Garver simply struggled to hit pitches that he had been hitting in 2019 and beforehand.

I came up with three possible explanations for this. Either it was simply a bad small sample size (in any normal season, it’d be easy to write off 23 games as a “rough patch”), he struggled with the abbreviated and abnormal preparation that took place prior to the strange season that was 2020, or he struggled to adopt a new approach at the plate.

My conclusion: it was a mixture of the three. I can’t rule out a bad sample size when it is this small. I would suspect that the abnormal season preparation would have an adverse effect on some batters more than others, and it’s possible that Garver simply struggled more than most with not getting regular at-bats in a normal spring training. It is true that contact percentage was down league-wide, although this continued a trend that has been going on for years. However, the decrease this year was the biggest that it has been since between 2011 and 2012, and I think that the season’s unique circumstances probably have something to do with that.

Did he struggle to adopt a new approach at the plate? Again, with only 36 batted balls to judge off of, it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions. However, his percentage of balls that he pulled was up 10% and his opposite field percentage was down 8%, so perhaps he was looking to pull the ball more. It’s impossible to say if this was definitively the case in such a small sample.

In any case, we can explain Mitch Garver’s bad season in 2020 by pointing to a very obvious outlier in K%. This was clearly due to a dramatic fall from his career norms in contact percentage, which can reasonably be explained by a few different factors. Judging from the other underlying stats, I think we can expect more great things from Garver with a longer season played under more normal circumstances (preparation and otherwise) in 2021. Will he, again, be the best batter at his position in the league? Likely not. However, I’m convinced that Garver’s “real self” is closer to his 2019 than his 2020.