A lot has been made out of the Minnesota Twins’ commitment to star outfielder Byron Buxton, a player who has missed 51% of his team’s games over the last three seasons. Surely the team is counting on better fortune when it comes to their best hitter’s health as they crawl toward a pivotal 2022 season. But even more critical to Minnesota’s success is the availability of starting catcher Mitch Garver.
The two veterans have a lot in common. Buxton and Garver play premier positions on the field with questionable backup players waiting in the wings. They have blossomed into frontline offensive players. And they desperately need to have a fresh start with a clean bill of health in 2022.
Buxton’s stellar .277/.321/.575 slash line since the beginning of the 2019 season is nothing short of jaw-dropping, especially considering his elite output on the defensive side of the ball. That made his 7-year, $100 million guarantee a no-brainer. However, it’s interesting that Garver rarely gets mentioned in the same conversation when his profile is similar to Buxton’s.
Since the beginning of 2019, Garver has had a comparable slash line (.254/.348/.546) while missing only three more games than his center fielder. Like Buxton, he missed a considerable portion of the 2021 season due to a fluke injury, when a foul-tip got him in the worst possible spot. That brutal blow left him sitting on the bench, or possibly a bucket of ice, for more than six weeks. That’s not a far cry from Buxton missing eight weeks after getting hit by a pitch and breaking a small bone in his hand.
Fans grew tired of seeing light-hitting, free-diving Jake Cave in the lineup as Buxton’s replacement, and backup catcher Ryan Jeffers didn’t fare much better when Garver went down. For some reason, it feels like the gap between Buxton and his replacement is astronomically greater than Garver and his. In reality, if either goes down for an extended stretch, the Twins will have trouble finding success. If the team is going to bounce back and find their way back to contention, they’ll need better contingencies in these essential spots.
Cave appeared in 76 games in 2021, batting .189/.249/.293 with a heinous 31.8% strikeout rate. With a high rate, the player will usually at least offer some silver lining in the slugging department. That clearly wasn’t the case for Cave. He only had 10 extra-base hits all year. Cave had the hardest time against left-handed pitchers, hitting .122, striking out 17 times without a single walk.
That performance left a gaping crater where Mount Buxton used to be.
Jeffers had a challenging year in the shadow of Garver, as well. While the young, 24-year-old backstop offers more promise for the future than Cave does, he didn’t increase his stock with his 2021 season. Jeffers had a 36% strikeout rate, good for 6th-highest in baseball, and his overall offensive production was 18% worse than league-average (82 wRC+). Compare that performance to Garver’s output since breaking out in 2019, and it’s clear to see why the team struggles so much when he’s out.
Over the last three seasons, Garver has been a powerhouse, especially when it comes to making good contact. In the game, he has the fifth-best well-hit average (average of hits with an exit velocity of 95 mph or more) and the second-best against left-handed pitchers.
That’s not merely among catchers – but the pool of hitters as a whole.
He has 46 home runs in just 579 at-bats in that span, good for the second-best homer rate. Garver is averaging 12.6 at-bats between bombs, and league average is 23.5, according to Inside Edge. That power boon has led to a spectacular .553 slugging percentage, which is 10th-best in baseball and tops the likes of superstars like Aaron Judge, Freddie Freeman and Shohei Ohtani. Sure, Jeffers could emerge as a strong hitter and maybe even a better player than Garver eventually. But at this point in his development, and with a pivotal 2022 season about to unfold for the Twins, they can’t afford to have his growing pains on full display every day.
Garver is a bonafide superstar offensive player, he just hasn’t found the spotlight yet because he can’t stay on stage long enough. His availability is essential to the team’s success in 2022. Last season showed that the Twins can’t afford to have too many star players out at once.
Buxton is known as the most talented center fielder in the game, and he’ll be widely considered the best in class if he can manage to stay healthy. It’s about time people start mentioning Garver in the same breath.