Tuesday, March 5, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Catching Catastrophe In Tampa Bay

Mike Zunino’s reputation is that he is a great catcher with a lot of pop in his bat. After committing to him for the second time by signing him to a one year contract, the Rays have not seen what they expected out of Zunino.

While nobody can replace the excellence Travis d’Arnaud provided last season, the Rays believed that a group of Zunino, Michael Perez, and Kevan Smith would get the job done. For the Perez and Smith, that’s true. But for Zunino, his play behind the plate and in the box is costing the Rays games. To put it in terms of wins and losses, the Rays are a losing team (38-41) with Zunino catching (min 3 PA per game). With Perez, they are 20-12, which the Rays would say is much more representative of their team’s talent than 38-41.

Through August 2, here is the breakout of catcher ERA among the rostered trio:

  • Zunino: 5.20 (65 innings)
  • Perez: 0.00 (19 innings)
  • Smith: 0.00 (5 innings)

Need to see something little more advanced? Here’s the cumulative FIP when each catcher is behind the plate:

  • Zunino: 4.23
  • Perez: 2.05
  • Smith: -8.95

Smith’s is a bit extreme because he hasn’t played much, but it’s clear that pitchers are worse when Zunino is catching. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest is his predictability and lack of feel for the game. An example is in the August first game in Baltimore: Tyler Glasnow badly spiked a curve in the dirt with Renato Nunez at the plate. That allowed Nunez to sit on a fastball, and he got one. One trip around the bases later, he was back to the dugout with a run on the board. Alex Rodriguez commented on the same thing resulting in a home run for Xander Bogaerts on Sunday Night Baseball: when a pitcher lets an off speed pitch get away, it’s better to try again than to give in and throw a fastball down the middle.

One of the biggest problems with Zunino catching is how he handles two-pitch pitchers. With many hitters, he tends to fall into the same easily deciphered patterns. For Chaz Roe and his lethal slider, this means throwing every pitch on the outer half of the plate: sliders and cutters outside with a backdoor fastball that is supposed to freeze hitters. The effect of that is every right handed hitter can lean out over the plate and get hits on balls they should barely even be able to reach. Allowing major league hitters to eliminate half the plate is a monumental mistake that should never be made. It’s hard enough to pitch well with a 17 inch plate, so it makes no sense to allow the hitter to dial in on a seven or eight inch section for an entire at bat.

Even for pitchers with bigger arsenals, Zunino can fall into these patterns. On the last two Opening Days, 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2019, had unexpectedly bad starts, and they both remarked after the games that they felt that they didn’t use their full arsenals. Guess who was the catcher for both games? After Snell’s start on July 31, he told reporters that he knew he should’ve thrown a changeup on what was actually a fastball hit for a home run. It’s great to trust your catcher, but Snell put his faith in the wrong guy.

Two pitchers who are noticeably affected by this type of game calling are Roe and Jose Alvarado. The pattern with Alvarado is the endless calls for low fastballs over the middle of the plate. Rays coaches and front office members believe that Alvarado’s great as long as he stays in the strike zone, but Zunino appears to take that one a bit too literally. Before that trade with the Mariners, Alvarado was on track to being an elite reliever. With his new catcher, he is anything but elite.

Here is the breakout of Roe and Alvarado pitching to each catcher on the roster:

Roe

  • Zunino: 1 IP, 2 K, 0 BB, 4 H, 0 HR, 2 ER
  • Perez: 1.2 IP, 3 K, 0 BB, 1 H, 0 HR, 0 ER
  • Smith: 1.0 IP, 0 K, 0 BB, 0 H, 0 HR, 0 ER

Alvarado

  • Zunino: 1.2 IP, 2 K, 2 BB, 4 H, 1 HR, 2 ER
  • Perez: 2 IP, 4 K, 1 BB, 0 H, 0 HR, 0 ER
  • Smith: 1 IP, 1 K, 0 BB, 0 H, 0 HR, 0 ER

Michael Perez is definitely the best defensive catcher in this group, and his effort to earn that status is not hard to see. Through constant deception and meaningful pitch sequencing, pitchers can be comfortable throwing whatever he calls. With fake targets, potential sign stealers have less information. He doesn’t fall into patterns like Zunino, and he does a much better job of keeping the ball in front of him. No pitcher should be afraid of bouncing a breaking ball or airing out a fastball with Perez behind the plate, because he has shown time after time that he will not let the ball get to the backstop.

What About Offense?

Last year, Zunino posted a horrendous 45 wRC+ — that means he was 55% worse than an average major league hitter. Perez’s was 107, even though he spent most of the year in AAA because of d’Arnaud’s season-long heroics. Through August 2, Zunino has a 37 wRC+ and Perez has a -13 (in only five plate appearances);

At least Zunino has power potential, right? Well, Perez actually hits the ball harder than he does. In 2019, Perez had a 48.1% hard hit rate and a 92.5 average exit velocity compared to Zunino’s 38.7% and 88.4.

Zunino has not given any reason why he should continue to play regularly. Michael Perez should start every game against a right handed pitcher. Kevan Smith or Zunino can play against lefties. The Rays think they are a serious World Series contender, but they are no better than the Orioles with Zunino behind the plate.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick