Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Projecting The Rays’ Catcher Situation

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With Spring Training only a month away and the roster seemingly filled out, Mike Zunino and Michael Perez appear to be the Rays’ 2020 catchers. This comes as no surprise, as GM Erik Neander expressed comfort in the two as well as a philosophy that run prevention shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of run production as early as the Winter Meetings. Since catchers are the most vital non-pitcher position for run prevention, it makes sense why Neander searched offensive upgrades elsewhere and opted to stay in-house with Zunino and Perez.

Perez only has one year of service time, so he’s under team control for at least 5 more years with 2 until arbitration, assuming he spends the entire season on the 26 man roster. Zunino signed a one year, $4.5M contract in November with a club option for 2021. Presumably, the Rays are giving top catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez a 2-year time frame to reach MLB from Class A Advanced.

The two started 2019 as the team’s active catchers until they both got hurt on consecutive days, and Travis D’Arnaud being acquired to fill the void on May 10th. Up to May 8th, when Perez injured his oblique, the Rays had an MLB best record of 23-12, 2 games above the second-place Yankees.

During this span, Zunino slashed .227/.261/.420 with a 78 wRC+ while Perez hit .256/.370/.385 and had a 110 wRC+. To start with Zunino, this is much better than his full-season stats — his batting average was below .180 with an OPS below .600. While he could’ve done a better job getting on base, the power was acceptable; on the other side of the ball, Zunino stayed consistent in being a top defender as he was in Seattle. Perez complemented him well, the on-base guy in the platoon, with good but not as elite defense as Zunino. Adding to their collective value, Zunino hits righty and Perez lefty, forming a convenient platoon option for Kevin Cash.

After D’Arnaud excelled offensively, Perez hasn’t had almost any time in MLB, and Zunino had inconsistent at-bats. That’s caused widespread uneasiness with returning to the same pair of catchers to start the 2020 season.

Steamer projections expect Zunino hit .203/.276/.394 with a 78 wRC+ and a 2.0 fWAR (for reference, Ji-Man Choi’s was 1.9 in 2019) and Perez .229/.295/.373, 80 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR. At first glance, these are very underwhelming; however, they are likely more pessimistic than what the Rays expect out of their catchers.

A short insight into how Steamer works: this system uses weighted statistics from the past (more recent = more relevant) and age to compute projections. For the context of the projections, both fall short of the average catcher’s 89 wRC+ over the last decade, though catchers as a whole have been less productive in recent years—the average wRC+ for MLB’s backstops since 2017 is 86..

Perez has played only 46 MLB games so far in his career, so there isn’t much substance to base his projections on. As seen in 2019, he has refined his ability to get on base: his walk rate and OBP were 8.3% and .342 in AAA in 2018 with the Diamondbacks, and with the Rays in 2019 they were 13% and .338 in AAA and 14.5% and .345 in MLB. In 2018 with the Rays as a bench player with inconsistent opportunities, he vastly underperformed these standards. However, one shouldn’t be judged on an adjustment period without regular playing time; that doesn’t give an accurate depiction of the player. Assuming Steamer weighs the 2018 MLB time heavily, as it should, it’s clear why Perez is seen as a worse player than the Rays likely expect him to be.

While Steamer seems to be underrating Perez’s on-base skills, his slugging percentage in proportion to his batting average is quite high. In recent years, his ISO has settled around .110. Steamer has it at .144. Realistically, the high .600s OPS that the model predicts is fair to expect, but one should expect a solid OBP to go with a more pedestrian slugging percentage—based on recent stats, at least.

Newly acquired Kevan Smith, signed to a minor league deal earlier this month, figures to factor into the Rays plans for 2020. He is the exact opposite of what they currently have, a terrible framer with below average pop time but good offense for a catcher. His 89.4 mph average exit velocity is strong for a player of any position, and the gap between his .306 wOBA and .346 xwOBA suggests there is more to be seen from Smith. Steamer doesn’t have him projected to play, as he is not currently on the roster, but he had a .292 xBA and .456 xSLG in 2019, per Baseball Savant.

Both Zunino and Perez look to bounceback from seasons in which they offered minimal production at the major league level with Smith as the backup plan in case they don’t. The odds appear to be against them to even have a wRC+ over 80, but both have shown the ability to be better than Tampa Bay saw in 2019.

Nicholas Lobraico

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