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Mike Zunino is better than you think

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The new Rays catcher already is what you want him to be: Good.

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MLB: San Francisco Giants at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the initial excitement of the multi-player trade between the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners has settled, it’s time to reflect a little on the newest members if the 2019 Rays lineup.

With Mike Zunino included in the trade, the Rays seem to have secured their starting catcher for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. This isn’t exactly who the masses envisioned the Rays acquiring, as many had hopes the Rays would go after a free agent like J.T. Realmuto or Yasmani Grandal. But this is a very good move by the Rays and one that fans are going to like.

The bulk of Zunino’s value comes from the behind the plate. Yes, we’ve seen the “glove first, bat second” combination many times from the Rays, but Zunino is much more than that on offense.

His 2018 campaign numbers won’t dazzle anyone, but you don’t have to go back far to truly get a feel of what Zunino can do when everything’s clicking. He hit .251/.331/.509 and gave the Mariners nearly 4 wins in 2017. If you account for catchers with 400+ PA in ‘17, Zunino came in 4th behind Gary Sanchez, Buster Posey, and J.T. Realmuto. That offensive production was buoyed by a .355 BABIP, but it’s not a far-fetched hope that he could possibly repeat this type of season in 2019, particularly when Zunino was carrying an apparent oblique injury all year in 2018.

The strikeout rate is gaudy (37% in 2018), but there’s a good hitter in there that should compliment up-and-comer Michael Perez well.

You’re likely not going to see anything different from Zunino at the plate, and frankly, that’s fine

Zunino’s career strikeout rate checks in at about 34%, he’s a career .207 hitter and the ISO is nearly .200. That is a true three outcome player. Yet offensively, he falls right in line with the major league average at the catching spot. It’s precisely what you would want if you’re competing, but with a chance for more if the 2017 stats are closer to what Zunino can really do.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Steamer — one of FanGraphs annual player projections — has Zunino pegged at 2.3 WAR for 2019, and the majority of the value comes on the defensive side. There is value here all around that doesn’t rely on the bat. If you’re into Steamer projections and want to look a little deeper, Zunino is not far behind Willson Contreras, Wilson Ramos and Yadier Molina in total contribution

Zunino is a terrific framer, receiver, and thrower. His pop time (2.02 seconds) falls right in line with the Major League average (2.01 seconds), per The Athletic, and he managed to throw out 34 of 52 would-be base stealers. In terms of his framing work, according to Baseball Prospectus his Framing Runs value in 2018 is 7.5. To put that into perspective, the same value for Contreras is -17.8. Zunino also ranks high in Throwing Runs on Baseball Prospectus, which accounts for a catchers ability to not only throw runners out but to prevent them from running at all. Zunino comes in tied for 6th at 0.4. Detroit TigersJames McCann was first in ‘18 with 1.1.

Another area of note is speed on the basepaths. Wilson Ramos is an incredibly slow runner, and his 22.8 ft/second rate is literally third to last on the Major League leaderboard (behind names like Brian McCann and Albert Pujols). Zunino comes in around 26 ft/sec. That slight difference helps the Rays in many ways. It would’ve taken stringing across a couple of hits to get Ramos to come around to score, and for an offense that is heavily reliant on base hits, a few feet per second can change the outcome of the game.

If you were hoping for Realmuto or Grandal, yes, this might be a disappointing (and quick) end to the search for a catcher, but the Rays were willing to act quickly and trade from depth for a piece that could represent some sort of consistency behind the plate. An acquisition for Realmuto wasn’t necessary to achieve the team’s goal. And judging by how quickly this trade went down - it was also unrealistic.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Mike Zunino presents the Rays with an option that they have not had for quite some time: a consistent, above average presence at catcher.

He strays away from the typical profile a Rays catcher usually carries. While Zunino presents a true three outcome type of hitter, there’s a plus-plus defender there. He can go toe to toe with top defensive backstops, and there’s also plenty of hope that he might be able to run into the same type of production that he gave Seattle in 2017.

Zunino already is what you’d hope for him to become

Defensively, Zunino presents an option that’s quite similar to 2013 David Ross. While Ross was already 36 in 2013, he was long considered a top flight defensive catcher. There’s a reason why he was able to stick in the big leagues as long as he did. Ross checked in 0.6 Throwing Runs and 6.5 FRAA, as opposed to 0.4 and 6.4 for Zunino, respectively. For what it’s worth, David Ross was behind the plate for the final out of the 2013 World Series. Defensive catchers are highly valued, and if you set age aside, Ross/Zunino is something that should excite some. The numbers back up Zunino’s reputation.

Offensively, he resembles a current-day Salvador Perez. Steamer has Perez projected to clock in at 96 wRC+ with Zunino at 89 wRC+ in 2019. Both bring the bulk of their value defensively, and they both have less than appealing approaches at the plate. Perez is already in the middle of a long-term deal that owes him a lot more money than Zunino is projected to make ($4.2M in ‘19), and he’s not expected to outperform Zunino by that much.

And if you weren’t already hyped, we’ll leave you with these words Tommy Rancel’s piece for The Athletic,

“In 2018, Zunino put the barrel on the ball on 13.8 percent of his balls put in play. That is good for 16th among the 281 qualifiers and puts him in the company of Mookie Betts and Justin Upton while coming in just ahead of names like Paul Goldschmidt and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Dealing from a position of depth for an affordable contract, this seems like a very Rays-y type of deal that brings that catcher search to a quick and solid conclusion.

As they say, Mike Zunino is Good (really, it’s a thing!).