Entering the offseason with question marks at both catching positions, one thing is certain for 2020: Zunino will be one of the catchers on the opening day roster for the Tampa Bay Rays. Whether that will be as primary, secondary, or as a 50/50 catcher remains to be seen.
In 2019 Zunino’s bat was close to nonexistent. He hit .165/.232/.312 and put up a 45 wRC+. That’s not good.
Zunino’s glove (+9 DRS and +8.3 FRAA) was one of the best in baseball behind the plate. That wasn’t enough to stop Travis d’Arnaud from taking the bulk of the playing time after the Rays were fortunate to acquire him, though.
So, what do the Rays have in Mike Zunino?
Zunino’s reputation defensively has always been his best attribute and the Rays got what they expected. At the plate the Rays rightfully expected more than they got. Zunino hit .165/.232/.312 and put up a 45 wRC+. That’s not good even with a very good glove. Even at a position like catcher where the league average hovers around 85 wRC+.
Strikeouts will always limit his upside at the plate. His 33.9% strikeout rate was actually his lowest rate since 2014.
When Zunino makes contact it has generally been for a lot of damage, but his power took a step back in a year where power seemed to come from everybody. His .147 ISO was the lowest he’s posted since 2015.
Zunino’s Statcast data is still strong when he gets the ball airborne. On line drives and fly balls Zunino’s 97.0 mph average exit velocity ranked tied for 14th in major league baseball of batters with 50+ balls in play. This is in line with his 2018 97.1 mph exit velocity.
The production on balls in play in the air (flyballs and linedrives) was still solid. In 100 plate appearances he hit .340/.340/.720 and put up a 176 wRC+. This was a step back from his .385/.380/.849 and 235 wRC+ career line, a small part of his under performance story in 2019, but not the biggest factor.
In 2018, Zunino’s line drive rate went down from 18.0% to 13.7%. Line drive rate is one of the most variable batted ball skills year to year, but also one of the most important.
As a consequence, the biggest factor in his batting average tanking was his performance on grounders. Zunino’s groundball rate was up to 40.5% from 37.3% last season, where he hit .147/.147/.162 and put up a -24 wRC+ on groundballs. For his career Z has hit .219/.219/.251 and put up a 26 wRC+ on grounders. A 50 wRC+ difference in production is a huge variance.
Digging deeper, his pulled groundball rate was at 55.9% which was by far the lowest of his career. His 13.2% opposite field groundball rate was the highest of his career. This is usually a good thing for groundballs, but it didn’t translate to results in 2019.
Zunino’s .271 xwOBA (which translates to a 65 wRC+) was higher than his actual .238 wOBA (45 wRC+). This helps us get closer to what should be reasonably expected from Zunino — and on the whole that’s a minor variance — but it’s still be a disappointing outcome for 2018, a year when the player might have been fighting multiple injuries.
How much of a rebound can the Rays expect at the plate?
The projection systems like the value that Zunino will bring in 2020. A lot of the value will come from defense and some from a bounce back close to his 83 wRC+ career rate.
Steamer projects him to hit .203/.276/.394 and put up a 78 wRC+ and put up 2.0 fWAR over 395 plate appearances. ZiPS projects a similar offensive output with .204/.276/.382 and put up a 76 OPS+ and 1.3 zWAR over 372 plate appearances. That’s not a bad return on investment for a $4.5 million commitment.
Overall, it’s a projected bump of .030 to .040 of batting average and the rest of the triple slash line ultimately isn’t that much different. Over 400 at bats that is 12-16 base hits or an extra hit every other week.
Power returning back to close to pre-2019 levels also seems reasonable even without a lively ball. When Zunino gets a ball in the air at the proper launch angle he’s not just barely clearing the wall, so any change in the ball should have minimal effect.
The Rays should expect better performance in 2020 from Zunino. Even with a bounceback it’ll likely be a step back from what the Rays experienced from Wilson Ramos and Travis d’Arnaud over the last two seasons, but on the defensive side of the ball the Rays should be better if Zunino leads the catching tandem.
I really would have liked the Rays to re-sign Travis d’Arnaud. I think both of the 2019 catchers will produce similar value in 2020, but I like pairing a quality second catcher in case Zunino’s bat doesn’t quite bounce back as much as expected.
Previously: How do you grade the Mike Zunino contract?
d’Arnaud was a guy who enjoyed his time here and seemed like the most likely one you could expect to be able to sign, but his agent was able to secure a $16 million guarantee, and good for him for taking the paycheck.
Now my favorite veteran to pair with Zunino would be Jason Castro, as we’ve covered previously on this site. His left handed bat is pretty similar in the high strikeout build, but also around league average for a catcher. Both would bring defensive value to help the pitching staff be one of the most productive run prevention units in the game.
Getting somebody like Castro to agree to a backup role might be difficult with more starting jobs still available than solid catchers on the market, but with Zunino’s offense from 2019 under consideration, Castro might rightly see there’s an easy path to getting the lion’s share behind the plate: hit.