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Mike Zunino is the catcher you’ve been waiting for

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The Rays starting backstop is poised to surprise some folks in 2019.

Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Rays had the chance to add a home state college Catcher to their organization to solve what has been a nearly 20 year revolving door at the backstop position. They chose a different path.

This offseason, the Rays once again had a need for a new Catcher with Wilson Ramos roaming up to Queens. This time the Rays brought in the local product, this time the former Gator Mike Zunino.

Mike Zunino Is Good

Let’s start this off declaring that I have no worries at all about Zunino’s glove and defense behind home plate. He is one of the best defensive catchers in the game, by both old metrics and new. If Kevin Cash hid all of Mike Zunino’s bats, and he went to the plate empty handed, he would still be a valuable player. Last season, Zunino hit just 84 wRC+, but his defense carried him to a 2.1 fWAR and a 1.9 bWAR.

Fangraphs recently added in Catcher framing metrics to their site, and Mike Zunino was one of the largest gainers in fWAR.

Over the past 10 years, Mike Zunino has had the 15th largest increase of career fWAR now that they have included framing metrics (old friend and Catcher Framing canary in the coal mine Jose Molina was 4th most). Zunino takes immense pride in working with pitchers, throwing out baserunners (28.32 CS% is 19th best of all active Catchers), framing pitches, and doing all the little things to help his pitching staff succeed.

“You really have to do your due diligence on those guys, make sure your relationship are to point where they trust you once the game and the season rolls around.” Mike Zunino

Everything about Zunino the person, Zunino the teammate, is exceptional.

Cash was quoted early in the spring speaking about Zunino with glowing positivity, and that hasn’t changed:

“He came in on Friday and caught a bunch of guys and the interaction that he had with the pitchers and then also with (pitching coach) Kyle Snyder, Kyle said it was outstanding,”

But it’s his bat that will truly be the difference maker. Mike Zunino is a tremendous defensive catcher, but he has shown that he can bring some equally impressive power at the plate.

The key will be: which Zunino will the Rays get?

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

How Mike Zunino Became Good

Early in Zunino’s Seattle Mariners career he showed off impressive power (ISO north of .200) but horrific contact and strikeout rates (34.2% K rate for his career). Zunino seemed destined to be another Seattle Mariners high draft pick disappointment. Not a bad player by any stretch, but never quite putting all the tools and pieces together to become the player he is capable of. And then, a glimmer of hope.

In the midst of a rough first 20 or so games in 2017 for the Seattle Mariners, Mike Zunino went down to Triple-A Tacoma to rework his swing. He put his exceptional work ethic to the test, and dove in with both feet to fixing what he felt was broken.

He turned to Mariners minor league field coordinator, Mike Micucci, to help. Micucci came with an impressive resume, most notably helping to rework Nelson Cruz’ swing when he was with the Texas Rangers.

“The game is telling you when you need to change and that’s what we were telling Mike. We got to a point where it was like, ‘I don’t want to hear about the University of Florida. I don’t want to hear about Double-A, Triple-A – I don’t want to hear about what you did two seasons ago. I don’t want to hear any of it.” Mike Miccuci

Studying tape of various players with similar body types, including Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson, and Matt Holliday to tweak his swing, his stance, and tap into the power and hitting ability that he clearly has.

The quotes and story come from the fantastic piece written by TJ Cotterill of the News Tribune, detailing the work Zunino and Miccuci put in, and I encourage you to read it for more detailed breakdown of the changes made and quotes from both Zunino and Miccuci.

After his time in Tacoma with Miccuci, Zunino would return to the Mariners and would be a new ballplayer. He would go on to finish 2017 with a slash line of .251/.331/.509 and 127 wRC+ with 25 HR and a 3.9 fWAR. He was still a wizard behind the plate, but now he was a weapon at the dish as well.

2018 was set to be a big breakout year to build off of the work he did in 2017, but alas, two big injuries would derail his momentum. An oblique strain in the spring and a nasty ankle bone bruise over the summer wouldn’t allow Zunino to get back into rhythm. He was still useful, and very good defensively. If framing is your thing, Zunino was top-20 in framing results last season, on par with known framer Yan Gomes and well ahead of someone named J.T. Realmuto? But the story goes that his bat lagged, and he regressed in a year where he should have taken off.

With those injuries behind him, and a fresh start back home in the Sunshine State, Zunino wants to take that reworked swing and have the monster breakout season he seemed poised to have.

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zunino Will Be Good

In 2019 the projections believe in the glove of Zunino, and believe he will be a good player. 2.6 WAR from Steamer, 1.5 from ZiPS, and 2.1 WARP from PECOTA. All of these systems believe less in that bat. But belief in Mike Zunino has been something that seems lacking over the years. And it’s easy to see why, from the outside. However, for those that have followed Zunino’s career closely, belief in him isn’t that strange.

The rallying cry from the CespedesFamilyBBQ boys and our friends at Lookout Landing was: Mike Zunino is Good.

At his best in 2017, Zunino was a beast. According to Statcast, Zunino has an average Exit Velocity of 90.3 mph which was 26th best in all of baseball, and 29th best in Barrels per PA (7.6%). Even with his frustrating, injury stop-start 2018, when Zunino made contact he would send it. His Exit Velocity dropped in 2018, but only slightly, to 89.5% (86th in MLB and 39th in Barrels per PA at 7.7%, placing him in both among the likes of Yasiel Puig and Nick Castellanos. The glimpses of what he can be shown through even in the lost years, and the disappointing stretches.

Now healthy, returning home to Florida, motivated beyond belief to finally become the complete player he can be, I too believe in Mike Zunino.

I believe Mike Zunino is and will be Good.

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Previously: Mike Zunino is better than you think