Wilson Ramos had a great offensive year for the Rays in 2018, and many, including me, looked at Mike Zunino as a step down offensively from a guy that was the best hitting catcher in baseball last year.
Prior to joining the Rays, Mike Zunino was a much different hitter than Ramos. Wilson struck out and walked at rates well below league-average while hitting for some power, while Zunino was more of a three-true-outcomes prototype, striking out a lot more than league average, walking at a roughly league-average rate, and hitting for big power.
Here are their BB rates, K rates, OBP, wRC, and ISO relative to a league-average of 100 from 2016-2018, courtesy of FanGraphs.
Now let’s flip the script to 2019.
Zunino has drastically cut the K rate, and while he’s also walking quite a bit less than league average, he’s still hitting for power.
Dive a little deeper, and we can see even more similarities between the 2018 version of Wilson Ramos and the 2019 version of Mike Zunino.
Using a statistical concept called z-scores, an idea I first encountered reading some work by former Fangraphs now current Rays employee Jeff Sullivan, we can come up with which 2018 hitters were most similar to the 2019 version of Mike Zunino based on five components:
(1) the rate at which the hitter swung at pitches (Swing%)
(2) the rate of contact when swinging at pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%)
(3) the overall rate of contact when swinging (Contact%)
(4) the rate at which a hitter swings at pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%), and
(5) the average exit velocity of the balls put in play by the hitter (Avg. EV).
Here are 2018 hitters that bear the most similarity to 2019 Mike Zunino along those five components, sorted by Similarity Score (Sim Score), which is just the sum of the z-score differences across each component. The lower the Sim Score, the more similarities between the hitter in 2018 and the 2019 version of Zunino.
Along these components, no 2018 hitter looked more like 2019 Mike Zunino than 2018 Wilson Ramos.
The closest other catcher in Similarity Score to Zunino was Gary Sanchez, with a Sim Score of 2.68. The ten 2018 hitters that bear the most similarity to 2019 Mike Zunino averaged a .330 wOBA last year, which worked out to a wRC+ around 110, give or take a few points depending on park factors. The composite hitter in this group was clearly above-average for the league and would be among the five or ten best-hitting catchers in the baseball.
So if you’re the Rays ,and you think the offensive force you had behind the plate in 2018 will be priced out of your comfort zone, what do you do? Well, it appears the Rays just decided to get themselves a cheaper clone, one who also happens to play better defense.
If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking there’s a catch. There is. There’s always a catch, particularly with catchers.
There’s one way in which the 2019 version of Mike Zunino — and really all versions of Mike Zunino — differs significantly as a hitter from Wilson Ramos: launch angle.
Let’s look at the average launch angle from 2016-2019 for Ramos and Zunino when they hit the ball at 100 mph or more. These are the times when hitters make their best contact, when everything lines up, and they impact the ball in the way they intended. Data comes from the incomparable Baseball Savant.
When Ramos hits the ball the hardest, but he tends to hit grounders and liners. Zunino, on the other hand, hits mostly fly balls and line drives.
Here’s the breakdown by ball-in-play type (BIP) on hard-hit balls from 2016-2019 for each guy:
This isn’t a shortcoming for Zunino, though. It’s a strength. Check out the wOBA for those 100+ mph BIPs for Zunino and Ramos from 2016-2019.
Elevate to celebrate, kids.
The problem is that this year when Zunino makes the loudest contact, he hasn’t been hitting the launch angle sweet spot the way he has in years past. Here’s Zunino’s wOBA and xwOBA on those 100+ mph BIPs from 2016-2018 compared to this year.
There are a couple things going on for Zunino this year when he hits the ball hard.
First, he’s had lousy luck. Second, he hasn’t been optimizing his launch angle on those BIPs as well as he did prior to this season.
In a small sample size, here’s the radial chart for those 100+ mph BIPs, again from Baseball Savant for 2019.
As you can see, half of his well hit 100+ mph BIPs this year gone for outs, while others resulted in ground outs or long, loud fly ball outs. Yes, fictional Indians fan from Major League, there is such a thing as hitting the ball “too high”.
Some of that’s bad luck, but some of it’s failing to find that launch angle sweet spot, a problem which should take care of itself in a larger sample of BIPs. If Zunino keeps hitting the ball this way, the dad strength should eventually become more and more evident, like we saw last week:
2019 Mike Zunino is in many meaningful ways 2018 Wilson Ramos.
In terms of their plate discipline stats and exit velocity, they’re virtually twins, but on their launch angle differences on the hardest-hit balls favor Zunino: Advantage, clone.
You might have wanted the Rays to return the oft-injured Wilson Ramos in 2019, but even a month in, it’s difficult to say the Rays made the wrong decision in pursuing Mike Zunino.
*All stats considered were current and updated through April 25th, 2019