The catching situation for the Rays in 2021 improved as much as anyone could have wished, largely because Mike Zunino is swinging one of the hottest bats in baseball, leading all catchers with 10 home runs. For the first time, the Rays have the catcher that they expected when they traded for him from the Mariners organization in 2019. Zunino has a higher WAR in 2021 (1.3) than in 2020 (0) and 2019 (0.3) combined, and remember we have played fewer than 50 games.
What’s going right this year? Let’s take a look.
When Zunino came to the Rays in 2019 it was probably not for his elite on-base skills; the Rays targeted him for his defense and power. Mike has never had great plate discipline. The strikeouts are very high, the K% actually stands at 35.4%, and in his career he has a 34.5%. However this year he is taking his walks. His 2021 8.3BB% is several ticks higher than his career 6.7BB%.
But it is, of course, the power that stands out. His .368 ISO his best season; he’s beating his strongest season in that category, that is in 2016 when he had a .262 ISO. That power is further demonstrated in the SLG category; his .586 ranks tenth in the majors tied with Yordan Alvarez (although he does not officially qualify because he doesn’t have the plate appearances required).
One of the stats that pop out when you take a look at Zunino numbers is the wOBA which stands at .371 and ranks top 50 in the majors. Mike has a career stat line of .291 wOBA which explains that this year he is getting more extra-base hits and more walks. Equally impressive is his performance against the league, as indicated by wRC+ in 2021 (144) when compared to 2020 (65) and 2019 (45).
One thing that we find, whether we use statistics or the eye test: Mike Zunino is destroying baseballs this year. We have seen a couple of homers at 450+ feet, thanks to his barrel and hard-hit rates. The barrel rate is through the roof with 26.4% (he has a career 12.4%); he already has more barrels than in 2020, and the same amount of them in 2016. The hard-hit stands at 41.5% which is the third highest in his career in one season. As a consequence of the hard-hit rate, his exit velocity averages 91 mph, the highest in his career. All this is coupled with a launch angle of 30.5, while the average in his career is 20.9
To conclude, we can say that Zunino is bringing the hard hits that the Rays need from the bottom of the lineup. The numbers are telling us that he has been more productive than ever, he is racking up better stats than in 2020 and 2019.
I will drop a hot take: Mike Zunino will lead all catchers in home runs by the end of 2021. I see him having a 30+ home run season, assuming he stays health. Who’s with me?