If you are a Rays fan, you may feel that catchers who are reasonably good behind the plate and reasonably effective with the bat are like unicorns. You read about them, you dream about them, but do we have any evidence that such a creature exists?
Last year, however, Rays fans got to see a catching duo that framed, blocked, threw out runners, and was not a black hole at the bottom of the lineup. Leading that duo was Mike Zunino.
Zunino’s first two years with the Rays were not great. He was credited with managing a young pitching staff, but he struggled badly on offense, with a .161/.233/.323 batting line and 51 wRC+. That’s ugly.
However everything turned around when the University of Florida alum broke out at the plate in 2021. He still struck out a lot (35.2%) but when he hit the ball he did a lot of damage. He hit .216/.301/.559 and put up a 134 wRC+ over 375 plate appearances. He hit 33 homers or one every 12 plate appearances. If you are a Rays fan, you probably can recall that special sound of Zunino’s bat striking a ball and knowing that ball was going to travel a long distance.
Zunino has always had a ton of power but this was far and away his best season with a .342 ISO. He did post ISOs above .250 in 2016 and 2017 so this isn’t that unexpected, but it was still a nice surprise that he could find that power swing again in 2022.
His work behind the plate is why the Rays brought him back after the two subpar offensive seasons. In just over 6,000 innings he’s put up +53 DRS and +69.0 framing runs. In 2021 his defense remained stellar putting up +7 DRS and +8.0 framing runs.
As we enter the 2022 season it’s only natural that Rays fans feel confident with the catching duo of Zunino and Francisco Mejia. Despite this feeling of confidence the expectations need to be lowered.
Zunino’s season was entirely fueled by his homerun binge. He ran a 30.3% HR/FB rate that is sure to fall closer to his career 18.5% rate. When he hits the ball he hits it hard and it’s hit in the air more often than not, so he should be able to put up a solid 20+ homer season provided he stays relatively healthy.
Even Steamer (.203/.276/.436 and 97 wRC+) and ZiPS (.198/.273/.474 and 98 OPS+) project for Zunino to be roughly a league average hitter. When that hitter provides plus defense behind the plate you’ll take that all day.
Zunino’s been a good player thanks to his defensive ability behind the plate, but his disappointing offensive production after being drafted number three overall has left many asking: is Mike Zunino good? After the 2021 season I think we can answer: yes.