Drew Smyly opened his career as a Seattle Mariner with two scoreless innings in which he did not give up a hit, walking one and striking out two, but his post-game comments were reserved for heaping praise on catcher Mike Zunino. As 710’s Brent Stecker reports, Smyly gushed:
“He’s great. . .he really makes so many pitches look like strikes. He’s fantastic with receiving. It was eye-opening to me the first time I threw to him how well he was able to receive and make balls look like strikes. That’s huge from a pitching standpoint.”
We’ve all known for some time that Zunino is special defensively, but it’s fun to hear a new guy in the organization raving about him, like having a house guest who knows exactly what your Eames chair is and reminds you that hey, you actually have something pretty amazing hanging out in your front room. Smyly didn’t need a ton of help from his battery-mate in the first inning, striking out Tyler Naquin on three pitches before getting first pitch outs (groundout and flyout) with his next two batters. He followed that in the second by striking out Edwin Encarnacion on three pitches before walking Yan Gomes on four straight pitches. Zunino was able to pick off Gomes trying to steal (?) though, and with a flyout from Bradley Zimmer, also first-pitch swinging, the inning came to a close. So clearly Smyly has been sitting on this praise for some time, since Zunino had very little to do with his performance today. Given they have spent such a short amount of time together, what might inform Smyly’s enthusiastic review?
Looking at catchers Smyly has worked with in the past might provide a clue. In 2016, Curt Casali caught the majority of Smyly’s starts. Casali is rated as a plus framer by StatCorner, even ahead of Mike Zunino, although Zunino is a little better at getting pitches outside the zone called a strike. However, because the Rays’ situation at catcher was in flux last year, Smyly wound up throwing to four different catchers—Casali, Bobby Wilson (who also graded out just a few ticks worse than Zunino for framing), Hank Conger (who graded in the bottom third), and Luke Maile, who is a promising defensive prospect but caught just 14 innings last year. The catching situation wasn’t any clearer in Tampa Bay in 2015, with Casali again getting the lion’s share of innings, followed by Wilson, Conger, and Maile. Casali and his 30% K rate have spent a lot of time bouncing between the majors and AAA, however, which makes Tampa Bay’s desire of Jesús Sucre a little more understandable.
So it’s not like Smyly was throwing to poor receivers in Tampa Bay, but he certainly wasn’t throwing to anyone with an iron grip on the starting job. As anyone who has to work closely with other people will tell you, having competent co-workers upon whom you can depend alleviates a tremendous amount of stress. It’s hard enough to do your own job without worrying about someone else’s ability to do theirs. Pitchers tend to be control freaks; hopefully, knowing that he can rely on Zunino to make the strikes look like strikes and the balls to also look like strikes will help Smyly focus on the task at hand. And for a player who has struggled as mightily as Zunino, it’s always nice to be reminded of what you can do well. As Edgar says, “everyone needs someone to tell them they are good.” It’s early yet, but the Smyly-Zunino battery looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.