Twice upon a time, a massive, talented Floridian catcher was drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft: once in 2003 and once in 2012. Both promising prospects were rushed to the bigs very early in their career. Catcher A made his debut on his 22nd birthday. Catcher B was also 22 in his first MLB outing. Catcher A is approaching his 32nd birthday. He’s now been a member of seven organizations in his career, during which he’s accumulated 9.5 WAR. Catcher B turned 26 on March 25th of this year, ready to open the season as the starting catcher for the organization that drafted him. Catcher B is – you guessed it – Mike Zunino. You might not guess who catcher A is though. It’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia. These two have quite a bit more in common.
First off, both are valuable defensive catchers. We’re going to peek at StatCorner’s Catcher Report, which evaluates framing runs above average (RAA). As described by internet celebrity and business industry leader Zach Sanders, defensive catching metrics are – to censor it a bit – a production that features poop, so bear with me here. Here are both players’ RAA’s through their first four years in the bigs.
NOTE: Saltalamacchia played only 12 games in 2010, so that will not be included.
NOTE: Zunino spent about 500 more innings behind the plate over his first four years than Salty.
Aside from a subpar second year from Saltalamacchia, they were above average or better behind the dish at the beginning of their career.
They also possessed intrigue as hitters. Both burly backstops can hit the baseball a long way. Here’s a comparison of their ISOs over their first four years.
NOTE: ISO’s stabilization rate is around 160 AB, and both players had at least that many ABs in the analyzed seasons. I don’t want to hear any sample size complaints.
Since his fourth season, Saltalamacchia has posted an ISO greater than .175 in four of five seasons, which Fangraphs says is above average. Zunino obviously hasn’t played a fifth season, but we’ve all witnessed his power firsthand. Both players had a down year early, but otherwise have no trouble punishing the baseball.
Zunino has also learned to walk more. After posting a 3.8% walk rate in his second season, that number increased each of the next two years, peaking at 10.9% in 2016. Similarly, Saltalamacchia’s walk rate has steadily grown:
You’d be hard pressed to find a person who wouldn’t accept that progression over the course of Z’s career; however, there’s another stat that we’d all like to improve: his strikeout rate. Here’s where the comparison gets ugly. First, look at their K% in their first four years side-to-side:
It hasn’t gotten any better for Saltalamacchia, who’s posted a strikeout rate under 30% in just one season since. This is the obvious vice for Zunino, the logjam that could prevent maximum utility. If Big Mike still strikes out a third of his plate appearances as a seasoned veteran, his career could take similar shape to Saltalamacchia.
Things could be a lot worse. Salty was worth 8.5 wins from 2011 to 2014. Two wins a season from the catcher position would be a breath of fresh air for the Mariners, who haven’t had a two-win catcher since Kenji Johjima (John Jaso had a 2.5 WAR season in 2012, but was a DH in more than half his games, so I didn’t count him). The problem then becomes versatility.
In 2015 and 2016, Saltalamacchia combined for a 1.0 WAR. He now slots behind Russell Martin for catching duties in Toronto, and it’s unlikely he’ll accumulate much more WAR in his career. He didn’t age as well as hoped, because his performance at the plate never caught up to his defense, then his defense started to sputter as he aged. In an era of baseball where catcher defense holds high value, framing pitches can punch your ticket into the league. But catcher is as taxing position as any, and durability is far from a given. Therefore, a catcher’s longevity is reliant on their ability to develop as a hitter.
Take a look at brand new Mariner (but relatively old player) Carlos Ruiz. I compared his RAA over his career to his wRC+ and WAR:
Notice that early in his career, Ruiz was a below average hitter, but was a stud behind the dish. This yielded a positive WAR and made him a valuable major leaguer. As his career wore on, his production with a bat in his hands increased while his defense fell. The data shows, though, that his value as a hitter allowed for high WAR numbers. In fact, his only year with a negative WAR was when his wRC+ reached a career low in 2015. Otherwise, he’s been worth an average of 1.74 WAR per year while producing a negative RAA. The physical beating catchers take over the course of their career limit their defensive dominance, making a solid bat the key to a long career.
What can we expect from Mike Zunino in 2017 and beyond? With outstanding defense and power, if he can consistently walk as frequently as he did in 2016, the floor is pretty high. He projects to fit the mold of a player like Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His ceiling is as high as his K-rate allows it to be. If Zunino can strike out one in four plate appearances as opposed to one in three, he might compare to a Yasmani Grandal-type player. The 28-year old Dodger boasts a career 14.2% walk-rate, a .190 ISO, and has had a positive RAA each year in the bigs. They each posted ISO’s greater than .245 in 2016. Where Grandal holds a sizable edge is in his ability to generate that kind of power while keeping his strikeouts in check. Let’s compare their strikeout rates from their first four MLB years:
Grandal, who owns a career 22.9% k-rate, has posted a WAR greater than 2.0 in three of the four years in which he’s recorded at least 200 plate appearances. He was an all-star in 2015. I believe our boy Mike can be an all-star too. Physically he’s nearly identical to Yas, and both hit for power. Grandal walks a bit more than Big Mike, but Zunino has become increasingly patient at the plate, highlighted by a career high 10.9 walk-rate in 2016. Additionally, (cue the ST stats mean nothing screams) he’s shown an impressive approach at the plate this spring. His 11 bases on balls are the highest on the team, while he’s gone down on strikes in less than a quarter of his at bats in camp.
I wonder how much working with Carlos Ruiz has helped in that regard, and how significant of an impact it will make down the road. Chooch has never had a strikeout rate above 15% in a major league season. If he can help Zunino overcome consistent contact issues, the Mariners are looking at a three-win catcher, similar to Grandal. Yes, please. Ideally, assistance from Ruiz on how to balance a catcher’s defensive workload with offensive production and continued work with Edgar Martinez and assistant hitting coach Scott Brosius will lead to improvement in the strikeout column from Z.
But if Zunino is permanently stuck with a strikeout rate of 30% or more, don’t be upset; a career path similar to Jarrod Saltalamacchia would mean the Mariners would have a catcher worth about 10 wins for their career. In fact, Salty was worth an average of 2.125 wins per season for four years. Given the Mariners have only had four two-win seasons from a catcher since 2000, things could be - and have been - much worse.
But lucky us, Mike’s ceiling is higher. So here’s to Mike the student, mentor Chooch, and Professors Martinez and Brosius. We’re looking forward to a bright future.