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MVZ: Most Valuable Zunino

He’s not doing a lot at the plate, so what could Mike Zunino do to increase his value behind the plate?

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let us love you, you big Italian doofus

[Ed. note: This is a guest post from Conor Kelley, founder of Kelley Catching. Conor is an author and catching coach living in Seattle. Find him on Twitter: @ByConorKelley]

I occupy a strange corner in the baseball world. Some days I train middle-school catchers struggling to catch pitches without falling over, other days college guys and minor leaguers looking to improve their pitch framing stats. I have a catching website, I write a blog on coaching catchers, and I’ve published a book on catching. So I watch a lot of catchers. And you know what? I love Mike Zunino. Friggin’ love him. He is good and seems like a good guy, too. He certainly seems to have all the intangibles a catcher needs. He's got great recall and the ability to interact appropriately with both his pitcher and the umpire; he makes adjustments, and deals well with pressure. Zunino has a nice toolbox upstairs.

But catching intangibles often get talked to death because of a lack of understanding of basic aspects of the position. Today I want to talk about one of those. The most basic one, actually: catching the baseball. And the small thing Mike Z’s not doing that matters a whole lot.

In order to understand Mike Z as a receiver, we need to look at his mechanics as well as the data. Take a look at his setup here.

Mike’s setup is very generic. Both his shoulders and his knees are directly facing the pitcher, and he doesn’t push his knees forward to sink low the way we watched Jesus Sucre do over the past few years. He only rarely sets up one on knee. If he were in a video game, his setup would be called Default Catcher 1.

This is very similar to how Scott Servais and Dan Wilson set up when they caught in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the best receivers in the game still use this basic stance. But while catchers’ setups may not have changed much, their receiving style has.

“When Dan and I caught,” Servais said last spring, “it was more of an era where you were just supposed to catch it and hold it or stick it. Nowadays, guys are kind of learning to funnel the ball a little bit toward the strike zone.”

This notion of funneling has become popular over the last few years. Taking pitches that are borderline strikes, labeled striballs by the great Jerry Weinstein, and using a fluid motion to push them back to the corners of the zone.

Does Mike do this? Sort of.

What's it like to catch a Major League pitcher? Let Mike Zunino show you—through his own eyes. #MarinersST

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Let’s call Zunino’s style The Push Up. For nearly every pitch, he starts with his glove underneath the path of the ball and catches it moving up toward the zone. If the pitch is a borderline strike around the bottom of the zone, he’ll continue pushing it upwards even after the ball makes contact with his glove. This keeps the downward trajectory of the pitch from pushing his glove down. His focus is very clearly on that bottom line:

“For me, I put a lot of emphasis low in the zone,” he says. “If I can handle that pitch low in the zone, bring it up and make it look presentable…that’s where we teach our guys to pitch.”

He’s not Coin Flipping that low pitch, a high-risk strategy Travis d’Arnaud showed off in the NLCS two years ago:

And he’s definitely not doing what Chris Iannetta did for us last year, and what we benefitted from James McCann doing for the Tigers last week, which is setting up with the glove too high and dragging borderline low strikes toward the ground.

No, Zunino does a pretty good job with the bottom of the zone. He doesn’t bury strikes. But since Mike debuted with us in 2013, he’s been the 7th best receiver in the league. Top third, top quarter, but not top 5. Good, but not elite.

The first column there is RAA, Runs Above Average. It’s calculated from the percentage of pitches in the standard strike zone called strikes (zBall) and pitches outside the zone called strikes (oSt). The numbers you see for columns two and three are these catchers’ season averages since 2013, the year Mike debuted with us. You’ll note there’s a glaring difference in one column: Mike’s oSt% average. Mike is keeping strikes strikes, but he’s not winning many striballs.

So let’s try to learn from the guy who does it the best: Yasmani Grandal. Over the past four years, Grandal has gotten almost 2% more balls called as strikes than Zunino. What’s he doing that Mike’s not?

Grandal has a pretty basic setup, too. He’s a Default Catcher 1 guy. But the difference between him and Zunino becomes evident when the pitch arrives. The Dodgers’ organization-wide philosophy is to move the baseball. They teach their catchers to gently bring pitches off the plate back to the edge of the zone, no matter which corner. If Zunino’s style is The Push Up, theirs is The Push In. Remember that funneling thing Servais was talking about last year? Grandal’s doing the thing.

Grandal moves the baseball back to the corner while Zunino just catches it where it is. And by using this subtly different receiving style, Grandal’s expanding all four corners of the zone. Here’s what his strike zone looked like last year:

The comparison of Zunino and Grandal is important. They are, in a lot of ways, very similar players. The two of them are former first-round picks who struggled to get established in the MLB. Both are in their mid-to- late-20’s, around the same height and weight, with average throwing arms that catch 25%-30% of base stealers. And they both have good power but have trouble making contact. While Mike Z has struggled to get over the Mendoza Line, Grandal’s best batting average in a full season is only .234.

But Grandal has provided value to his teams even during his slumps at the plate. Last year he was a huge part of the Dodgers’ playoff run and, despite only hitting .228, earned himself an MVP vote from writer Travis Sawchick. In Sawchick’s explanation behind his vote, he described a player whose low batting average was offset by his ability to take a walk and hit for power. That doesn’t sound too different from our guy when he’s going good. You can close your eyes and imagine that being Mike Z, can’t you?

But according to Sawchick, Grandal’s most valuable ability is to turn balls into strikes. To funnel. To move the baseball. To win striballs. We don’t yet know the real value of a good catcher, not when so much of the position deals with intangible skills and is measured by obscure data not yet ready for primetime. But we do know that an elite receiving catcher is worth a few extra runs.

In a season like 2017 where you’re doing Whatever It Takes, those few runs matter now more than ever. They’re already starting to add up. In the first month of the season, they’ve meant something. And for a guy trying to stick in this league, a subtle change might mean everything.