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We need to talk about Mike Zunino’s defense

As the offensive approach improves, the defense has apparently regressed.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners
this wasn’t annoying at all
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

One of the most frustrating parts about this season, seemingly crafted in the mind of O.Henry, is the 2017 team’s spin on Newton’s third law of motion: for every good thing that happens to the Mariners, there must be an equal and opposite bad thing. Jean Segura tearing the cover off the ball? Fine then, no Mitch Haniger for you. Ariel Miranda delivers seven strong innings? Enter Yovani the next day to Gallardo up the place. And now we have Mike Zunino: the catcher who learned how to hit but forgot how to catch. No, literally:

For some time now, Zunino’s offensive struggles at the plate have been counterbalanced by his plus defense. In 2014 he managed to be worth 1.8 fWAR by essentially balancing his negative offense score with a plus defensive one. In 2015, when he was abysmal at the plate, he was similarly excellent behind it, although a tick down from his 2014 numbers. Z has always been a better framer than a pitch blocker, but this year his numbers have fallen off in both categories. Baseball Prospectus has him ranked 72 out of 80 catchers in framing runs, his -4.6 framing runs a deadlock with Salvador Perez, whose pitch framing is about as subtle as a neon tracksuit. He’s also listed as dead last in blocking runs, at -2.0. Overall, his FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) of -6.7 drops him into third-to-last place among all qualified catchers, albeit with a healthy lead over James McCann (-10.6) and Jonathan Lucroy (a staggering -13.8).

The numbers aren’t any rosier over at Fangraphs, although they might be slightly less horrifying, with a -2 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). StatCorner has him as the eighth-worst catcher in baseball for framing, with 68 lost calls one way or the other leading to a -9 RAA (similar to BP’s FRAA). Defensive metrics are currently rough tools compared to their other, more refined counterparts, but looking across a variety of systems and having them all suggest that Zunino’s defense is trending downward is, as we say, not great, Bob. Especially when it’s backed up by the eye test:

The tracer later shows this pitch to be right at the bottom of the zone; it really didn’t need to be framed. But Mike sort of stabs at it anyway, pulling his glove up, and the pitch is ruled a ball. We’ve seen several umpires this year not call the low strike, which is of course unhelpful for the Mariners’ pitching staff, many of whom need to work low in the zone to compensate for less-than-spectacular stuff.

But Zunino’s sudden double-plus-ungood framing numbers might not be entirely his fault. From that same game, look at where Zunino puts this target:

vs. where it ends up:

It’s still a strike, right at the top of the zone, but the pitch has come in way higher than Zunino called for it (it looks higher in this still because Norris has squatted down to watch the pitch, but it came in at the letters). He tries to close his glove over the top of the pitch to pull it down slightly, but no go. Watching this game back, this is a common theme—Zunino puts a target out, and Bergman sails on him. But often these pitches cross enough of the zone to show up as “should’ve been” strikes, meaning Mike’s framing numbers get dinged, even though it wasn’t really his fault.

Let’s compare that to command specialist Sam Gaviglio. Here’s Zunino’s target:

And here’s how the pitch came in:

Easy, breezy, beautiful. So far we have one Sam Gaviglio making Mike’s job easier, and one Christian Bergman making it significantly harder. What about the other members of the rotation?

Ariel Miranda has been one of the few pitchers who can consistently get deep into games for the Mariners, but the command can falter in and out. From his start against the Nationals, the target:

and the result:

Another borderline strike called a ball as Zunino had to adjust last minute, rotating his glove around. He tries to save it by pulling it back in but that, combined with Ryan Zimmerman being a good little helper for the umpire, results in another narrow miss for the battery. Miranda does throw in the zone a lot—third-highest Zone % in the majors—so even when he misses Mike’s exact target, he’s usually close enough to the zone for the pitch to still be measured a strike, even if it’s not called as such. But when the pitch comes in differently than where Zunino expects it, he has to make a last- minute adjustment. Miranda may be effectively wild, but that’s not helping Zunino’s numbers behind the plate, and he has the second-most starts with Zunino (Paxton is first, with 11; Miranda has 10).

So far this season, Zunino has caught nine different starting pitchers. The majority of those starts belong to James Paxton, Ariel Miranda, and Yovani Gallardo. All three of these pitchers put the ball in the zone a fair amount—Paxton at about 47%, and Gallardo, 46.1%, but Miranda can suffer the aforementioned command issues, Paxton has been struggling post-injury, and Yovani Gallardo is Yovani Gallardo. A rotation consisting of pitchers who can consistently hit their spots—as longtime batterymate Félix, Andrew Moore, and Gaviglio all have shown an ability to do—will lift Zunino’s framing numbers back to their previous levels. Hopefully that will leave him some time to practice catching outfield darts from Guillermo Heredia.