In an article on The Ringer this week, Ben Lindbergh examined the intersection between catcher defense and their performance at the plate, arguing: “To a greater degree than players at other positions, catchers’ work in the field follows them to the plate, bringing burdens and blessings.” The benefits Lindbergh sees for catchers at the plate are twofold: they have an advantage hitting against pitchers they’ve previously caught, and they are gifted a slightly more generous zone by umpires (check the article for the exact numbers and his methodology in determining these things). While the data supports Lindbergh’s conclusions, attempting to ferret out the causes is, like much in the intersection between baseball and human nature, guesswork. For an explanation, Lindbergh leans on Roger Angell—who has built his house at the intersection of baseball and human nature—who notes the special fraternity of the two men who stand weaponless behind the plate as projectiles rain down from 60 feet 6 inches away. Here’s a glimpse of these “foxhole buddies” in action, one of my favorite moments of 2017:
2017 Ninja Award--Best Warmup Pitch. Thyago Vieira. ⚾️— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 19, 2017
2017 Ninja Award--Best Deadpan Reaction to a Warmup Pitch. Gary Cederstrom. pic.twitter.com/uzmqPdBJdx
A play in three acts: the pitch comes in, zooming away from the plate like a rescue pup getting its first taste of open space, as Zunino turns his head to watch the comet streak by. Act II is my favorite: Mike freezes for one split second, watching the ball careen into the backstop, possibly imagining it taking a good portion of his Luxuriant Italian Eyebrows with it. Then, Act III: He immediately looks to HP umpire Gary Cedarstrom with a “holy cow did you see that” expression that can be discerned even behind the thick padding of the catcher’s mask. I would pay a not-insignificant amount of money to know what bon mot Mikey Z uncorked in that moment, what he’s saying to his foxhole buddy. I know enough of Mike’s personality from interviews to know that whatever it was, it was probably very funny, but not funny-mean, probably more funny-wry; you can see the barest hint of a smile play across Cedarstrom’s lips right at the very end. Belly laughs aren’t really appropriate for foxholes, after all.
So one would expect, it follows, given Zunino’s winsome and charming nature, the overall goodness and earnestness that seems to leak from his very pores, the way he’s quick to check on everyone around him—that should earn him a slightly friendlier strikezone, right? A friends and more friends discount. CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) is a stat from Baseball Prospectus that essentially measures how big or small a particular player’s personal strike zone is. It initially measured catcher efficiency, as part of framing metrics, but has recently been expanded to batters. In the article, Lindbergh points to the fact that, of the top 10 CSAA hitting leaders in baseball from 2012-2017, seven of them have been catchers at some point in their careers. The main subject of his article, Tyler Flowers, enjoys a slightly more modest boost, to the tune of about two runs, but Russell Martin and Yadier Molina both have double-digit runs added, with Buster Posey following closely behind.
If a strong defensive catcher sees a significant boost in his zone, and there’s a slight bias to the position anyway, even a poor framer should see a roughly neutral split. Quick: who’s the worst defensive catcher you can think of in baseball? Is it a McCann? John Hicks? Drew Butera? Mike Zunino has a worse career CSAA as a batter than any of those guys. Yes, even both the McCanns. In fact, Zunino’s score is the exact inverse of the aforementioned Tyler Flowers; he’s lost two runs over the course of his career. GARY, I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS.
How to explain this discrepancy? Well, for starters, there aren’t any CSAA stats posted for the past two years, so that data is older. Perhaps Z’s fortunes in called strikes have started to turn much as his career does a slow, dizzy pivot from “first round draft bust” to “Good.” Zunino also caught under the tenure of Lloyd McClendon, whose on-field antics were amusing to us as Mariners fans but certainly led to an adversarial relationship with certain umpires—Tony Randazzo says hi. (Side note: remember when Mike Zunino got ejected? This is a top ten Zunino moment for me, some real Edgar-charging-the-mound stuff.) Finally, there’s the common sense that the strike zone isn’t consistent, and can be influenced by a player or team’s reputation or perception. Jeff Sullivan has this on last year’s friendliest strike zones, and I don’t find it surprising that the Dodgers, Cubs, and Cleveland played with the friendliest zones, while the Tigers, Reds, and Phillies had pack-of-teens-at-the-mall hostile zones. Zunino has an uphill climb to prove he is no more the garbage-chaser of his youth, and he’ll have to do it without the benefit of the strong defensive metrics he’s enjoyed from the first part of his career, as his numbers in all the major defensive categories have tailed off over the past two years (this might just be statistical noise owing to his Seattle-to-Tacoma round-trip travel package). The groundwork is there, however, for Zunino’s turnaround to be rapid. He still has a reputation as a strong defensive catcher, last two years be damned, and while his K-rate remains high, he’s dropped his O-swing% well down from the near-40% (!!!) of 2014. He just has to keep plugging away at tearing down his old reputation.
In Othello, Cassio—an officer who gets into a drunken brawl—moans, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” For Mike Zunino, losing his reputation as one who poorly judges the zone offensively might help him out on both sides of the dish. Plus, I bet Cassio never hit a walkoff dinger.