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How much do the Mariners miss Mike Zunino?

The near-40% K rate might not be a huge loss, but how significant is the defensive downgrade?

Seattle Mariners v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Every time the LL account tweets something about Mike Zunino being Good, or we make reference to it here on the site, someone inevitably busts in to talk about his lackluster offensive statistics, and how he’s still a disappointment for what a first rounder should be, despite the fact that, according to the most recent figures we have, only about 20% of first-rounders become superstars while 60% are busts—career minor leaguers, bench warmers, or part-time players. For these people, Mike Zunino will always be held up to the promise of what he should be and not what he is, which is one of the league’s best defensive catchers.

Zunino’s framing enjoys a well-deserved reputation for being solid, and he ranks in the top ten among catchers in the league for runs added per game at 2.7, according to Stat Corner. His 3.65 Catcher ERA is 11th in baseball, which is impressive considering the contact-oriented pitching staff he’s working with (for comparison, the top two catchers by ERA are the two Astros catchers, neither of whom are anywhere near Z defensively). And despite having the 15th-most stolen bases attempted against him in baseball, Zunino’s caught stealing percentage of .400 ranks fourth in MLB.

Anecdotally, we also have evidence that Seattle’s pitching staff loves having Z behind the dish. In addition to the now-standard genuflect in Zunino’s direction by any starting pitcher in interviews after a strong outing, Marco Gonzales has made a point of shouting Z out in post-game posts on Instagram, the season-long flowering of the relationship we saw bloom briefly in spring training.

So how much does losing Mike Z behind the dish affect Seattle’s rotation? It’s only been a couple of weeks, but the M’s pitching staff carried a 3.85 FIP from the beginning of the season until July 3rd, when Mike Zunino played his last full game. That number has crept up since, to 4, but the damage isn’t as bad as it could be.

Mariners Catcher Splits 2018 - Zunino

Pitcher Zunino IP Zunino ERA Zunino K/9 Zunino BB/9
Pitcher Zunino IP Zunino ERA Zunino K/9 Zunino BB/9
James Paxton 90 3.1 33.0% 6.5%
Mike Leake 22.1 6.45 12.0% 1.0%
Marco Gonzales 83.2 3.01 21.9% 5.5%
Felix Hernandez 62 4.65 21.1% 8.1%
Wade LeBlanc 66.2 2.83 19.0% 4.5%

Mariners Catcher Splits 2018 - David Freitas

Pitcher Freitas IP Freitas ERA Freitas K/9 Freitas BB/9
Pitcher Freitas IP Freitas ERA Freitas K/9 Freitas BB/9
James Paxton 24 3.38 33.0% 6.0%
Mike Leake 51.1 4.21 17.4% 6.6%
Marco Gonzales 23.2 5.32 23.7% 3.1%
Felix Hernandez 11 7.36 17.6% 5.8%
Wade LeBlanc 13.1 6.75 16.9% 5.0%

Mariners Catcher Splits 2018 - Chris Herrmann

Pitcher Herrmann IP Herrmann ERA Herrmann K/9 Herrmann BB/9
Pitcher Herrmann IP Herrmann ERA Herrmann K/9 Herrmann BB/9
James Paxton 0
Mike Leake 31 3.19 13.8% 4.6%
Marco Gonzales 6 1.5 28% 8%
Felix Hernandez 11 4.91 12.2% 6.1%
Wade LeBlanc 0

Zunino has the consistently best ERA except in the 24 innings he’s caught Mike Leake, where he posts the worst numbers across the board. Herrmann, who has said he likes working with Leake because they’re both “artists,” does have the best overall numbers in working with him, although Freitas’s strikeout numbers are better. In fact, despite Freitas not having a reputation as a strong framer (his elite skill is pitch-blocking, something that’s hard to quantify in a stat), his strikeout numbers are on par with Zunino’s for Paxton, and a tick better when working with Marco Gonzales, with a decreased walk rate as well. You could credit Paxton with being able to pitch well no matter who’s catching him, but Paxton’s velocity makes him difficult to catch, and showing a facility to work with both Paxton and a softer-tosser like Wade or Marco makes Freitas a valuable backup. The biggest beneficiary of Zunino’s catching is, unsurprisingly, Félix Hernández; in a combined 22 innings neither backup catcher has been able to replicate Z’s success with the King. However, with Félix joining Z on the disabled list through the All-Star Break, it’s a moot point. Overall, the peripherals here suggest there’s not a significant dropoff from Zunino to Freitas, despite what the respective ERAs might suggest.

Where the Mariners will feel Z’s loss most acutely—and have felt, already—is in controlling the running game. Neither Freitas nor Herrmann have especially strong arms, and both are facing similar challenges in working with pitchers they don’t know very well. Teams are poised to take advantage of whoever is behind the dish, as we saw when Ian Desmond stole a crucial base in Saturday’s game against the Rockies. (Well, it was crucial at the time. The game itself turned into a bit of a laugher, albeit the cruel laughter of the gods.) Ankles can be tricky, but Servais is optimistic that Zunino, who is doing light running and hitting off a tee, is on-track to return after the All-Star Break. With Junino falling flat and Zuly a seeming loss, let’s cross our fingers for...Zaugust? In the meantime, though, congratulations to David Freitas for doing his best Mike Zunino impression: