There’s been a lot of talk about Yasmani Grandal’s statline this season. The White Sox catcher is taking the three true outcomes approach to levels never seen before, making a mockery out of production evaluation based on batting average, but if I were to ask you who currently leads all American League catchers in wRC+ (min. 60 PA) would you know the answer? Hint: it is not Yasmani Grandal.
The name you’re looking for is Mike Zunino, who also is having quite the odd season as he’s splitting time with Francisco Mejia behind the plate in Tampa. Let’s have a look at what the former Mariner has done so far in 2021 and why it stands out.
That looks like a big outlier, but if you look at the numbers it really isn’t. Here’s a little piece of trivia for you: Of the eight best catchers in the American League (min. 50 PA) would you venture a guess as to how many are hitting above .225? Five, the answer is five. Mike Zunino, Yasmany Grandal, Kyle Higashioka, Mitch Garver, and Sean Murphy are all hovering around the Mendoza Line, except for Grandal, who’s in a league of his own. Jason Castro, Francisco Mejia and Salvador Perez are the minority, with productive seasons and “normal” batting averages.
I don’t expect to see Zunino carry this 137 wRC+ for the rest of the season. In fact, it was at 150 when I originally had the idea for this article, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be on his way to a career year or at least an above average hitting season and the Tampa Bay Rays would gladly take that.
We know about the production, but let’s try and understand how we got here and also take a look at some of the peripherals.
Take a look at these two graphics:
Zunino is hitting the ball hard and in the air at rates he’s never achieved before in his career. The Rays catcher doesn’t exactly put the ball in play often, but when he does the damage is real. His barrel rate of 28.3 percent is in the 100th percentile in all of baseball, accompanied by the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Franmil Reyes. Zunino’s “expected” slugging percentage is in the 97th percentile, behind names such as Fernando Tatis Jr, Ronald Acuña Jr, Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper – so he’s not been overly lucky by these measures.
Surely, though, some of his peripherals must point towards regression, right?
Not really. Unlike his 2017 campaign that bolstered a .355 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) which was 100 points above his overall batting average that year (.251), in 2021 his BABIP is a mere .224, significantly lower than his career mark. Zunino is not getting lucky when he hits the ball, he is simply hitting it hard and in the air, and getting the result his production deserves.
In terms of xwOBA, the former Mariner is sandwiched in between Pete Alonso and Chris Taylor, not bad company for a player coming off three seasons as a below average hitter.
It will be interesting to see if Zunino can maintain this level of production, at least to a certain degree. The track record isn’t really there, but at the same time his success in 2021 doesn’t derive out of luck. We are left to see what will happen, and it will be an interesting ride.