Should M’s Upgrade At Catcher?

The Seattle Mariners’ September surge suggests something special awaits the club next year. Specifically, an outcome that’s eluded the franchise for 15 seasons — meaningful October baseball. To guarantee that goal becomes reality, general manager Jerry Dipoto will undoubtedly continue to tinker with the 40-man roster he aggressively turned over last offseason.

Dipoto’s future moves will attempt to improve the on-field product. But, they’ll serve a different purpose until Opening Day — fuel the Hot Stove for baseball-starved fans across the Pacific Northwest.

Having said that, the prevailing belief among observers is that Dipoto needs to augment his corner outfield spots and bullpen, plus add a veteran shortstop and a right-handed hitting first baseman. Doing so will bring him closer to transforming the Mariners from a fringe contender into a genuine threat in the American League West division.

One position not identified as needing improvement is starting catcher. But, in the eyes of the frustrated fan, the Mariners need help behind the plate. Especially, after the play of last season’s backstops.

The 2016 season began well enough for Opening Day starter Chris Iannetta, but he lost his job after his offense declined considerably in the second half. His replacement — Mike Zunino — started hot, but endured a September decline that left some wondering if he was relapsing into former bad habits. The only other catcher remaining on the 40-man roster is Jesus Sucre, known for a strong glove and weak bat.

Fan angst with their backstops is understandable. But, do the Mariners really need to upgrade at catcher? Before answering, let’s consider the current state of the position.

From a plate production standpoint, league-wide output for backstops is low. In fact, their on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) has been lower than any other non-pitching position during the last two seasons. The following table illustrates the decline in catcher production over the past five seasons. Also included is a comparison to shortstop — the former OPS bottom-dweller in major league baseball.

Year MLB OPS Shortstop OPS Catcher OPS
2012 .724 .688 .718
2013 .714 .681 .698
2014 .700 .678 .689
2015 .721 .688 .682
2016 .739 .725 .703

 

There was a time when shortstop was a viewed as an defense-first position. But, all-time greats such as Cal Ripken Jr, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter helped change that perception. Now, a wave of young offensively-gifted shortstops such as Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Aledmys Diaz and Addison Russell have revolutionized the position. Hence, the climbing OPS during the last two seasons.

Statistics aren’t the only indicator that offensive production from behind the plate is dwindling. Just look at the lineup card. On Opening Day, 60-percent of major league teams had their backstop batting seventh or later. The same applied on the last day of the season. Hitting catchers are less available than in years gone by.

That doesn’t mean no catcher can hit. Jonathan Lucroy, Buster Posey, and Yadier Molina are examples of receivers who consistently deliver prolific triple-slash numbers. Several youngsters, such J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez, have emerged on the scene with strong offensive numbers.

Still, offensively productive catchers are in short demand. In fact, only eight who qualified for batting title consideration were above this year’s league-average .703 OPS.

Rk Player Age Tm G PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Jonathan Lucroy 30 MIL/TEX 142 544 24 .292 .355 .500 .855
2 Wilson Ramos 28 WSN 131 523 22 .307 .354 .496 .850
3 Buster Posey 29 SFG 146 614 14 .288 .362 .434 .796
4 Yadier Molina 33 STL 147 581 8 .307 .360 .427 .787
5 J.T. Realmuto 25 MIA 137 545 11 .303 .343 .428 .771
6 Russell Martin 33 TOR 137 535 20 .231 .335 .398 .733
7 Salvador Perez 26 KCR 139 546 22 .247 .288 .438 .725
8 Stephen Vogt 31 OAK 137 532 14 .251 .305 .406 .711
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/2/2016.

 

The harsh reality is that the hitting catcher is an outlier, which brings us back to Seattle’s catching situation. Is Mike Zunino good enough to be Seattle’s starting catcher? Let’s review his history and development before deciding.

Mariners fans know by now that, after being the number-three overall pick during the 2012 amateur draft, Zunino reached the big leagues just 12 months later. In his first full season in the majors — 2014 — he flashed his plus-power with 22 home runs and a .404 slugging percentage. It appeared that Seattle had their catcher of the future.

Unfortunately, an equally dramatic free-fall followed Zunino’s meteoric rise through the minor leagues. The former Florida Gator significantly regressed in 2015 with an anemic .174/.230/.300 prior to being assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma in late August.

In hindsight, Seattle’s former leadership rushed Zunino to the big leagues. His offense was unacceptably poor and his confidence was shattered. The new regime, led by Dipoto, realized this after taking over in September 2015 and decided to reboot their young catcher’s career. The club assigned him to Tacoma with no set return date and told him to take all the time he needed to prepare for big league pitching.

With the help of coaches such as Edgar Martinez and Scott Brosius, Zunino made adjustments to his swing and hitting philosophy. Not it appears he may have turned a corner. At Tacoma, he slashed .286/.376/.521 with 17 home runs during 327 plate appearances. Moreover, he was reaching base via the walk 10.7-percent of the time.

When he finally returned to Seattle in July, Zunino continued his productive ways. He slashed .221/.348/.558 with nine home runs during his first two months. With that said, his offensive output tumbled in September. This left some fans wondering which Mike Zunino they’ll see next season. The stud from July and August or the lost, undisciplined hitter from 2015.

Despite his late-season descent, team management was quite satisfied with Zunino. As Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle noted, manager Scott Servais deemed the 25-year-old’s 2016 season as an “absolute success.” From a plate discipline and zone-control aspect, I agree. Look at the following table to see what I mean.

Year PA HR% SO% BB% O-Swing% Hard Contact %
2013 193 2.6% 25.4% 8.3% 29.5% 32.8%
2014 476 4.6% 33.2% 3.6% 38.5% 31.0%
2015 386 2.9% 34.2% 5.4% 33.7% 28.5%
2016 192 6.3% 33.9% 10.9% 27.7% 35.0%

 

Zunino still strikes out frequently, but he’s a power hitter and that’s to be expected. What has changed is that he reached for significantly fewer pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) than in his two previous seasons. A consequence of this newfound discipline was a 10.9-percent walk rate and 35-percent hard contact rate — both career highs.

No, Zunino hasn’t become Posey or Lucroy at the plate. But, he’s proven to be better at identifying the breaking ball and controlling the zone — both are key to his future success.

The other reason for Servais’ overt enthusiasm is the fact Zunino continues to be a top defender and pitch framer. Based on data from Baseball Prospectus, he was fourth best in the majors at pitch framing and overall catcher defense during 2014 — his first full season.

In 2015, the 25-year-old’s defensive numbers regressed — thirteenth and fifteenth respectively in pitch framing and overall defense. However, he still was better than most receivers were. It’s worth noting that some observers — including me — believe his offensive struggles were affecting his defense by the time he departed for Tacoma.

Although the starting job appears to be set, adding a new backup may be in the works. Despite management’s enthusiasm over the reconditioned Zunino, bringing in a veteran to serve as insurance makes sense. That’s assuming they don’t want to retain Iannetta, who can file for free agency on Monday.

If the Mariners decide to move away from Iannetta and are left with only Sucre as the only other viable in-house option, they may turn to the free agent market. Here are some potential options, sorted by OPS.

Player OPS PA Age G HR BA OBP SLG
Wilson Ramos .850 523 28 131 22 .307 .354 .496
Geovany Soto .809 86 33 26 4 .269 .321 .487
Nick Hundley .759 317 32 83 10 .260 .320 .439
Alex Avila .732 209 29 57 7 .213 .359 .373
Matt Wieters .711 464 30 124 17 .243 .302 .409
Kurt Suzuki .704 373 32 106 8 .258 .301 .403
Jason Castro .684 376 29 113 11 .210 .307 .377
Chris Iannetta .631 338 33 94 7 .210 .303 .329
A.J. Ellis .599 196 35 64 2 .216 .301 .298
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/3/2016.

 

Please note the preceding list isn’t not all-inclusive. The number of available catchers will likely grow as teams pare their 40-man rosters in the coming weeks. But, it should give you a feel for the type of players likely to be available.

Assuming the emphatic support voiced by his manager means Zunino will be the Mariners’ primary catcher, players viewed as starters — Matt Wieters and Jason Castro — won’t be an option. The same applies to Wilson Ramos, who suffered a serious knee injury in September.

The remaining choices aren’t particularly appealing — most are well below average defenders. I can’t envision the Mariners settling for that type of player. Sucre would be a better option in that case.

Naturally, Dipoto could turn to the trade market. If he goes in that direction, my expectation is that he’ll go for a reliable veteran capable of stepping in to the starting job in a pinch.

Rene Rivera of the New York Mets fits the bill. The 33-year-old has one year of arbitration eligibility remaining and is a superb defender. Rivera isn’t the only player who would work. But, he’s the prototype.

One issue facing the Mariners is determining the amount of resources they want to sink into an insurance policy. Dipoto could simply take a wait-and-see approach with his starting catcher and hire an inexpensive backup, or just stick with Sucre.

If the wheels come off the Zunino Express next season, the 48-year-old executive could then turn to the trade market and go after starters like Stephen Vogt of the Oakland Athletics or Miguel Montero of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. Those type of catchers would require paying steeper, starter-level prices though.

After saying all that, do I agree with the Mariners that they don’t need to upgrade at catcher?

Yes.

As bad as Mariner catchers appeared to the frustrated fan, they registered a .708 OPS last season. That’s five points better than league-average. Adding a capable backup and saving limited financial and prospect resources for more pressing needs — corner outfielders, bullpen and first base help, and perhaps another shortstop — makes more sense.

If Mike Zunino can sustain his grasp on controlling the zone, he’d be a catcher with plus-power, acceptable on-base ability, and superb defensive prowess. In this current era of baseball, that makes him an asset and the type of player capable of helping Dipoto bring something special to Safeco Field next October.

Nope. No need to upgrade this offseason.

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