The Curious Case of the Guardians’ Catching Situation

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When the Guardians decided to commit $6 million over the course of 2023 to former All-Star catcher Mike Zunino, many perceived the team’s commitment to be very temporary- even more temporary than a one-year deal would suggest. The team may have decided to fill a roster spot with a veteran, power-hitting catcher that would provide an offensive boost compared to the exclusively defensive-minded tandem of Austin Hedges and Luke Maile that they employed in 2022, but the move only generated so much excitement.

That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t interest in the Guardians’ catching position overall, in fact, quite the contrary. The simple fact is that the excitement was just not directed at Zunino but elsewhere. That elsewhere was at prospect catcher Bo Naylor. Cleveland’s first-round pick in the 2018 Amateur Draft made waves down on the farm last season. He slashed .263/.392./.496 with 21 home runs, 73 runs scored and 20 steals (as a catcher!) in time split between AA Akron and AAA Columbus. He made a brief appearance on the Guardians’ expanded roster at the end of September and then actually made the playoff roster as an insurance policy catcher as the team actively knew it would need to pinch hit for Hedges and Maile in close playoff games (and therefore might need a third catcher, in case of injury).

All the positive energy around Naylor manifested itself in the Canadian native being named the 45th-best prospect in all of baseball by Fangraphs this spring. He was also named the starting catcher of Team Canada in March’s World Baseball Classic. Naylor would hold his own in the Classic, smashing a home run off current Houston Astros pitcher Jose Urquidy during a pool play game vs. Mexico.

It’s also clear that the Guardians organization thinks incredibly highly of Naylor. Their willingness to put a 22-year-old with about a week’s worth of experience in the Major Leagues onto their playoff roster speaks to just how strong they feel. Zack Meisel at The Athletic has reported that the organization perceives him as their future catcher. Manager Terry Francona and his staff continually talk about Naylor’s willingness to put work in and learn from constructive criticism.

With all this buzz, it’s understandable that an addition, even a rare free agent addition, like Zunino would get overlooked in favor of a ballplayer that could be the next big thing. As Spring Training progressed, the Guardians were very transparent with their plan to start Naylor at AAA Columbus. Even so, there was still some sentiment of disappointment among fans that Naylor would not be on the Opening Day roster, and given the situation, that disappointment is somewhat understandable.

All of this is the backdrop for what has now developed over the first month of the season. Zunino has joined the starting lineup and has been everything the Guardians could have hoped for and then some at the plate. The right-handed hitting catcher’s reputation is as a power hitter prone to swinging and missing. While he is still striking out at the heightened clip that is standard for his career, Zunino is hitting .241 so far this season. That mark would be the second best of his career and forty points higher than his career average if he can keep it going.

Additionally, a part of the Guardians’ team approach seems to have worn off on Zunino as he is walking at far and away the best rate of his career. In fact, his 15.7% walk rate is good for the 20th-best of any hitter in baseball with at least 60 plate appearances. While chipping in two home runs and seven doubles, I think it’s fair to say that Zunino’s start with the Guardians has absolutely been an offensive success. The team is getting a wRC+ of 98 from the catching position, which is 10th best in the league and propelled by a wRC+ of 138 from Zunino himself. Last year, the Guardians were second to last in catcher wRC+ at 55.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GHh8Likx5Y

Unfortunately, all the positive offensive news about Zunino’s addition isn’t the whole story. Coming into this season, Zunino was also known as a strong defensive catcher. That reputation was backed by years of working with quality pitching staff for the Tampa Bay Rays and statistics that suggest him to be a very capable framer. This has proven out this season as he has been adequate at framing pitches. He ranks 11th among 55 catchers, which is good, but not quite as good as the 5th place he earned in his last full season of 2021.

However, some of that reputation, as Guardians’ fans are learning, wasn’t the whole story. In the more basic elements of catching, such as limiting wild pitches and passed balls, he has struggled throughout his career. Zunino has led baseball in passed balls twice. This year, he is second in wild pitches with 13 in about a month of play. His catcher ERA is also a paltry 5.01. The other two catchers on the Guardians roster, Meibrys Viloria and Cam Gallagher chime in with catcher ERAs of 1.83 and 1.91, respectively, albeit in fewer plate appearances behind the plate. Interestingly, former Cleveland prospect and current replacement for Zunino in Tampa, Francisco Mejia, has the best catcher ERA in baseball of any catcher with at least 400 plate appearances behind the plate. Catcher defense also took on increased importance with 2023’s new rules that encourage stolen bases. Zunino is also a very mediocre 22nd out of 34 in Caught Stealing% among catchers that have been ran on ten or more times (15%).

All of this is to say, for as good as Zunino’s offense has been, his defense really hasn’t been as good as the Guardians likely would have hoped. Given Zunino’s track record of being a little loose behind the plate, this also doesn’t seem to be a matter of rust as Zunino is coming back from the thoracic outlet syndrome that caused him to miss most of 2022. Rather, at 32 years old, this is likely just kinda who Mike Zunino is at this point.

At the same time, while Naylor looked unpolished behind the plate during the WBC, he has only allowed one passed ball so far at AAA and no wild pitches. It is important to remember that the level of “stuff” Naylor is catching in Columbus likely isn’t as great as Zunino is in the show. He isn’t having to try to catch James Karinchak‘s erratic but effective fastball/curveball combination, for instance. Naylor’s Caught Stealing rate is also a horrendous 8% at AAA this year, but at least he isn’t allowing free bases via passed ball and wild pitch at the clip that Zunino has in the Majors. Additionally, at 23, his willingness and ability to learn is one of his strengths. He very likely will get better.

This all lends itself to a dilemma. Zunino’s bat thus far absolutely warrants inclusion in the lineup every day. Still, the Guardians are known for putting an emphasis on defense at the catching position. Do the Guardians want to keep Zunino behind the plate given his poor performance to this point?

Excluding Zunino from the everyday lineup should be a non-starter. He currently leads the Guardians in wRC+. He’s hitting at a better clip even than Jose Ramirez to this point, so taking his bat out of the order entirely would be madness right now.

That said, the Guardians may need to live with Zunino’s deficiencies behind the plate and hope that he starts framing well enough to make up for the free bases that he allows. Whether this will be true is incredibly hard to measure.

Unfortunately and quite literally, Zunino has only ever played catcher in the Major Leagues. Teaching him another position, like first base, could prove incredibly hard, as Ron Washington would remind us. His profile doesn’t really suggest an ability to play anywhere else either. On top of that, the Guardians already have two 1B/DHs on the roster (three, if you count Gabriel Arias) in Josh Bell and Josh Naylor. So, there really isn’t much need to add to this role, particularly when the team seems intent that Josh Naylor is NOT a platoon player. Having Zunino perform as the skinny half of a first base platoon would only get his bat into so many games anyway. Meanwhile, Bo Naylor has been good offensively in AAA. Not amazing, but good. He is hitting .244 with a very strong 23 walks in 25 games that give him a .400 OBP and he has added in five homers. Could he be ready to step behind the plate for the Guardians? Probably. If they needed him to. But do they REALLY need him to at the expense of Zunino’s at bats?

So ultimately, the Guardians seem to find themselves between an odd rock and a hard place. They’ve finally found the offensive production they want out of the catching position, but it’s come at the expense of their catching defense that they pride themselves on. They have the ability to replace Zunino either with a short-term solution of Viloria or Gallagher or they could turn to their catcher of the future, but doing so would cause them to sit their best offensive player to date this year.

Truthfully, we likely need more of the season to play out to know what’s next. This time last year some of us (myself included) thought that Owen Miller would be a significant building block of this team for years to come because of the strong April he put together. Zunino’s expected stats (based on quality of contact) suggest that his current production may not be sustainable, particularly an expected batting average of .197. Zunino could easily regress his way into the Guardians being back on a schedule where Naylor comes up mid-season and splits time behind the plate, which I perceive to have been the initial plan.

Or, the advanced metrics could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. The Guardians may find themselves in a situation where they need to live with Zunino behind the plate to keep their offense humming. There’s also a world where the rest of the lineup picks up their production and sitting Zunino becomes an easier pill to swallow. While this feels like a rock and hard place situation, there is so much baseball left that the possibilities really are endless.

 

Note: all stats references are as of before games played on Sunday, Apr. 30th.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @DJLJR26

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