Rays Get Miked Up at the End of the Alphabet

A week ago, the Rays’ 40-man roster had a single catcher on it: Ronaldo Hernández, a 23-year-old prospect who had never played above High-A. Fast forward to Friday, and Tampa has doubled its collection of backstops after re-signing Mike Zunino, who has been with the team the past two seasons. That was not the only move the club made, though, as the Rays also signed free-agent pitcher Michael Wacha. Both deals came in at $3 million, with Zunino’s total figure including a buyout on a 2022 option. The deals make sense, though it is worth noting that the two players combined for 0.1 WAR last season, so the Rays must see something beyond their recent performances to justify even a modest investment.

The Rays need a bunch of innings behind the plate, and Zunino, who turns 30 in March, should supply some of them; just don’t expect much out of them. The last two seasons, he’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball, with his 49 wRC+ ranking 337th out of 342 players with at least 300 plate appearances. Zunino does have some power, with a career ISO around .200, and he bested that number in 84 plate appearances last season, but he just doesn’t get to it enough to make himself anywhere near a decent hitter. Even his walk rates, which were double-digit levels back in his good offensive years with the Mariners in 2016 and ’17, have dropped below league average the last three years. Zunino has always swung and missed a lot, with a 35% career strikeout rate, and he whiffed 37 times last year while putting the ball in fair territory on just 38 occasions. He’s average to maybe slightly above average at throwing out runners, but last season, he was below average in framing for the first time in his career. There are reasons the Rays declined Zunino’s $4.5 million option at the end of last season, and it isn’t because they’re cheap.

So if Zunino is a terrible hitter and wasn’t great defensively last season, why would the Rays want him back at all? Beyond the obvious roster need, at $2 million for 2021 with a total guarantee of $3 million (a $4 million option for 2022 can increase to $7 million based on games played, though the buyout remains the same), Zunino’s cost was low. But there is a case to be made that 2020 was an aberration more than a trend. Since the start of the 2017 season, Zunino ranks in the top-10 in baseball in framing at 21 runs above average. It’s more likely that the 200-inning sample from 2020 isn’t as representative of his ability as the rest of his career. And while he did strike out in 44% of his plate appearances, if he drops back down to 35% or so and still makes the same hard contact, he’s just a bad hitter, not an awful one. So the upside for Zunino is an average player, which seems like a fine investment for $3 million as a part-time catcher.

As for Wacha, his 2020 campaign with the Mets was roughly the pitching equivalent of Zunino’s, amounting to seven starts and one relief appearance and time spent on the injured list with shoulder problems. When Wacha did pitch, he posted very good strikeout and walk rates (23.7% and 4.5%, respectively). Unfortunately, his extreme fly-ball rate hurt him, as he gave up nine homers in just 34 innings.

Wacha’s problems stem from command and pitch-mix issues that have hurt him since he was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder six years ago. He used to have a very pronounced over-the-top throwing motion and a good four-seamer that combined with a great change and a big curve to make him one of the better pitchers in the game, but only for about a month at the start of the 2014 season. Since then, continued injury issues and a lowering of his release point have rendered the curve mostly ineffective and unusable, and he’s been unable to develop a cutter. With a low-spin-rate four-seamer that doesn’t generate whiffs, Wacha has just one good pitch — the changeup — but doesn’t have the command to get to that pitch often enough.

Last season, Wacha made 28% of his pitches in the heart of the zone, in the top fifth among all pitchers. That trait helps him avoid walks, but it doesn’t mean he is always near the strike zone: He hits the corners on his pitches just 42% of the time, ranking him among the bottom-third. Wacha avoids walks, but he pitches to the middle of the plate more often than his peers, putting him at risk of hard contact. He does have that one plus pitch in the changeup, though, and maybe the Rays can get him to use it more effectively, or maybe he just needs to throw it more.

The other factor in Wacha’s favor is that his .366 BABIP against last season is either proof of terrible luck or the sign of someone who shouldn’t be in the big leagues. Statcast numbers suggest it is the former. Wacha’s batted-ball profile meant a ton of balls went to the outfield in the air last season, and the Mets had the worst outfield in the National League last season when it came to range, turning a lot of balls that might have been outs into hits. Wacha’s xwOBA of .312 is a roughly average number, and the 79-point difference between his xwOBA and his .391 wOBA was the second-highest in all of baseball. The Rays have a very good outfield defense, and it’s quite possible that if Wacha had been pitching in Tampa last season, he would have put up a better-than-average ERA. With his history of shoulder problems, he can’t be counted on to pitch a full season, and his limited repertoire suggests he probably can’t pitch deep into games, but there are enough positives to think that the Rays could coax a much better performance out of him in 2021 than we saw last season, be it as a starter, opener, or reliever.

The Rays spent $6 million for two players who have roughly average upside. The downside is pretty obvious given their cost, but getting a couple extra wins for six million dollars is a potentially solid investment, even for a historically cheap franchise. The team still has some work to do in order to solidify both the pitching staff and catching position for next year, but in Zunino and Wacha, Tampa added a couple of players who can help if things break right.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

This headline! Very nice!

free-range turducken
3 years ago
Reply to  nickfox45

Now the Rays just have to trade for Mike Yastrzemski.