The Seattle Mariners needed to get more production out of their catching position in the offseason, as the now-departed Mike Zunino produced an 84 wRC+ and saw his walk rate crater from 9 percent in 2017 to just 5.9 in 2018, while his K rate hit a career high 37 percent.
So in comes Omar Narvaez, he of the .275/.366/.429 slash line and 122 wRC+ in 97 games. That 122 was fifth among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last year, a fair upgrade from Zunino’s 24th. Offense is great, and it’s good to score runs. But catching, being what it is, has value beyond simple runs. The Mariners are going to miss Mike Zunino.
Catching isn’t about hitting. Heck, sometimes it’s a tertiary aspect of the job: look at the Cleveland Indians. They supposedly have World Series dreams, and were okay with letting an All-Star catcher coming off a resurgent offensive season go. Roberto Perez may not be able to hit his way out of a paper bag, but he can do so much behind the plate that the Indians are fine with it. That, and the hopeful leap of Eric Haase, but that’s another story.
That’s why the Mariners are going to miss Zunino, though. He was just very, very good, perhaps a shade under elite, at various catching skills—specifically framing pitches. Over the last two years Zunino has ranked 12th in Framing Runs at +8.6, 6.2 of which came this past season. He was +22.6 in 2014, and hasn’t quite hit that mark since, but hasn’t been a negative influence on his pitchers in his entire career.
Narvaez’s career is a bit shorter, with only three years and 1570.2 innings spent behind the plate, and he’s hit during that time, owning a career 108 wRC+, a nice bonus for a defense-first position. The problem is, though, that he’s been worth -7.3 defensive runs according to FanGraphs, and over the last two years ranks 31st in baseball—a sport with 30 teams—at -16.8 Framing Runs. That’s bad.
Yet it’s still important to understand what that means for pitchers. First, the difference in a single strike is massive. Last year, hitters had an average 37 wRC+ following a 1-2 count, compared to a 126 following a 2-1 count. Stealing a single strike can shape an at-bat, and even a game. That said, here are all the balls that Mike Zunino turned into a strike last season:
Compare that to Narvaez:
While the taller Narvaez had a bit more of a knack last year at making high balls, strikes, it’s no stretch to say that Zunino has the ability to stretch the plate by two or three ball widths in each direction, and add a few inches to the bottom of the zone to boot. That’s massive.
With that knowledge in hitters’ heads, their whole at-bat plan is re-shaped because they know they can’t quite trust the umpire to give them a fair shake. That places the pitcher in a great position each time out, and instills confidence in young guys just getting their feet wet in the game.
In the marginal game that catching is, these small bits and pieces added to the strike zone can be the difference between a short inning and a short outing. Whether the Mariners realize what they’ve lost or not, they’re going to find themselves cut to pieces by a thousand little blades this season.
It’ll be nice to see 1-for-3 with a walk from their catcher many days, rather than the middling 1-for-4 or so like Zunino was prone to doing last year. The obvious things Narvaez does in the box score will make it seem okay, but it was a down year for Zunino, and between that and what he brings to the table behind the plate, you have to wonder if 2019 won’t make some in Seattle realize how big the little things really are.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball at various places, including Let’s Go Tribe and here at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch if you’d like.