Mike Zunino, or Chris Davis, the Catcher Version

Chris Davis, the 2014 bust, was obviously a massive disappointment to fantasy owners. But did you know that he was also a catcher, playing for the Seattle Mariners? Check out these two cherry-picked batting lines:

Player A 33.0% 0.209 0.308 0.242 0.196
Player B 33.2% 0.205 0.290 0.248 0.199

Without looking, are you sure you know which one is Mike Zunino and which is Davis?

It’s clear that these two performed very similarly at the plate. The only real difference is that Davis (Player A), posted a strong walk rate, while Zunino decided that taking a free pass was not his cup of tea. That patience boosted Davis’ wOBA and is the main driver of the difference in the two marks. But aside from that difference, this was the same player.

This is awesome and terrible at the same time. In the minors, Zunino displayed mammoth power, posting ISO marks above .250 at three different levels in 2012 and 2013. In his 2013 Mariners debut, that power was missing in action, as his HR/FB sat around the league average and his ISO was a paltry .116. But he rediscovered his power stroke this year and finished third in ISO among all catchers with at least 400 plate appearances.

His batted ball distance supports the power surge, as he ranked a respectable 58th in baseball with a 290 foot mark. That matches up well with his 15.7% HR/FB rate. Also contributing to his home run and ISO output was a 49.5% fly ball rate. That would have ranked second in baseball if he qualified for the leaderboard. So despite all the strikeouts, the combination of a huge rate of fly balls and a pretty strong HR/FB rate resulted in him clearing the 20 homer plateau.

Speaking of strikeouts, therein lies the rub. He simply cannot make contact with the baseball. His ridiculous 17.8% SwStk% led hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Perhaps if he refrained from swinging at pitches outside the strike zone so often (39.7% O-Swing% vs 31.3% league average), he wouldn’t have such difficulty making contact. Because man does he stink at putting the bat on pitches outside the zone. His O-Contact% was sixth lowest among that same group of hitters. So he’s swinging significantly more often than the average hitter at pitches that would not only be called a ball, but he is unable to actually put into play. Seems like a fairly obvious solution — stop swinging at bad pitches!!

His skill set reminds me of another high-power, low contact catcher, J.P. Arencibia. He didn’t swing and miss as often as Zunino did this season and made better contact on pitches outside the zone, but he has posted similar, albeit slightly better, strikeout rates, with the same allergy to the base on balls. And of course, he possessed excellent power. Unfortunately, we know what has happened to Arencibia.

However, in Zunino’s favor is that he’s actually strong defensively, something that Arencibia is not. According to StatCorner, Zunino ranked second among all catchers in the newest stat currently in vogue, pitch framing. So Zunino doesn’t necessarily have to produce significant offensive value to actually keep his starting job, unlike Arencibia.

The good news is that Zunino has shown the ability to take a walk in the past, so one would imagine his walk rate is due for a rise next year, so he won’t be as worthless offensively as he was this year, even with those homers. And that strikeout rate has to improve too. It can’t get any worse! While it would be silly to expect a repeat of that huge fly ball rate, a strikeout rate improvement should offset any decline, meaning that he should flirt with the 20-homer level once again next season.

I would also figure his BABIP should rebound, even if just a bit. But, he’s not contributing in batting average any time soon. It’s just a question of how much is he going to hurt you. I guess he’s really no different in terms of fantasy value upside than Arencibia was when he was a full-time starter. So if you do decide to draft Zunino next year, make sure you don’t pair him with the likes of Chris Carter, Curtis Granderson, etc, if you have any plans in competing in the batting average category.

We hoped you liked reading Mike Zunino, or Chris Davis, the Catcher Version by Mike Podhorzer!

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Zunino is an excellent pick as a 2nd catcher if you find yourself needing power near the end of your draft. Plus he comes with upside.