The Mariners couldn't help but get improved production at the catching position in 2016. But they will need more from Mike Zunino and veteran Carlos Ruiz in 2017.
The Mariners experienced some improvement at the catching position in the 2016 season. Then again, that was likely to happen considering how truly awful the production was in 2015.
But in terms of Fangraphs WAR, the 2017 group produced a 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last season, which was fifth overall in the American League. That positive number stems largely from positive contributions on defense. From an offensive standpoint, Seattle experienced improvement in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
And yet, do the Mariners or fans feel any more certain about the position going forward? Have the problems of the past — not just last season — been solved?
While much has been made about Seattle’s inability to find a truly productive left fielder for much of the organization’s existence, the catching position hasn’t exactly yielded massive results. Since Dan Wilson’s retirement, the Mariners have run a slew of catchers out behind the plate. The most productive season came from Kenji Johjima’s rookie of the year campaign in 2006 and the year after.
In fact, Johjima, a butcher on defense with stone hands and no friend of pitchers because of it and his game calling, has been the Mariners’ most productive offensive catcher since Wilson’s retirement. Look at the numbers from Baseball Reference:
Of that group, Mike Zunino represented the best hope for becoming that foundation-level catcher. He was a plus defensive catcher when he was drafted with the No. 3 overall pick in 2012 — something Jeff Clement wasn’t and probably would never be. Zunino possessed real potential to hit for some power, later evidenced by 45 homers in three seasons. Scouts also believed he could become a decent overall offensive player, which has yet to be realized. There are a myriad of reasons why Zunino got to this point, most notably being unnecessarily rushed to the big leagues by the previous regime. But he’s still the Mariners’ starting catcher going forward for this season and beyond.
The plan for last season was this: Start the season with Chris Iannetta as the starting catcher and Steve Clevenger as the left-handed hitting backup. Zunino, who was still believed to be the catcher of the future, would begin the season at Class AAA Tacoma to work on his revamped swing and try to maintain a competent approach while not having big league results detract from the process of providing a permanent fix to his past problems.
The Mariners hoped Iannetta would get on base at a similar rate to his past seasons of success, while being a slightly above average behind the plate. Clevenger, who was not a great defensive catcher, was hopefully going to provide enough hits to offset his shortcomings behind the plate. Zunino was not going to be rushed back until the Mariners felt he was ready.
That plan seemed like a success for some stretches early in the season, but the results started to deteriorate.
Iannetta had two solid months: April, where he posted a .354 on-base percentage and June, where he had an .811 on-base plus slugging percentage. In his first 53 games, he had a .247 batting average, .348 OBP and .412 slugging percentage with 10 doubles, six homers and 10 RBI. Though perhaps his greatest accomplishment in that span was threatening Tom Wilhelmsen, who was then pitching for the Rangers, “to break him in (expletive) half,” after being hit by a purpose pitch in the second game of the season.
Meanwhile, Zunino got off to a torrid start for the Rainiers — and seemed to have things figured out. While there were early cries to bring Zunino back, the Mariners remained steadfast to their plan for patience.
But a 10-game stretch in July where Iannetta hit .114 (4 for 35) and a broken throwing hand for Clevenger that required surgery forced a change in the Mariners’ plans. They called up Zunino as the backup. Iannetta was still the primary catcher at first. But his continued struggles at the plate also leaked into his catching. He wasn’t hitting and making mistakes in the field. A few days into August, a change was made in roles with Zunino moving to the primary catcher and Iannetta to the backup. It was a move that left the quiet and seemingly always-sullen Iannetta even gloomier and upset at first.
Zunino, who had worked extensively with Rainiers’ hitting coach Scott Brosius to simplify his approach, got off to a torrid start after being called up, which also helped force the change in roles. In his first 26 games, he hit . 280 with a .396 OBP and .707 slugging percentage with five doubles, nine homers and 21 RBI. It seemed that all the work was translating.
“Well, I think with the total reset we did with Mike was the right thing to do,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I think it was proven that it worked. When he got to our club, he instantly hit two home runs the first night. He kind of took off.”
The Mariners fed off his early production.
“When he came back, he gave us a shot in the arm, hit some home runs right away but more importantly his approach was better, his walk rate climbed he wasn’t chasing that breaking ball away,” Servais said. “When teams started to realize he wasn’t chasing that pitch, they quit going to it. So you saw them come in on him a little bit more like they did the last four or five weeks and now he has to make an adjustment.”
When the league adjusted to Zunino’s changes, he fell back into some old habits. The approach disappeared and the strikeouts piled up. Over his final 29 games, Zunino hit .146 (13 for 89) with a .248 OBP and just two doubles, three homers and 10 RBI with 43 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances.
“There are a lot of smart people in the league and in the game and scouting and look at video and how they’re going to approach you,” Servais said. “So they made an adjustment on him based on the fact that he wasn’t chasing the breaking ball anymore and now he’s got to continue make an adjustment back.”
Clevenger never made it back from the broken hand. He dealt with elbow issues in his rehab assignment. He was later suspended by the team for a series of tweets that were deemed offensive by the organization. He was later released.
Mariners’ catching numbers:
The Mariners enter the 2017 season with Zunino slated as the starting catcher. Regardless of the fall-off from last season, they believe that progress was made toward his development as a hitter. He’s also that good defensively in terms of handling the staff, blocking pitchers, receiving and framing — the new en vogue stat.
“I think the confidence that he left here, in talking to him, the things he went through in 2016 are really going to help him deal with it,” Servais said. “He’s going to struggle again. All of this is a part of the game. All these players. Robbie (Cano) makes it look real easy. Nelson (Cruz) makes it look easy. But these young guys when they get to the big leagues, they’re going to have their struggles. I think that the confidence he’s gained, knowing that he can get through that, is going to really, really help him going forward.
But Seattle also hedged this scenario by going out and acquiring veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz. It was the first of a cavalcade of trades that general manager Jerry Dipoto made this offseason. Ruiz was an all-star with the Phillies before accepting a trade to the Dodgers at midseason last year for a chance to play in the postseason.
Ruiz, who turned 38 on January 22, hit .264 with eight doubles, three homers and 15 RBI with a .364 on-base percentage in 62 games with the Phillies and Dodgers. The .365 on-base percentage was fourth highest for catchers with at least 200 plate appearances.
In 1,083 big league games, Ruiz posted a career .266 batting average with a .352 on-base percentage. He’s also been successful vs. left-handed pitching in his career with a .276 batting average and .811 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“I think he’s one transaction that kind of goes under the radar,” Servais said. “What Ruiz brings for us is a proven backstop that has great makeup. He’s from Panama. He’s been on a World Series team, lot of good teams over in Philadelphia, gets traded for his first time last year over to the Dodgers and really does a nice job with them, helps them in their playoff run. Just the experience level he brings and he can still play, he can still hit, there’s no doubt. Not a power guy by any means but handles the bat, controls the strike zone. It’s a really nice fit with Mike Zunino.”
The playing split will be different this season. Ruiz could play more than a typical back-up as the Mariners also try to protect Zunino and put him in optimal situations.
“Understand we’re not looking forward for Mike Zunino to play or catch 125 or 130 games,” Servais said. “That’s not the point. So when he does hit a little funk and we need to give him a few days off, we’ve got Ruiz to step in there and let him play a few days. I think it’s a good mix.”
The organization isn’t expecting Zunino to become a .300 or even a .280 hitter. They are looking for a hitter above .220 that gets on-base at a .320 clip and bashes some homers without striking out every third at-bat. It isn’t a lot to ask for, and they believe that it is achievable.
Beyond Zunino and Ruiz, the Mariners solved a roster issue by claiming veteran catcher Tuffy Gosewisch off waivers and designating Jesus Sucre for assignment. Sucre was out of minor league options and wasn’t going to make the 25-man roster, meaning he would have to be DFA at some point this spring. There was some concern that he might not clear waivers because of his defensive prowess. The Mariners needed a veteran presence at Tacoma in case of an injury to Zunino or Ruiz. Gosewisch fits that role. Like Sucre, he isn’t much of a hitter, but he is solid defensively. The Mariners got the added bonus of having Sucre make it through waivers unclaimed. He was outrighted to Class AAA Tacoma on Wednesday.
That gives Dipoto two veterans coming into big league camp that will head to Tacoma to share time or one will be dealt. Gosewisch is likely to be kept around since he’s on the 40-man roster and has the flexibility of a minor league option remaining.
The organization isn’t going to give up on Zunino any time soon. He’s a plus defender with high-level framing skills. Pitchers rave about his communication skills. Finding catchers that are that solid defensively with even the unproven potential of Zunino on offense is difficult. Even if he never becomes the hitter the Mariners’ hope, he will still have value. The Mariners also don’t have a young catcher in the system that is big league ready to move ahead of him. The two most promising catching prospects are Tyler Marlette and Marcus Littlewood, who are both invited to this year’s big league spring training — a second time for each of them.
Marlette had bounceback 2016 season leading into the Arizona Fall League. A hit-first catcher when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, Marlette seemed to be progressing through the system at a steady pace. But he struggled in 2015 and fell down the organizational depth chart. After some swing changes, he’s started to hit again, posting a .277 (104-for-376) batting average with 23 doubles, a triple, 15 home runs and 59 RBI in 98 games combined between High-A Bakersfield and AA Jackson.
More important, the hitting struggles of the previous years forced Marlette to focus on his defensive shortcomings. He’s now became a better than average defensive catcher. He will likely start the season at Class AA Arkansas, but the Mariners are hoping for a midseason promotion to Tacoma.
Littlewood is an interesting player. Drafted as a switch-hitting shortstop in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Pineview High School in St. George, Utah, he was later converted to catcher, That transition obviously slowed his progress through the system. But he’s starting to move up in competition levels. Littlewood hit .307 (59 for 192) with 21 doubles, 23 RBI, 32 walks in 56 games. He also got a brief stint at the Class AAA level with Tacoma at the end of the season. Littlewood still has to refine his catching, particularly receiving and game calling. But he’s a solid athlete behind the plate and has impressed the player development regime.