When the Tampa Bay Rays clinched the American League pennant on Saturday, there was a wave of social-media posts from Mariner fans expressing how happy they were for Rays catcher Mike Zunino.
That’s not surprising. Zunino was an endearing figure during his six seasons in Seattle, even if he never did fulfill expectations as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Also not surprising was the number of people who cited Zunino as yet another example of a player who thrived once he got out of the Mariners’ clutches.
Not surprising — but also a topic that needs a deeper exploration to flush out the truth. Because in many ways, Zunino actually has regressed during his two years in Tampa Bay — certainly offensively, and he was already pretty far down with the bat in Seattle.
Yet Zunino found an organization that is willing to live with his offensive deficiencies because he possesses world-class defensive skills as a catcher. And it just happens to be an organization that is light years ahead of the Mariners in molding playoff-caliber ballclubs, despite limited financial resources.
The Rays, born in 1998, had the best record in the American League in 2020 at 40-20 (.667), after racking up 96 and 90 wins the previous two seasons. They also made the playoffs in 2008 (reaching the World Series), 2010, 2011 and 2013 — no mean feat while sharing a division with the mighty Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays have more 90-win seasons in the last 13 years (seven) than the Mariners do in their entire 43-year history (five). And Tampa Bay no doubt would have added another notch to that total if 2020 had been a full 162-game season.
And that is how we find Zunino truly thriving in the postseason despite being perhaps the worst hitter in baseball this year. Sharing the starting job with Michael Perez, Zunino put up a .147 average in 28 games, striking out 37 times in 75 at-bats — virtually half the time. This is on top of a 2019 season — his first in Tampa Bay after being traded from Seattle, along with pitcher Michael Plassmeyer and outfielder Guillermo Heredia, for outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley — in which Zunino hit .165 with a 37 percent strikeout rate. It was the second-worst average in franchise history for a player with 200 at-bats, and caused Zunino to lose his starting job to Travis d’Arnaud.
Yet the Rays still consider Zunino indispensable, and not just for his ability to hit the ball a mile when he does make contact. When many thought they might non-tender him this past season, the Rays instead gave him a $4.5 million, one-year deal with a team option for 2021. And once Tampa Bay got to the postseason, it ceased to be a job share with Perez (who hit .167 in 2020). Zunino has started 14 of the 16 games they’ve played, including the first two of the World Series against the Dodgers.
“It speaks volume to what we think of him as a player that even with the offensive struggles at times, we keep running him out there because we know how valuable he is to our pitching staff, what he does behind the plate in controlling the running game, blocking balls,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said in a Zoom interview before Game 1.
“Look, if it wasn’t for Randy (Arozarena), I think there’s a case to be made Mike Zunino could have been MVP of the DS (Division Series) and ALCS. He was instrumental in getting those pitchers, navigating them through really tough moments, and came up with a big hit, or big home run, or big sac fly, it seemed like in every single game we won.”
The Rays have a particularly challenging pitching staff to catch, with a seemingly endless stable of power relief arms (known, in fact, as The Stable). They come from a wide array of arm angles, all throwing in the upper 90s or low 100s, with movement. That’s on top of the three aces — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, who all have robust stuff of their own.
Zunino does a masterful job of handling them, and Cash fully realizes how valuable that is now, when every contest is so crucial. I’d expect Zunino to start every game of the World Series. Though Zunino’s cumulative postseason average is pretty typical — .182 (8-for-44) with a .196 on-base percentage — he has had several impactful moments.
Zunino, in fact, is the first player in history to hit under .150 in the regular season and have multiple home runs in the postseason. He has four of them — a two-run homer off Toronto ace Hyun-Jin Ryu in the second inning of the game that clinched the wild-card series; a two-run homer off the Yankees’ JA Happ in Game 2 of the Division Series, a 7-5 Rays’ win; a homer off Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. in the seventh inning of a 4-2 win in Game 2 of the ALCS; and most notably, a homer off McCullers Jr. in the second inning of the decisive ALCS Game 7, which turned out to be the winning run in a 4-2 Tampa Bay pennant-winning triumph.
It’s pretty clear Zunino, now 29, will never be a great hitter, or a good hitter, or maybe even a mediocre hitter, his seeming breakout 2017 season never replicated. Among all players in MLB history with at least 2,000 at-bats, his lifetime .200 average is fourth-worst — and one of the three below him is a pitcher from the 1800s, Tim Keefe (.187). No. 1 on the list, Bill Bergen, plied his .170 batting average from 1901 to 1911. The only modern comparable is another defense-minded catcher, Jeff Mathis, who has a .194 career mark from 2005-2020.
But Zunino, weak bat and all, has forged a vital niche on what might turn out to be the champions of baseball this year. When asked on a Zoom call during the ALCS what about the Rays’ organization fits him so well, he replied:
“I think the ability to allow us to be ourselves. You know, we’re not trying to fit into a mold. We’re not trying to be people we’re not …. That is a very, very hard thing to have players feel. Because at some point in your career, someone wants to put a finger on you as a player.
“And, man, it’s unbelievable, for what they said they could see in me, coming over from Seattle, and just giving me an opportunity. I’m extremely grateful for this organization, and it makes it that much more special that you know there’s a front office and there’s a team that believes in you.”
So if you want to say that Zunino has thrived once he left Seattle, that might be right on the mark after all.