Vázquez, Zunino Find New Homes Behind the Plate in the AL Central

Christian Vazquez
James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

Catching is the most taxing position in baseball. Day in and day out, it grinds on the players who attempt it. Catchers almost never play a full season, because it’s just plain harder to catch two days in a row than play the field on those days. Mathematically, that means fewer stars, because catchers have fewer plate appearances to excel in. That warps the market for free-agent catchers; in a given year, there might be only one or two full-time starters available at the position.

If you’re a team looking for a catcher, that puts you in a bind. This year’s market is a great example; I can name plenty of teams that “needed a catcher” coming into this offseason, but there were only two at the top of the market, and that’s if you count Sean Murphy, whom the A’s traded to Atlanta on Monday. Short of that Willson Contreras was at the top by himself, and the Cardinals signed him earlier this month. That means the other teams who “needed a catcher” had to look a tier down. Speaking of which: the Twins signed Christian Vazquez to a three-year deal worth $30 million. Not long after, the Guardians signed Mike Zunino to a one-year deal for $6 million.

Let’s take the deals in the order in which they were signed. Vázquez is an example of exactly what I’m talking about. He’s racked up 1,113 plate appearances over the last three years, 135th among all position players — and sixth among all catchers. Some of that is because a midseason trade to Houston left him backing up Martin Maldonado, but on the other hand: he was backing up Martín Maldonado, who hit .186/.248/.352 on the year. The general conclusion I’m driving at here is that catching is hard and solutions are imperfect.

From Minnesota’s perspective, an imperfect solution beats the alternative. in 2022, Gary Sanchez was the Twins’ primary catcher. He graded out well by DRS and Steamer’s framing numbers but generally hasn’t over his years behind the plate, and he left in free agency anyway. Ryan Jeffers shared catching duties but missed time with a broken thumb. He hasn’t hit 300 plate appearances, 1 WAR, or a 100 wRC+ in either of his last two seasons. That’s not exactly long-term solution material.

That’s not to say that Vázquez is a huge offensive improvement over Jeffers. He’s an empty-average kind of hitter, though that’s not really a bad thing for a catcher. He doesn’t walk much, doesn’t strike out much, and doesn’t hit for power, with the exception of a 23-homer explosion in 2019, the peak of the rabbit ball era. He’s hit only 22 homers since then in twice as many plate appearances. If you don’t expect the power to come back (and I don’t), that line will probably work out to a slightly below-average offensive season, which is well above the minimum bar at catcher.

There’s even more good news for the Twins. You don’t sign Vázquez for his bat; he’s an excellent defensive catcher in all three phases of the game — receiving, blocking, and throwing. While Rob Manfred continues to intimate that some type of automatic zone is coming to the majors in the future, that shift isn’t imminent, which means Vázquez’s smooth hands behind the plate will rack up value for the Twins throughout his contract.

Even if you zero out the framing value, controlling the running game will be far more important in 2023 than it’s been in decades, thanks to a new rule that limits the number of pickoff throws pitchers can make. Stolen base attempts exploded and success rate climbed when various minor leagues instituted versions of the same rule; you can expect more steals, particularly from elite-speed types, in the big leagues next year. Jeffers has thrown out 19.4% of would-be base stealers in his career; Vázquez has thrown out 34% of them. Those extra outs are nothing to laugh at.

We project Vázquez and Jeffers to split time at catcher, with the former getting the bigger end of the time share. That works out to 1.9 WAR in 365 plate appearances for him. That’s an absolute bargain at $10 million per year, and it would be a bargain even if he hits worse than our projections. The Twins had to do something about the catcher spot, and it’s hard to imagine a better option given the difficulty of finding good catching.

As is customary, the Guardians opted for a budget implementation of a similar idea. Like the Twins, they needed to overhaul their catching position. Austin Hedgeswho tested the limits of catcher offense not mattering, led the team in innings caught but hit .163/.241/.248 before departing in free agency. Bo Naylor is one of the team’s top prospects, and Cleveland loves a good youth movement, but asking a 23-year-old to shoulder primary catching duties is courting disaster. Perhaps he’ll be up for it, but the alternative was a gaping void, so Zunino makes perfect sense as a tandem starter/stopgap.

On the surface, there’s plenty of reason to wonder about the fit here. His highest batting average of the past five years — not average, but highest — is .216. He’s struck out more than a third of the time in his major league career, the antithesis of Cleveland’s general offensive philosophy. He’s also recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome on his non-throwing shoulder, which makes me skeptical that he’ll be able to replicate his power numbers, at least early in the season.

Allow me to offer a counterpoint: Zunino could be terrible and still justify his $6 million salary. The alternative is a hodgepodge of Bryan Lavastida, Meibry’s Viloriaand David Fry. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a rough look for a playoff contender. Zunino isn’t a lock to wrest the starting job from Naylor, but he doesn’t have to start all season to be valuable; 250 plate appearances of workmanlike defense and below-average hitting would fetch $6 million on the open market. And while the Guardians could potentially have traded for a similar player, they’ve shown great attachment to their existing 40-man roster. Adding via free agency, if it fits their budget, makes more sense to me.

If there’s one risk to Zunino, it’s the same X factor that makes me like Vázquez: the likely increase in stolen bases. He’s a solid receiver, but I’m worried about his ability to control the running game. His pop time to second base had improved markedly in 2020 and ’21, but it cratered to his early-career levels in ’22, and those early-career levels are unlikely to nab many baserunners with bigger leads and larger bases. Perhaps that’s just a small sample size reading, given that he only threw down to second 13 times last year. Perhaps he was banged up or never got into a rhythm; he played in only 36 games before that shoulder injury ended his season. But I’m uncertain about his bat already, so adding uncertainty about his defense doesn’t feel great. It wouldn’t shock me to see teams turning games against Zunino into a track meet if his throwing continues at this rate. The floor scenario is that he hits like 2022, which forces the Guardians to move on from him. I’d be more worried about that if the contract were larger, though; Even penny-pinching Cleveland can miss on a $6 million contract and still compete.

It feels like a cop out to say that catchers are a wholly different market than all other position players, but the floor is just different. Catchers who accrued 100 or more PA ended the season at or below replacement level at double the rate of any other position. The aggregate catcher batting line was the lowest of any position. No one plays a full season there, and in-season replacements are tough to find. Shoring up catcher for a good rate is important, particularly for teams with tenuous situations, and I like both of these moves. Vázquez is likely a first-division starter given the dearth of good catchers these days. Zunino has the upside to be that, and he’ll likely provide valuable depth innings in any case. Neither of these moves is going to win the AL Central, but both might keep their teams from starting a complete zero in lineups that can’t afford any of those.

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