Z-Game in the Limelight: Gregg Zaun’s Greatest Hits

Longtime sabermetric favorite Gregg Zaun, the sometime “Practically Perfect Backup Catcher” (who would have made a pretty good starter for many teams), announced (or will announce, depending on the timing relative to this post) his retirement today. Zaun had played 16 seasons in the major leagues, and had actually put up above-average offense (very good for a catcher) the last two seasons (103 and 105 wRC+, respectively), but after coming back from injury to sign a minor-league deal with the Padres, decided that he just didn’t have the desire to play anymore.

Apparently he didn’t get the memo from Jason Kendall that aging catchers are supposed to linger on years after they were useful in order to keep teams from being tempted to play younger players. Maybe Zaun decided he didn’t fit the Kendall mode, given that he actually might still be able to contribute to a team: ZiPS projected Zaun to hit .255/.341/.403 in 2011. Perhaps Zaun finally realized that one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.

Indeed, using this methodology for relating player performance to league average, Zaun turns out to be almost exactly average for his career. Instead of reciting easily looked-up stats (summary: Zaun was a slightly below-average defensive catcher who made up for it with good on-base skills), perhaps a more interesting tribute to Zaun (other than the awesome flash intro to his website) would be to rank his five most valuable offensive plays by Win Probability Added (WPA). Get ready to Bring Your Z-Game!

5. August 30, 2001. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and runners on first and third, Zaun singled to left to score Mike Sweeney to give the Royals the 2-1 walk-off victory (+.352 WPA). It really says it all about the Royals of the early 2000s that after Zaun put up a .320/.377/.536 line in this season they let him go. Sure, it was only over 138 plate appearances, but still, one wonders what transpired. Maybe they were worried he’d regress to his dreadful .274/.390/.410 line of the season before. Well, at least times have changed. Oh, wait.

4. May 24, 1995: Coming in off of the bench to catch in extra innings, with the score tied at 4, runners on first and second and two out in the bottom of the tenth, Zaun singled to left to score Bobby Bonilla (~!) to give the Orioles the 5-4 walkoff win (+.379 WPA). As we’ll see, Zaun + Bonilla = winning.

3. June 15, 1997: You may not remember that Zaun, along with Bonilla and other lesser players (ahem) was part of the much-beloved 1997 Marlins World Championship team. Zaun didn’t play much that season, and you can see why from his paltry .301/.415/.441 line (how did this guy manage to hang around so long?). But on this day of interleague fun, he was The Man without even having the game-winning hit. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and runners on first and second and the Marlins down 2-3, Zaun hit a double to right off of Jeff Nelson (wow, that takes me back) that scored Moses Alou and Jim Eisenreich to give the Marlins the lead over their hated rivals, the New York Yankees (+.589 WPA). However, the game went back and forth and wasn’t decided until the bottom of the ninth when Moises Alou reached on error to score two runners. Still, they wouldn’t have been there without Zaun’s double.

2. June 27, 2002: Zaun hits a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to drive in two, and maybe three should-be Hall of Famers (Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Jeff Bagwell) for the Astros (+.724 WPA) to beat the reigning World Champion Diamondbacks. He hit it off of Near World Class Goat Byung-Hyun Kim. I hope the three Bs remember Zaun in their acceptance speeches. This was actually the worst season of Zaun’s career (52 wRC+, -0.7 WAR).

1. Zaun was quite the nomad, as is typical of the life of the backup catcher (apparently even one who is good enough to start for many teams when they don’t realize it). If there is one team he’s associated with, it’s the Blue Jays, with whom he had the best overall stretch of his career. So it is fitting that his “biggest play” would come for them against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 6, 2008.

This was an intense game, with Toronto holding a 3-0 lead for most of the game until Tampa Bay rallied in the ninth to tie it up at 3. In the top of the 13th, the Rays took the lead on a Dioner Navarro single that scored Rays’ Poet Laureate Fernando Perez. In came Tampa’s veteran closer Troy Percival, who either had one too many or too few cups of coffee, as with two outs the bases were loaded. Up to bat came Zaun, already with two hits on the the day, and he added a third on a game-winning walk-off grand slam for the Jays. Coincidentally, Zaun’s sixth biggest play (by WPA) came the next season when he hit a game-winning grand slam against the Jays and for the Rays on August 16.

Here’s hoping Zaun has an equally long and productive career in broadcasting, where we can all greet this stranger as a long-awaited friend.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

30 Responses to “Z-Game in the Limelight: Gregg Zaun’s Greatest Hits”

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  1. Sean says:

    [guitar solo]

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  2. Jack Weiland says:

    Oh. My. God. This rules. So effin hard.

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  3. Jack Weiland says:

    Matt Klaassen = new favorite author, regardless of whatever else he does for the entire rest of his life.

    In 1991, when I was 9 years old, Gregg Zaun (aka The Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnn) played for the Kane County Cougars in the town I grew up in. Despite the fact that he was completely average in every way he was my absolute fucking hero and I continued to follow him jokingly/completely seriously for the rest of his career.

    Also: apparently he only hit four home runs that year, but I swear to god I remember at least one of them to this very day.

    The Z-Man. Get some.

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  4. Keith says:

    Get on with the fascination, Z-Man.
    The real relation.
    The underlying theme.

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  5. Beau says:

    Fantastic article.

    Maybe I’m missing something but I can only view play log WPAa data back to 2002, can someone tell me how to go back further. I’d love to access some of this data for similar articles of my favorite players on my own blog.

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  6. Neil says:

    I remember that #1 game – I was actually in attendance, sitting in the 100 seats on the 3B side. And I was thrilled for at least two reasons: 1) Zaun looked giddy as he rounded the bases, like a kid that just got the game-winning RBI in little league; 2) I was at the game with my wife, whose patience is tested by a 9-inning game, and I had promised that we would leave after that inning.

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  7. Joseph Lanek says:

    Wow, Jack, we have a VERY similar record of Zaunnie fandom. As, a kid, I used to go to Rochester, NY in the summers. When I was 11 or 12, Gregg was playing for the AAA Red Wings and was the first player to ever sign for me. As a life-long Padres fan, I was so excited this offseason when we picked him up. Le sigh…

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Did you guys call him the Z-Man? I remember anytime he did anything the PA guy at Elfstrom Stadium went “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn” … it ruled so hard.

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  8. Michael Emerson says:

    You’ve left off Gregg Zaun’s shining accomplishment in my book. In the 1999 Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, Gregg Zaun was playing outfield for the Rangers. He came out every inning and talked with the fans and gave us high-fives. I don’t recall the inning (and don’t know where such information could be found), but he called his shot to our section and took it deep right where he called it. It’s one of my greatest baseball memories.

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  9. Eric says:

    If sportsnet doesn’t keep him as analyst/broadcaster, ima burn down the Rogers centre

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  10. TJ says:

    I always wished the Tigers would have signed him instead of Laird during the 2008 offseason. I’ll miss him even though he never played for my team. He’s just one of those odd players you can’t help but love.

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  11. Shazbot says:

    Wasn’t there some controversy over his decorated mask?

    I’ll always have a soft spot for him.

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  12. Bruce Miles says:

    Never go wrong with Rush references. Zaun: a true working man.

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  13. Baron Samedi says:

    Love watching the dynamic chemistry between Zaun and Canada’s own ginger assassin Jamie Campbell on Roger’s Sportsnet. He has some really nice suits.

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  14. Josh says:

    well done. I’m glad he got some love on here.

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  15. andrew says:

    When you’re a Brewers fan you have to spend time inventing awesome catch phrases to keep yourself busy during the game. “ZAUNED AND BRAUNED” was a favorite.

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  16. Marc says:

    Hahaha wow, I remember that grand slam against the Rays like it was yesterday. And I had a strong feeling that one would make the list too.

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  17. Damaso's Burnt Shirt says:

    I’m not surprised that the Zaun Extra Innings Grand Slam game was number one. The pesky “upstart” Rays had owned Toronto till that series and it felt good, no, amazing to give them a beating (the Jays swept the series.)

    It might surprise some folks but Toronto had a (VERY) faint chance of the playoffs at that moment and this game was considered borderline meaningful till it all came crashing down in Boston the next week when reality hit.

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  18. Not David says:

    Is there a more under appreciated and often overlooked position than backup catcher?

    Look at what the Twins ran out there last year behind Mauer, and they’re going to do it all over again this year! Indefensible.

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  19. EspeciallyK says:


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  20. KS says:

    As a long-time Orioles fan, I was always disappointed they didn’t keep him, or at least keep him around longer. You didn’t mention that he’s the nephew of long-time O’s catcher and all-around Baltimore icon Rick Dempsey, which may have actually worked against a long tenure for Zaun in “Charm City.” But when he came up to the bigs it seemed like the perfect symmetry at the time.

    He was never the player his uncle was (nor the character), but as you point out he was a good major league catcher. Oh, what might have been….

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  21. Alex says:

    Gregg Zaun and Geddy Lee: each another’s audience.


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  22. There’s one thing you’re missing about Zaun’s grand slam against the Rays that made it all the more epic: it kept the Jays winning streak going. I believe that was the 7th win in a row, of what turned out to be a 10 or 11 game streak that very briefly got the Jays sniffing a chance for meaningful games in September. I believe shortly after that they started a 4 game series with Boston while being 6 or 7 games back, so the narrative became that if they could somehow sweep that series, then they’d actually be in the hunt.

    Ah, memories.

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