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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.