Mariner Catchers Gun for the Record Books

Let’s get right to the point. It’s not often that I use OPS instead of wOBA or wRC+, but sometimes OPS is just easier, like when you’re relying on the Baseball-Reference Play Index. OPS is the inferior statistic, but the correlation is very strong, so, with that out of the way, here are this year’s worst-hitting catchers, by team:

  • Twins, .591 OPS
  • Marlins, .580
  • Mariners, .466

I’m not one of those people who minds when commenters make note of typos. I actually appreciate it — I hate little mistakes, and I want to have them corrected. Some of you might feel like the above includes a typo, specifically with regard to the “4” in the Mariners number. I assure you, that number is very much accurate. If the 4 were a 5, the Mariners would still be in last. The 4 is a 4. This is only going to get worse.

This season, the Mariners have had the worst-hitting catchers in baseball, by a wide, wide margin. The gap is so big it doesn’t matter if you look at OPS or wOBA. The gap is so big it doesn’t matter if you park-adjust. They’ve sucked. At the plate, they’ve sucked, and the season’s a few weeks from done. This isn’t a small-sample fluke anymore. This is very nearly a final number, locked in.

In the preseason Positional Power Rankings, Mariners catchers tied for 22nd in WAR. The offensive projection, at that point, was for a .640 OPS. A .640 OPS is not good, but it’s acceptable for catchers who are better than average behind the plate. Instead, the situation has been very much unacceptable, and though there’s a variety of reasons for why the Mariners have underachieved, this is a big one. The thought was that the lineup didn’t have any black holes. A black hole developed. You seldom see them coming, but this one’s been catastrophic.

I said things were going to get worse. The Mariners have had baseball’s worst-hitting catchers. What if we open it up to all regular positions? Here are the worst:

  • White Sox, 2B, .568 OPS
  • Reds, CF, .543
  • Mariners, C, .466

Out of all the positions, Mariners catchers have been the worst at hitting. Now, this doesn’t include pitchers, because pitchers aren’t really trained to hit, but for whatever it’s worth, Giants pitchers have posted a combined .452 OPS. They’re the best in the league, and they’re almost on the level of the Mariner backstops. Both the average and the slugging percentage are superior.

You can see that this has been a wreck. Now, the Play Index split tool goes back only so far, but the worst recorded offensive position belongs to the 1968 Giants, whose shortstops posted a .436 OPS. Mariners catchers are unlikely to challenge that title, but what if we look at catchers, only? Here are the worst known marks:

  • 1967 Twins, .497 OPS
  • 1967 Mets, .493
  • 2015 Mariners, .466

The very lowest! The lowest, by 27 points. With 24 games left, it’s possible for the Mariners to crawl out of the basement, but it’s going to take a special effort. My estimate is that, the rest of the way, Mariners catchers would need to post an OPS of about .650 in order to not finish last, here. The rest-of-season projections put them at .537. At that pace, Mariners catchers would finish at .477, still deep in last place. They’d be last, by far, in batting average. They’d be last, by far, in OBP. It seems a little late for this group to save this situation.

You might not even be able to name the current Mariner catchers. They are, in no order: John Hicks, Jesus Sucre, and Steven Baron. All of them are defense-first, and of all the players in the majors projected the rest of the way, Sucre projects to be the worst hitter. Baron projects to be the second-worst. And then Hicks projects to be the sixth-worst, on the level of Paul Janish and Drew Butera. There’s not a hitter in the lot, and there’s not a potential hitter in the lot, and this has only happened because Mike Zunino is getting rebuilt:

Catcher Mike Zunino will not be called up. He will instead go to Arizona and participate in the upcoming instructional league. It was always assumed that the Mariners would bring him back after the Rainiers’ season ended. But Zunino is undergoing a massive swing overhaul with hitting coach Cory Snyder under the supervision of Edgar Martinez.

Not that having Zunino on the roster would make things look that much better, but at least Zunino might hit, someday. The tools are in there, and he just has too much movement in his swing right now to be able to do anything consistently. This isn’t an article about how Mike Zunino is guaranteed to be a total bust. But it is partially, or mostly, about how Zunino was a bust in 2015, undershooting his preseason wOBA projection by 62 points. That’s ninth-worst in baseball, out of 273 players with projections and at least 250 trips to the plate. Zunino didn’t miss by as much as, say, Victor Martinez has, but the Mariners have had zero support behind their Plan A.

A few things are funny now, in retrospect. Some Lloyd McClendon optimism from February:

“Mike Zunino is going to be an All-Star catcher in the very near future,” McClendon insisted.

Some Lloyd McClendon optimism from May:

“He’s getting better,” he said. “It hasn’t shown up in the box score but he is getting better. I think in the end it is going to pay off. We will see a better hitter at the end of the year.”

Zunino’s year ends with a demotion, after a 7-for-54 August. You can’t blame a manager for believing in the tools. You can’t blame a manager for having a player’s back. But this has been a season of zero progress, requiring a total reconstruction out of the sight of curious eyes. Attentive eyes add stress, and stress makes it difficult to remain on course. If Zunino isn’t going back to Square 1, he’s somewhere close to Square 2.

There’s also the other funny part — for two weeks, the Mariners employed Welington Castillo. Castillo, this year, has been one of the better offensive catchers in the game. The Mariners got him seemingly for depth behind Zunino, but then they quickly flipped him. Castillo the Mariner had four hits, and no homers. Castillo against the Mariners has three hits, all homers. You can’t say the Mariners never had another option — they just didn’t think enough of him to keep him for more than a handful of days.

Getting back to the main point: Mike Zunino had a terrible offensive year, taking a step back from what was already a frustrating 2014. Behind Zunino, there’s been zero depth, besides Castillo, who was quickly traded. Though, as a unit, the defense has been pretty good, this has been an offensive nightmare. Mariners catchers have been the worst-hitting catchers in baseball. They’ve been the worst-hitting position in baseball. And they’ve potentially been the worst-hitting catchers in recorded history, spanning several decades. There are a few weeks left to erase that sentence, but the odds don’t look promising. This isn’t why the Mariners failed. It is instead a big chunk of the failure.

We hoped you liked reading Mariner Catchers Gun for the Record Books by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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MikeS
Guest
MikeS

Jesus Sucre may be a negative WAR player, but he has at least a 4 WAR name.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

I saw him pitch, live in Houston after King Felix wound up on the other kind of throne. Clean inning, as I recall.

exxrox
Member
Member
exxrox

Sweet Jesus!

GoOppo
Guest
GoOppo

Well JBJ took him particularly deep, back when JBJ wasn’t OPSing. 1000, he of the many “overhyped redsox failed prospects”. So,to Jesus, and his 91 mph fastball “I em not empressed wit yowr pehformahnce:

LincB
Guest
LincB

Agreed.