Tonight MLB will celebrate some of its top young stars in a major way with the MLB All-Star game in Colorado. Phillies superstar slugger Bryce Harper is not on a roster, face of baseball Mike Trout will not play in the game and players such as Fernando Tatis, Shohei Ohtani, Teoscar Hernandez, Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds will highlight the starting lineups. Overall, there are 42 first time All-Stars which is an MLB record. Those first timers include some surprises, such as Carlos Rodon and German Marquez. Perhaps, though, the most surprising three are all from one squad: The Tampa Bay Rays.
Historically, the Rays All-Star nods are usually random selections. Players such as Evan Longoria weren’t All-Stars often (for Evan, this is the eleventh year since his most recent All-Star appearance), yet it’s been players such as Brad Boxberger, Jason Bartlett and Matt Moore. This year is no exception as the reigning American League Champions send three players to the Midsummer Classic alongside manager Kevin Cash. Those players? Catcher Mike Zunino, relief pitcher Andrew Kittredge and utility man Joey Wendle.
Tropicana Field is about a two hour drive from Mike Zunino’s childhood home in Cape Coral, Florida. In 2021, he is a first-time Major League All-Star for the Tampa Bay Rays. The Florida Gator was drafted by the Seattle Mariners as a can’t-miss top catching prospect third overall in 2012 and was hotshotted to the Majors in 2013. From there, things didn’t go smoothly for the backstop. In six seasons in Seattle, Zunino posted a .207/.276/.406 slashline with a .682 OPS, significantly below league-average in all marks as a hitter. He showed occasional pop, launching 95 homeruns in 587 games, but otherwise was a big-league bust that had become the stereotypical, one-dimensional, defensive-oriented catcher. Prior to the 2019 season, he and teammate Guillermo Heredia (now of the Atlanta Braves) were dealt to the Rays for Jake Fraley and Mallex Smith.
While the Rays are notorious for taking players that haven’t unlocked their potential and squeezing all of it out of them, Zunino became the anomaly. In 2019, Zunino’s OPS dipped all of the way to .544, posting a .232 on-base percentage. In the 2020 pandemic shortened season, he hit to a .598 OPS with a .238 on-base percentage. The Rays declined his $4.5M team option, making him a free agent. They re-signed for cheaper, at a $3M pricetag, hoping to build off of his 2020 postseason that saw both him and the club reach the World Series. In the 2020 ALCS, he posted a stellar .911 OPS and in all four series, stole the headline for his excellent defense behind the plate.
The $3M bargain has paid off in a major way for Mike Zunino, who has gone from statistically one of the league’s worst hitters to an extreme turnaround in 2021 that has been rewarded with his first MLB All-Star selection. On Independence Day, MLB announced the original list of All-Star reserves and Zunino was featured as the only Tampa Bay Ray. It was later revealed that Zunino was chosen by his fellow players. Zunino, crying in a press interview, noted that he was “extremely grateful” that his inclusion came from his peers recognizing the 2021 campaign that he’d put together. On the players ballot, he was the top vote receiver for catchers in the American League.
So, how is that? After all, his batting average is an historically putrid .198 on the season. That’s the thing: batting average is almost irrelevant in the context of today’s game and that isn’t an indictment, rather an improvement. Batting average is a dated and cliché statistic that doesn’t show the entire offensive output of a player that statistics such as OPS, OPS+ or wRC+ show. Looking at other statistics, Mike Zunino ranks either first or second among AL catchers in categories such as WAR (his 2.4 fWAR is the highest among all qualified catchers), wOBA, wRC+ and OPS. His .332 ISO is second in all of baseball behind only the All-Star team’s designated hitter Shohei Ohtani. His 128 OPS+ shows that he’s 28% better than the league average hitter in 2021. His RAA has improved 14 points from 2020 to 2021, with his RAR improving 18 points. Zunino, who is finding a lot more barrels unlocking more of his power, has also seen a 2.3% increase in his walk rate complimenting a 5% decrease in K-rate in 2021. The barrels increase as well as adding more of a natural uppercut to his swing has seen his homerun rate skyrocket. His career homerun rate is 4.8%. It’s 9% in 2021. It isn’t as if this is some fluke where everything he makes contact with drops and inflates his numbers. Zunino’s 2021 baBIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .209, whereas in 2020 it was .206. The walk-rate increase, strikeout decrease and improvement in quality of contact is the reason for the offensive turnaround. Mike Zunino is the definition of an analytical darling at the plate in 2021. The three true outcome mentality gets a lot of flack, but it’s the way of the game in 2021, a game which we celebrate tonight. Mike Zunino should be the posterboy of it in the 2021 season.
Andrew Kittredge had planned a family trip to Disney over the All-Star break that has been postponed, because he found out last night during the Homerun Derby that two AL pitching spots had opened up. A surprise last minute addition to replace Gerrit Cole, who threw 128 pitches on Saturday against the Astros, Andrew Kittredge represents yet another surprise. Much like Zunino’s option being declined, the Rays didn’t tender Kittredge a contract following the 2020 season. They ended up bringing him back on a minor-league pact. Kittredge, 31, was drafted in the 45th round by the Mariners in 2008 as a longshot to ever make the Majors. He was traded to the Rays for Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer (there’s some random, throwback names for avid Rays fans) in November of 2016. He made his Major League debut in 2017, but was a roster regular in 2018. That season, Kittredge pitched in parts of 33 games but was arguably MLB’s worst pitcher in baseball with an atrocious 7.75 ERA mark and a 53 ERA+ (47% worse than the league average pitcher). It was evident that he was subject to a lot of bad luck, judging by his 5.38 FIP. It was also clear that he had wipeout stuff.
It looked as if Kittredge’s relatively quiet time in the Majors was coming to a startling halt in 2020, when an elbow injury began swirling rumors that it’d require Tommy John surgery. Tommy John had already put teammates Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche out of commission. Kittredge was fortunate to avoid certain catastrophe. This year? He’s been a jack-of-all trades, operating as an opener, set up man, closer among other things. He has at least one appearance in every inning 1-11. Kittredge has been scintillating in 2021 with an awesome 1.47 ERA. The FIP (3.28) luck has turned around, as peripherals suggest that the Rays defense has bailed him out in regularity. Kittredge in the first half averaged nine K’s every nine innings pitched, with 43 Ks in 43 innings of work, raising his career K-per-9 to 8.6. In the process, his 0.8 HR-per-9 has lowered his career rate, as he’s done a much-better job at keeping the ball inside of the ballpark. His 1.4 WAR is ranked third out of seven for AL All-Star relievers only trailing Astros Ryan Pressly (1.7) and Red Sox Matt Barnes (1.5). Kittredge has his lowest RA9 (Runs Allowed per Nine Innings) of his career while having the highest WAA and RAR of his career. The latter, RAR, is a substantial improvement as his next highest mark is seven points lower. His 26.2 strikeout percentage is higher than his career total of 22.7% while his BB% is down by 1.1% from his career totals.
News of the Rays other All-Star selection broke late on Friday night when Joey Wendle was reported as the roster replacement of Astros Michael Brantley. Joey Wendle, who doesn’t even use batting gloves, brings grit to the All-Star squad. The 31-one-year-old utility man noted that “humbled is the best word” to describe how his first career All-Star selection felt. Joey Wendle didn’t even fulfill rookie limitations until his age 28 season. He was drafted by the Indians in 2012 and went to Oakland as part of a 2014 trade for Brandon Moss. His first experience in the Majors came in 2016, when he took part in 28 games for the Athletics. He wasn’t a solidified major-leaguer until he got to Tampa Bay. The Rays acquired him for current Rangers catcher Jonah Heim on the same day that the New York Yankees acquired then-reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins.
Joey Wendle, despite being a key piece in the Rays success that includes an American League pennant, only has 23 homeruns in the Majors. In 2021, he leads the Rays in WAR (2.6), as the team looks to run it back in 2021 for Champa Bay. He is the type of player that people have grown accustomed to seeing on the Rays: a versatile, gritty, under-the-radar bargain that pays off because of the way the Rays exploit the strengths and hide that faults of their players. Wendle, who has a career-high seven homeruns at the plate, brings more than his 124 OPS+ to the table for the defending AL East champions. Wendle offers excellent defense all over the diamond, with at least five games at third base, shortstop and second base in 2021. Over his career, he has seen time at every position except first base and catcher.
For Wendle, he is the antithesis of an offensive player in 2021. Wendle doesn’t hit for an exuberant amount of power, with his current 2.5% homerun rate being the highest of his career in seasons that he qualified. His 6.1 BB rate ties his career BB rate. How has his offensive production improved significantly enough to make All-Star noise? His groundball percentage is 49.2 in a game where a vast majority of players are trying to elevate the ball. In a time where the shift is rampant, you can’t shift on a player such as Wendle as he pulls the ball 26% of the time and hits it to the opposite field 21% of the time in 2021. That means over 50% of the time he’s hitting the ball back where it came from, meaning the only way to shift him is to not. This ultimately throws off the entire evolution of baseball just by him being in the lineup for the Rays and brings a sense of stability to the overall lineup. The swing of Joey Wendle is far more reminiscent of an Alan Trammel or Wade Boggs type player than it is a Reggie Jackson or Mike Piazza. While all four of those players were clearly in the top echelon of hitting, considering all four are Hall of Fame hitters, the game has steered far more into the direction of the latter two than the former two. Between the short and compact swing designed for groundballs, the lack of batting gloves, the awkward stance and how hard Wendle plays at every opportunity, Joey Wendle is an old-school throwback that most traditional baseball fans would go insane over if he were in a more major market.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, many expected second baseman Brandon Lowe, outfielder Austin Meadows or ace Tyler Glasnow to be their All-Star representative in 2021. Ultimately, it’s players such as catcher Mike Zunino, reliever Andrew Kittredge and utility man Joey Wendle who have exceeded all expectations given to them by both baseball executives and baseball fans alike to find themselves three of the forty first-time All-Stars representation MLB tonight in Denver. Congratulations to all three players.
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