With the White Sox looking to make up a lot of ground from their early season struggles, naturally, every player falls under the microscope of public opinion. Certainly, the White Sox’ catching situation isn’t immune to this criticism as well – even if they aren’t the biggest part of the problem.
Currently, White Sox catchers rank 22nd in overall fWAR, accumulating just 0.2 fWAR this season. Yasmani Grandal has cooled off from his hot start but has still posted a 97 wRC+ – not usually respectable, but when compared to catchers around the league, ranks 14th among those with 150 PA. That leaves Zavala, whose wRC+ sits at just 31 – and was as low as 11 before his two-homer game in New York on Friday. With the White Sox struggling as badly as they are, can they afford to continue to give at-bats to Zavala?
When I originally started writing this article, the title was, “It is Time to DFA Seby Zavala.” At the time, that was the conclusion I had come to. However, after looking into the topic of Zavala a bit more, it seems a bit more likely you can make an argument for him to remain on the roster. So, I’ll break down his offensive struggles, highlight his defensive ability, throw some stats your way, and then you, as the reader, can come to your own conclusion on the 29-year-old catcher.
Hitting is objectively the worst part of Zavala’s play, as he is currently slashing .163/.196/.304 with a wRC+ of 31. Before his two-home run day on Tuesday, Zavala was slashing a line of .155/.191/.238 with a 13 wRC+. He also strikes out nearly 40% of the time (39.2%) while walking less than 5% of the time (4.1%).
Nobody can argue that a 30 wRC+ while striking out almost 40% of the time is good. However, he is getting a tad unlucky this year. His wOBA is .217 while his xwOBA is .259. This is probably due to his BABIP being .216 (the league average is about .300). So, when he is making contact, it’s not landing in the open field; instead, it’s landing in the mitt of an opposing fielder. However, his xwOBA sits well below the league average of .317. So even if he got luckier, there’s no real way to say he’s hitting well this year.
He struggled mightily in May, which is the worst month he has had in the MLB by a wide margin. He has already doubled his home run count since last month, and it’s quite clear things can only possibly get better based on last month.
|Seby Zavala’s Stats in May|
Throughout his career, Zavala hasn’t been that good of a hitter. In his brief stints in 2019 and 2021, he hit a combined .171/.223/.343 with a 51 OPS+. But what happened to the 2022 version of Zavala? Last year, he hit .270/.347/.382 with a 111 wRC+. That slash line shows he was above average, but doesn’t tell the whole story. His xwOBA was .283 compared to a .323 wOBA. His BABIP was also .404. What is happening to Zavala this year is the complete opposite of what happened to him last year. He was VERY lucky last year and that explained the above-average hitting stats.
There was no way Zavala was going to be able to keep that up going into this season. His BABIP and xwOBA show that it simply wasn’t sustainable. So, if we even out this season and last season and he is neither lucky nor unlucky, we have a below-average hitter.
However, below-average hitting is pretty expected for backup catchers. Most backup catchers are in the league because they are incredibly solid defenders – and Zavala is no different there.
Zavala’s defensive abilities have ranked out very well throughout 2022 and 2023.
|Defensive Runs Saved||8 (11th among catchers)||5 (5th among catchers)|
|Blocks Above Average||4 (20th in the league)||3 (9th in the league)|
|Catcher Framing Runs||4 (11th in the league)||1 (18th in the league)|
He was pretty good last year but has now jumped into the above-average category on these catching stats. So behind the plate, he has made his case to stick around.
On the other hand, his ability to throw out runners is not so good. His Caught Stealing Above Average is 0 and his pop time is in the 10th percentile. The bigger bases and disengagement count have not helped catchers this year and stealing is up a lot more than in previous years. In fact, Zavala posted a +3 Caught Stealing Above Average last season, so I will give him some slack on that side of catching.
A lot of fans love Zavala’s game-calling, and he is well-liked by the pitching staff. I’m here to say that this is not a great way of evaluating Zavala. Unfortunately, game-calling statistics and catcher ERA are not widely available stats, so I will have to look at this another way. Right now, the White Sox are 26th in the league in ERA. Through 64 games, Zavala has started in 26 of them. I don’t believe you can be a great game-caller if you call 40% of the games and the pitching is some of the worst in the league. He primary catches for Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech. Giolito has been pretty solid with a 4.08 ERA, but Kopech hasn’t looked extraordinary with a 4.52 ERA and a scary 5.43 xERA.
Overall, I wouldn’t factor in game-calling into evaluating Zavala.
Offensively, Seby Zavala has been very bad this year. Among players with at least 90 PA, he is the 6th worst hitter in the league in terms of wRC+. Defensively, he has been an above-average catcher all year. So as a fan, what do you value more? Catching is arguably the hardest position in baseball, and a lot of good teams sacrifice offensive output for a guy who is rock solid behind the plate (ex. Martin Maldanado of the Astros).
If the Sox decide to move on from Zavala, there are other options. Carlos Perez is an intriguing player in Triple-A Charlotte. He has a .741 OPS with 9 HR in Triple-A this year. He is 26, so he could bring some youth to the club’s aging catching position, especially with Yasmani Grandal being in the last year of his contract. There are other options outside of the organization as well. On June 1st, Jorge Alfaro opted out of his minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox. He is the same age as Zavala, has a good amount of MLB exposure, and tore up Triple-A Worcester with a batting line of .320/.366/.520.
As the season goes on, all we can do is sit and watch Seby Zavala and see if Hahn and Co. decide to move on from Zavala or keep their backstop there for the rest of the season.
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Featured Image: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports