Seby Zavala is Making a Serious Push to Stick with the White Sox

The three home run game was cool, but it's the praise Zavala receives from the starters that's most telling.

“Zavala needs the exposure; he’s everything the organization says he is, a very smart handler of the pitcher, a good feel for the fingers to put down. He just has to get to know the guys.”

Those were the words of White Sox skipper Tony La Russa before Chicago’s series with Baltimore before the All-Star break. La Russa gave the recently recalled Zavala two of the three starts behind the dish in that series and praised his defensive skillset.

“He sticks the ball; he has a lot of confidence; he blocks,” La Russa said during that weekend series in Baltimore. “The best moment in the dugout was when he got a [double]. And he put down a bunt on a 97 [mph pitch]. Sound player defensively, and he can get base hits in the big leagues, too.”

Zavala has received plenty of praise for his work behind the plate this season. He’s a solid defender, and the starters love throwing to him. They also don’t make it a secret that they do.

"He's the whole package as a catcher back there behind the plate,” White Sox starter Lance Lynn told reporters after he and Zavala carried the Sox to a 3-1 victory over Milwaukee last Sunday night.

Zavala and Lynn picked up back-to-back base hits in the second inning of that game, combining to plate all three Chicago runs on the night. The battery also worked together as Lynn twirled six innings of one-run ball against the Brewers.

Lynn isn’t the only White Sox starter to praise Zavala’s work behind the dish since he was called up when Yasmani Grandal went down last month.

Dallas Keuchel, another veteran starter, had similar thoughts on Zavala a few weeks ago in Baltimore.

“It doesn’t get much better than Yas; we’re going to miss him,” Keuchel said. “But the way [Zavala] presents pitches and has a great setup and is talking to the umpire for a young guy. He knows what he’s doing. We love him back there. I know Lance likes Seby back there, as well.”

Saturday night at Guaranteed Rate Field, 35,000-plus witnessed the ‘Seby Zavala Game’ as the catcher put on an absolute show at the dish in a 12-11 loss to Cleveland.

Zavala became the first White Sox rookie to hit three home runs in a single game since Ron Kittle accomplished the feat in June 1969. Zavala also became the first player in major league history to hit each of his first three career home runs in the same game.

A four-hit game with three home runs, six RBI, and four runs scored. That’ll play, especially for a backup catcher.

Sure, Zavala probably won’t replicate this type of power surge in a single game anytime soon, or ever for that matter. Still, if he can splash in a line even a third as good as tonight’s performance here and there, he’ll be the clear-cut favorite to remain with the club for the remainder of the season when Yasmani Grandal returns.

The writing is on the wall. Zavala has begun to eclipse Zack Collins in playing time, despite arriving in Chicago last month as the backup to Collins. Zavala has caught five of the last seven games for Tony La Russa’s White Sox, despite, before tonight, hitting .143/.226/.214 with one RBI in 33 plate appearances.

A slow start at the dish, for sure, but it’s a minimal sample size. But who is Seby Zavala as a hitter?

Zavala’s best offensive campaign was back in 2018 when he slashed .271/.358/.472 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 56 games with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Zavala received a promotion to Triple-A that season but saw his OPS drop over two hundred points, and he hit just two home runs in 48 games with the Knights, good for a wRC+ of just 71 compared to the 135 wRC+ he posted in his stint at Double-A that season.

2019 saw Zavala rediscover his power stroke as he slugged 20 home runs and drove in 45 runs for Charlotte in 82 games before being promoted to Chicago. Unfortunately, with the power for Zavala in 2019 came a decreased batting average and on-base percentage thanks to a staggering 35 percent strikeout rate.

Zavala’s strikeout woes followed him to Chicago in 2019 when he struck out nine of his 12 plate appearances before being demoted after just five games.

2021 hasn’t been much kinder to Zavala when it comes to strikeouts. The soon-to-be 28-year-old backstop posted a 42.6 percent strikeout rate in 141 plate appearances in Charlotte before being promoted last month. Since that promotion, Zavala is striking out at a 35 percent clip in 13 games with the White Sox.

On the other hand, Zack Collins is sporting a better — but not great — profile at the dish than Zavala this season.

In 177 plate appearances this season, Collins is slashing .208/.330/.356 with four home runs, 23 RBI, a 95 wRC+, and a slightly better 29.9 percent strikeout rate than that of Zavala’s. Collins is, however, pretty much only effective against right-handed pitching. 25 of his 31 hits this season have come against righties.

So, why should Seby Zavala stick with the major league club when Yasmani Grandal returns?

While Zavala probably won’t flourish into an offensive juggernaut, he won’t need to. Before his injury, Grandal caught 53 of Chicago’s 84 games (63.1 percent). So when Grandal returns, let’s say for argument’s sake, on September 1, the White Sox will have 29 games remaining, 18 of which will probably be caught by Grandal if we’re going off of the 63.1 percent rate in which he was the starting catcher before his injury.

That leaves potentially 11 games — give or take — for Zavala to start while Grandal is either off or playing DH/first base to keep his surgically repaired knee fresh for October.

The White Sox can live with Zavala’s potentially less than replacement level offensive production as long as they're getting a much better defender and game-caller behind the dish to work with their starters. And while the strikeout rate is — and has generally been throughout his career — high, Saturday night’s performance coupled with his minor league resume shows that Zavala has some pop to offset some of his swing-and-miss tendencies. Especially in a reserve role behind an All-Star catcher such as Grandal.

Although Collins is having a slightly better season at the dish, Zavala and his skills behind the dish and with the pitching staff seem like a more valuable tool for Tony La Russa to have behind Yasmani Grandal the stretch run and postseason.

Has Zavala done enough in his stint with the club to supplant Zack Collins as the backup catcher when Grandal is healthy? The next few weeks will tell, but it certainly seems like there’s a distinct possibility that it’s Zavala, not Collins, who will be sticking with the White Sox for the remainder of the 2021 season at this point.

I’ll leave you with this; when Seby Zavala is catching, White Sox starters have a cumulative ERA of 2.40, 8.7 K/9, and 1.8 BB/9 over the course of 60 innings, and the pitching staff as a whole has a cumulative ERA of 2.32, 9.7 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9 over the course of 89.2 innings.

Featured Photo: Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune

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