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Is this it for Zaun?

May 26, 2010

In mid-April, the Milwaukee Brewers were in the midst of a series at Washington. Nationals rookie shortstop Ian Desmond had a chance to score as long as he could plow through Brewers catcher Gregg Zaun at the plate. The two collided, leaving Zaun with some pain and discomfort in his right shoulder. For a 16-year veteran like Zaun, the thought of not playing just simply didn’t cross his mind so he continued to play through the pain day in and day out.

Then, on May 20, in a second inning at-bat against Pittsburgh Zaun felt the same shoulder pop out of and then back into place when his hand slipped off the bat on a swing. He’d finish the at-bat, driving in a run on a groundout, before leaving the game. He was placed on the DL the next morning and an MRI revealed a partially torn labrum. Now, his season and career lay in jeopardy.

With his career at a cross roads, it seems like an appropriate time to look back at what has been a long, and often overlooked, career.

Drafted out of high school (where he was teammates with former second baseman Mark Loretta) by the Baltimore Orioles in the 13th round in 1989, Zaun would finally reach the Major Leagues in 1995. Entering the game in the 7th inning against Boston on June 24, Zaun would go 0 for 1 in his MLB debut. The next day, making his first career start, he would have two hits while driving in two runs and scoring another. He’d go on to appear in 40 games over the remainder of the season batting .260/.358/.384 with 3 HR, 14 RBI, in just over 100 at-bats. For a rookie catcher they were fairly respectable numbers in limited action.

Zaun would be traded to Florida in early August the following season where he would continue serving as a part-time catcher for the Marlins through their World Series winning season in 1997. In 1998 he would get his first crack at being the primary catcher, appearing in 106 games for the Marlins but it would prove to be the worst offensive season of his career as he batted a mere .188/.274/.292 over 298 at-bats.

Between 1999 and 2003 Zaun would again find himself primarily as a backup in Texas, Kansas City, Houston, and then Colorado. Finally, after joining the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2004 season, he would get another chance at a starting job and at 33, Zaun was determined to make the most of the opportunity. Over the next five seasons (including splitting the 2009 season in Baltimore and Tampa Bay) he would average 104 games, 370 at-bats, with 9 HR, 41 RBI, and a .255/.353/.401 line. In Toronto he’d put up career highs in games played (133 in ‘05), at-bats (512 in ‘05), HR (12 in ‘06), and RBI (61 in ‘05).

While Zaun has proven to be somewhat of a journeyman catcher throughout his career – he has played for nine organizations, with two separate stints in Baltimore – there aren’t many catchers who can maintain a 16 year career in the big leagues nowadays. It’s a physically and mentally demanding position that wears on players a great deal. The physical demands of crouching behind the plate are well documented, and the primary reason why we don’t see many 39 year old catchers still playing the game. Mentally it can be a challenge getting to know a pitching staff and becoming comfortable with each pitcher. Catchers need to know what pitches they can throw, their strengths and weaknesses, and be able to utilize all of that information in a split second to call a game. It’d be one thing to learn all of that information if a player were fortunate to stick with one organization for their career where the changeover of pitchers was minimal. But to continually learn new pitchers over a 16 year career is no easy task.

Now I’m going to pretend that Zaun has been an All Star caliber catcher over the course of, or even at any specific point during, his career. However, some credit needs to be given to the man for his ability to adapt, determination not to give up, and general durability. If you were to take a look at the players Baseball-Reference lists as the most comparable to Zaun most of the names would not be familiar to most baseball fans – Joe Oliver, Bo Diaz, John Flaherty, Greg Myers, Damian Miller, and Pat Borders. None are exactly household names aside from Borders in the homes of Toronto fans and perhaps Flaherty now for his work broadcasting Yankee games.

Milwaukee’s team doctors have advised Zaun to rest for the next 2-4 weeks before they will re-evaluate his shoulder to determine if he is going to need surgery to repair the torn labrum. Zaun himself says that there’s a “50-50 chance” that his season is done. If so, he may decide to call it quits altogether.

“I have a couple of questions I have to ask myself. Do I want to play next year? I can’t answer that question at this point right now. I love the game. I’m not sure if I want to continue going through this.” (quote courtesy of

Zaun has appeared in 1232 games over his 16 year career with 88 HR, 446 RBI, a .252/.344/.388 line, and a OPS+ of 91. Respectable numbers for a player who hasn’t received the right amount of respect over the course of his career.

* Author’s Note: This article has been simul-posted at both my personal blog, Backyard Baseball, and, where I am a new contributor. Feel free to comment at either location as criticism, suggestions, and thoughts are always welcomed.

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