Mike Zunino’s Not Too Shabby

Mike Zunino reached the majors in 2013 with just 208 plate appearances in the upper minors on his resume. It’s not as if he raked his way to The Show, either. In 47 games at the Double-A level, he tallied a .238/.303/.503 line with a 105 wRC+. He also struck out a ton (28.4%) while walking at a low rate (6.7%). Alas, the M’s brass didn’t seem to care about his shortcomings at the dish.

Big leaguers exploited him, and he tallied a .214/.290/.329 line with a 77 wRC+ and a 25.4% strikeout rate. He spent the entire 2014 season in the majors and smacked 22 homers. That’s where the offensive positives end. His power was dragged down by a 33.2% strikeout rate and .199/.254/.404. He also grew more impatient and walked in just 3.6% of his plate appearances. Remarkably, things got worse for Zunino in 2015, yet he remained in the majors until the end of August. At that point, the Mariners finally sent him down to the minors for more seasoning.

His 47 wRC+ and 34.2% strikeout rate in 386 plate appearances in 2015 were dreadful, and not even his strong work behind the dish could make up for his truly dreadful offense. In general manager Jerry Dipoto’s second year with the Mariners, he and the rest of the M’s brass made the wise decision to start the year with off-season acquisition Chris Iannetta starting at catcher and 25-year-old Zunino starting at the Triple-A level.

Even after a fast start, the Mariners exercised patience and allowed the previously-rushed top-five pick the opportunity to hone his craft with the lumber in the minors, and he thrived (17 homers, 10.7% walk rate, 21.1% strikeout rate, .286/.376/.521 and 138 wRC+ in 327 plate appearances). His improvements in the minors resulted in a strong showing from July through the end of the season in the majors. What’s on the horizon for the still young backstop?

Already the owner of a 20-plus homer season, Zunino had previously displayed big-league caliber homer power. Still, he kicked that thump up a notch with 12 homers in just 192 plate appearances and a new career-high .262 ISO. That ISO mark was more than a 100 points higher than his pre-2016 mark (.160) in the majors. In addition to hitting for more power, Zunino made massive strides earning free passes.

Prior to the 2016 season, he’d walked in only 5.1% of his plate appearances in the majors. This year, he tallied a 10.9% walk rate. The 25-year-old whittled his O-Swing from 34.2% prior to this year down to 29.6% (30.3% was the league average). His chase rate in 2016 was a smidge better than the league average, but his walk rate of 10.9% was well above the league average of 8.2%.

Zunino wasn’t issued any intentional walks, but it’s likely that his down order lineup slotting (172 of his plate appearances were batting seventh or eighth) helped inflate his walk rate more than his O-Swing rate supported. That said, the steps forward in O-Swing rate and walk rate are both major positive changes and welcome additions to his power strides. Getting back to Zunino’s thump, he utilized a pull-happy, flyball-centric approach to tap into it.

Among the 362 hitters who recorded at least 190 plate appearances this year, Zunino ranked tied for 67th in Pull% (45.0%). More impressively, he ranked fourth in flyball rate (52.5%). He can’t leave the yard if you don’t lift the ball, and Zunino clearly has a knack for lifting the ball. A weak flyball is no bueno, though, but Zunino upped his Hard% from 30.5% prior to 2016 to 35.0% this year. Out of 513 players with a minimum of 30 batted ball events, Zunino ranked tied for 115th with an average exit velocity of 90.8 mph, per Baseball Savant. Better yet, he ranked tied for 46th with a 95.5 mph average FB/LD exit velocity.

He capably drove the ball in the air with authority. His homer pace from 2016 ( one homer per 16 plate appearances) isn’t likely to be duplicated, but he has legitimate 25-plus homer power with full-time work. But what about Safeco Field? In 2015, it suppressed homers to right-handed batters by just 4%. Furthermore, it actually amplified homers to right-handed batters by 3%, according to the 3-year rolling average at StatCorner. So what about the full-time workload?

Zunino has been an asset as a defender in his career. Base runners attempted just 26 steals against Zunino in 48 starts (52 games played overall) this year, and he gunned down seven of them. Base runners have attempted just 223 steals against him in 322 games, and he’s thrown out 63 would-be base stealers. Base runners have just a 67.8% success rate on stolen base attempts since the beginning of 2015. His work as a pitch framer is also good.

Out of 80 catchers who caught a minimum of 1,000 pitches this year, he ranked 24th in per-game pitch-framing value. Backup Chris Iannetta (who the club holds a team option for) ranked just 65th in the same category. And for those who are concerned about Zunino’s small sample size of 3,541 pitches caught this year, have no fear. In 2015, he ranked 17th out of 72 catchers in per-game pitch-framing value, and in 2014, he ranked ninth out of 79 catchers in per-game pitch-framing value. Zunino’s defensive and framing skills have real life value and bode well for him earning a full workload even if his bat takes a step back.

Not all is rainbows and butterflies with Zunino. He has a punch-out problem. He struck out in 33.9% of his plate appearances this year. The righty’s 16.4% SwStr% was significantly higher than the league average of 10.1% this season. Perhaps there is some reason for hope he can cut back on his strikeout rate a bit. The catcher’s biggest contact issues came out of the strike zone. His O-Contact% of 44.9% was 19% lower than the league average of 63.9%, but his Z-Contact% of 76.1% was only 10.2% lower than the league average of 86.3%.

If he further refines his approach and cuts back even more on chasing pitches out of the strike zone, the O-Contact% issues will be less damaging. The swing-and-miss in his game will manifest itself in plenty of strikeouts, but there might be some room for improvement. Regardless, his .207 average was bad, and he’ll be a drag on batting average even with an improved strikeout rate in 2017. Overall, Brad Johnson’s 2017 ranking of 19th at catcher for Zunino looks fair when weighing the good (power) with the bad (average). If your team can stomach a bad average and needs some thump, Zunino makes for a viable option in two-catcher mixed leagues and AL-only formats.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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Bobby Mueller

My concern with Zunino is this:

11.8% BB%, 20.6% K%–July (34 PA)
12.3% BB%, 33.3% K%–August (81 PA)
9.1% BB%, 40.3% K%–September/October (77 PA)

It’s great that he kept his walk rate up, but his strikeout rate got worse each month, culminating with that 40.3% strikeout rate in September/October. His contact ability eroded as the season went on. That has to be a concern going forward.