Man In The Box: Mike Zunino

 Every Saturday on The OFP Report we throw a hitter into the spotlight and discuss his struggles, successes, mechanics and even future. I thought I’d offer a digital version on this week’s target in order to lend a more detailed idea what Man In The Box is about each week.

Mike Zunino turned in a solid 2014 campaign, his first full season in the big leagues. Despite a poor .199 batting average and .254 on-base percentage, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 Draft, was a valuable offensive player thanks to 44 extra-base hits that included 22 home runs.

While his defense carries most of his total value, Zunino’s abilities at the plate go far beyond the triple-slash posted a year ago. He’s not going to hit .300 or post high-level OBPs, but as he learns the strike zone and begins to use the middle and backside of the field a little more, the AVG/OBP lines will improve.

He didn’t start 2015 very well, but has had several professional trips to the plate the past three games. One resulted in a long ball, another a single to left. He also walked and lined out to shortstop during that recent span.

Perhaps his most impressive plate appearance was Tuesday versus Houston. He’d singled off Collin McHugh earlier in the game and found himself down in the count 0-2; 90 MPH fastball for a called strike and a swinging strike on a hard slider down and on the outer quarter of the plate.

[pullquote]—–While his defense carries most of his total value, Zunino’s abilities at the plate go far beyond the triple-slash posted a year ago. He’s not going to hit .300 or post high-level OBPs, but as he learns the strike zone and begins to use the middle and backside of the field a little more, the AVG/OBP lines will improve.[/pullquote]

Pitch No. 3 was another fastball at 90 MPH. It had some arm side run to it and bit late in from the outside corner. Rather than trying to pull it — a common problem for hitters, including Zunino — he stayed back and drove it to right-center field. The ball didn’t leave the yard. It didn’t drop in front of the fielder. It didn’t move Brad Miller from first to second. It was a fly out.

But the kind of swing that produced it is the kind that can and will help Zunino collect a few more hits, drive in a few more runs and most importantly at the core, eventually tell opponents middle-away is not a hole.

Zunino doesn’t appear to have changed a whole lot in his swing mechanically.

Above is Zunino’s setup in 2014 versus right-hander A.J. Burnett.

Below is Zunino’s setup Wednesday night versus Roberto Hernandez.

Here is Zunino pre-release in 2014:

And in 2015:

Here is Zunino as he triggers his swing in 2014. Take note of where the front foot is, and where the bat is:

And now in 2015. Again, front foot and bat:

Here is pre-contact in 2014. Foot. Bat.

Here is 2015, pre-contact but swing under way.

The difference here starts with the trigger, which is the front foot. Zunino gets the foot down earlier in the 2015 shot, and that’s been, for the most part, what he’s brought to the table this season. Doing so gets his hands moving sooner, allowing him to get to decent velocity. There have been times — The entire Dodgers series, really — where he’s stuck in between protecting versus the breaking ball and left trying to catch up to the fastball. When Zunino is back to basics — reacting to offspeed stuff, rather than expecting it, at least early in counts or when counts are in his favor — he has the hands to get to plus velocity. He’s shown the past three games, too, that he is capable of keeping his hands back, enabling him to hit the breaking ball or changeup, particularly in a fastball count.

If you watch the below video, you’ll notice in three swings how Zunino timed up Hernandez and took him deep. He was timed well on all three, but the first two were thrown on the outside corner, a pitch he should be able to handle at some point but he was swinging to pull the ball just a little bit. The third offering was middle-in and Zunino lit it on fire:

The 2014 shots above are from August 19. In that game Zunino was a little late getting started. It’s a catch-22 sometimes. A batter gets started too early and he’s out front and/or robs himself of all of his power because his lower half has been taken out of the equation. He starts even a tick late and you can forget about doing anything with a fastball.

Zunino was doing just that in the Dodgers series, and here and there a year ago. But versus Texas and especially Houston during the current homestand, he’s been in sync. The next step is doing so while hitting the ball where it’s pitched like he did the fly out versus McHugh Tuesday.

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Jason A. Churchill

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