Let’s Talk About Mike Zunino

When an organization goes through a rebuilding or a re-tooling process, it’s often thought that the pieces need to be brought in. This would be through the draft, acquisitions of younger players, signing free agents, the international markets, and even the odd Rule 5 draft pick. The reclamation of players already within the system is often an afterthought.

Enter Mike Zunino who, nearly a full calendar year in to his renaissance, is reclaiming his title of catcher of the future for the Seattle Mariners. The former No. 3 overall pick is once again resembling the player that the organization hoped he would be when the significant investment was made in the catcher.

I hate to be overly critical of how the previous regime handled Zunino’s development, but it was obvious he was brought up too early and it was obvious that things weren’t working out in the big leagues for him last year. Both of the decisions are widely accepted as not being the best courses of action.

Some time in Arizona and Tacoma later, and the Mariners have been able to make up for some of the time that was lost. We may look back in ten years at the first half of 2016 as the difference-maker in the right-hander’s career.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here Shifting back to present day, in 149 plate appearances this season Zunino owns a .225/.342/.536 triple slash with a 137 wRC+. The 25-year-old’s 11 home runs are just three fewer than rookie sensation Gary Sanchez has produced in his 155 plate appearances this year. Zunino’s 137 wRC+ ranks third among all catchers with a minimum 100 plate appearances and his .312 ISO would rank second behind Sanchez.

Zunino has been hitting like an elite catcher this year, in large part because of the home run rate. Admittedly, his current pace is not likely sustainable over a full season. But in 476 plate appearances between Tacoma and Seattle he has 28 home runs to his credit. He also hit 22 back in 2014, his first full year in the majors, so reaching 25-to-30 range certainly seems attainable.

Let’s compare Zunino’s stats between his 2016 season in the majors and the forgettable 2015 campaign.

Mike Zunino 2015-2016 Statistics
 PA AVG
OBP
SLG OPS
wRC+ ISO
BB K BABIP
2015  386  .174 .230 .300 .550 47 .126 5.4%  34.2% .239
2016 149  .224 .342 .536 .878 137 .312 11.4% 29.5% .239

The 2016 sample size is still too small to be taken as gold. However, the results are very encouraging. Let’s start with the change in walk rate. This is stemming directly from a better all around approach at the plate by Zunino and improved discipline. He’s been swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone (-2.0 percent) and making more contact on pitches inside the zone (+2.5 percent) compared to last year. Overall he’s swinging at pitches at a slightly lower rate compared to last year and that has lead to him whiffing on fewer pitches.

The strikeout rate is still higher than you would like to see, but improving by nearly five percent is no small feat. If he’s able to maintain a walk rate in that 10-to-11 percent rage, his offensive profile will support an above average strikeout rate. Discipline was a major critique for Zunino last year, and he’s clearly worked on changing the perceptions. If he’s hitting this many home runs, the strikeouts will take care of themselves.

Zunino is not likely to hit for a terribly high average. An interesting point when comparing the two years is that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is identical, yet his 2016 average is 50 points higher. This is partly due to the home runs, again, as they are not balls in play. But this is also indicative of him making better contact that’s dropping in for base hits. His hard-hit rate is up eight percent and he’s hitting the ball the other way a little more as well.

Although his offensive metrics are driven by the home run rate, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Zunino does, after all, profile as a power hitter. Should he cool off over the season’s final weeks and finish with a lower OPS, perhaps in the .830-to-.850 range, it should still be considered a positive season.

All this ink spent on Zunino without mentioning his defence is simply because his abilities behind the dish were never in question. He’s continued to be an above average defender and very capable game caller. He has developed strong rapport with many of the familiar arms and regularly caught James Paxton at the start of the year when he was also in Triple-A.

The timing for the right-hander’s re-call from Tacoma also worked well for the M’s catching situation. With Steve Clevenger on the disabled list with a broken finger, and subsequent elbow issue that has ended his season, and veteran Chris Iannetta starting to show signs of fatigue, he provided welcomed relief to a weary catching corps after the All-Star break.

For fun, Zunino currently sports a 1.2 fWAR. That’s good for fifth among all position players on the club. Combining his fWAR with Iannetta’s 0.9 mark gives Seattle more than two wins above replacement at the catcher position on the year; a significant improvement over last season’s production.

Is Mike Zunino fixed? I wouldn’t say that, yet. We may not know the answer for several years. The primary takeaway here is that there are several legitimate clues suggesting the 25-year-old is back on the career trajectory that the Mariners hoped he’d be.

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Tyler Carmont

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