We are now over 10 percent through the season, and although it is still a bit early to make definitive statements for how the rest of the season will transpire, it isn't too early to be worried about ugly trends that keep getting uglier and longer. The Mariners have had a few problems to open the season, but one that is extra nasty is the case of Mike Zunino.
Zunino finished last night with yet another strikeout. Batters strikeout all the time, so this isn't necessarily a shock. But when people say batters strikeout all the time, it means more that it is a common occurrence. When we say Mike Zunino strikes out all the time, it is still a hyperbolic statement, but one that is frighteningly close to being true.
The Mariners catcher has 25 strikeouts, which is good for top 10 most strikeouts in the league. He is joined by players like Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton, so it seems like Zunino is in good company. But there is a huge difference here, because unlike Stanton, who has 81 plate appearances, and Harper, who has 81 plate appearances, Zunino has only made 59 trips to the plate.
Before yesterday's game, Zunino leads the league with a strikeout percentage of 42.9 percent. Zunino's line sits at .140/.214/.280 on the season with a pretty paltry wRC+ of 42. Somewhat shockingly, that wRC+ of 42 is just the fourth worst amongst catchers with at least 50 plate appearances -- so perhaps that is the glimmer of hope, he isn't the worst.
Mark Reynolds holds the dubious distinction of the most strikeouts in a single season with 223 in the 2009 season. Zunino, by being virtue of a catcher, most likely won't break that record. Assuming Zunino sees a similar workload to last year, he will end up with around 475 plate appearances, so at his current rate, he will only strikeout around 203 times.
But in that 2009 season, Reynolds was able to offset his free-swinging ways by clubbing home runs whenever he actually made contact. Reynolds finished the 2009 season with a wRC+ of 127. Zunino, as of now, doesn't look like he will be able to offset his strikeouts with any sort of offensive value.
It is a bit worrysome, because in some ways, Zunino seems to be doing better on certain aspects of his offensive approach. He has lowered his swing percentage on pitches outside the zone by 6.5 percent this season. His swing percentage on pitches in the zone is hovering right around what it was last season, at 71.2 percent.
So Zunino sees a pitch in the zone, and he swings. One of the big differences this year, is that when he sees those pitches in the zone, he misses more often. Zunino's contact rate on pitches in the strike zone has dropped from 79.1 percent last season to 66.2 percent this season. On the Mariners, only one player has a worse percentage on the season -- Taijuan Walker at 0.00.
What makes it even more worrisome is that it isn't like pitchers are pitching around Zunino. He is getting eaten alive by pitchers throwing him fastballs, as this tweet by Daren Willman with Baseball Savant shows.
Mike Zunino has seen 118 fastballs this year. He's whiffed on 27% of them. Next closest is Springer who's whiffed 19% http://t.co/YOcCbGRRiV— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 27, 2015
Here is the heatmap for the query. Right now, it looks like pitchers are challenging Zunino with fastballs up in the zone and are winning the battle.
This wasn't so much the case last season. According to Baseball Savant's data that has come in so far, Zunino saw 800 fastballs last season, and swung and missed on just 14.1 percent of them. Again, it is a small sample size so far this season, but Zunino has always been a free swinger. Free swingers aren't much of a detriment if they are putting contact on the ball. Zunino, right now, isn't really doing that.
At the end of the season, Zunino probably won't break Reynold's strikeout record. At the rate he is going, however, it does remain a possibility that he could set a different sort of record. I couldn't find what the actual record is anywhere, but if Zunino finishes the season with a strikeout percentage of 42.4, that has to be close to a new record, according to the data I could find. Here is where we stand right now of players in history that saw the plate at least 400 times in a season and struckout a crap ton (including Zunino so far).
|player||year||# of SO||SO%|
Here is to hoping that what we are seeing out of Zunino isn't a trend becoming a reality, but more a young hitter still working on finding his footing in the batting box.