On July 19th, the Mariners lost a baseball game by a score of 2-1 to the New York Yankees. It was their third straight one-run game coming out of the All-Star break, resulting in a series loss against the Yanks. This was such a bummer because all three of those games were easily winnable for the M's. Unfortunately, (surprise!) their offense just couldn't come through with a big hit. Seattle was just 1 for 13 with RISP during that series. No one was more disappointed with their performance than Mike Zunino, who went 1 for 10 with four strikeouts during those three games in NY. Concerning his struggles, Mike said:
"The frustrating part was in New York I felt like I got some great pitches to hit. I got some breaking balls up in the zone that I like to hit. I knew something wasn’t quite right. Whatever it was, I was recognizing the pitches, I was seeing them quite well and I just couldn’t get there."
Yes, Mike. This has been ongoing theme in 2015. You haven't been very good at swingin' the bat. It has been exceedingly lamentable. Coming out of that series against the Yankees, Mike's batting line was a woeful .158/.219/.285, good for a wRC+ of 41. After three and a half months (and nearly 300 PA), Mike's OPS was about 50 points lower than Nelson Cruz's slugging percentage. We all make jokes about there being no floor for certain aspects of the 2015 Seattle Mariners, but something had to give re: Mike's offensive impotence. And maybe something did. Here's an excerpt from an article that Divish published last Wednesday:
If you watch closely, Zunino has made some changes to his hand placement and trigger on the swing. He’s gone back to a wider stance with a minimal trigger to start the swing (lifting up the foot). The hands are not as high. They start closer to the body in a looser position. It’s something he started in the Detroit series after an abysmal series against the Yankees.
Let's take a quick look at Mike's numbers since making those adjustments:
OBVIOUSLY THIS IS A SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. Obviously. That being said, YOWZA has Mike been hot since simplifying things. So far, widening his stance and lowering his hands has really allowed him to drive the ball in the air with a lot more power and consistency. He's also been able to use the middle of the field a bunch (in addition to pulling the ball for base hits).
I suppose I should highlight the fact that Mike's BABIP over his last seven games is a slightly-unsustainable 0.526. He probably won't be able to keep this us. Nonetheless, he has been hitting the ball hard lately. According to Statcast, Mike's average ball in play since July 20th has been hit at 96.8 mph. (In 2015, that's harder than the average ball hit by anyone not named Giancarlo.) If he keeps this up, his BABIP - which currently sits at 0.250, compared to a league average of 0.297 - will likely increase appreciably. Mike's numbers would benefit greatly from this type of regression.
In addition to driving the ball more regularly, Mike has also been able to cut down a lot on his strikeouts (dropping his K-rate by 17 percentage points). This is due in large part to a nice bump in his contact rate.
We can also see that Mike has been a lot more aggressive lately. His swing rate, at both pitches inside and outside of the zone, has increased by about 10 percentage points. This, paired with his improved contact, has manifested itself as a big increase in the number of pitches that Mike has been fouling off (increasing from 18.3% pre-adjustment to 27.1% post-adjustment). His ability to foul off close pitches - as opposed to swinging through them - has allowed him to work longer at bats and increase his chances of getting a mistake pitch. So far, this approach has been working for him. It'll be interesting to see how this changes/evolves as the season continues if pitchers starting throwing him fewer pitches in/near the zone.
Finally, it's also fun to remember that these numbers would be even more impressive, if not for a couple of amazing defensive plays by the opposition.
Carerra clearly robs Mike of a home run on his catch, and while I don't think the ball that Enciarte caught would've left the park, it definitely would have gone for extra bases. If you add a dinger and a double to Mike's post-adjustment stats above, his performance becomes just that much more absurd. Mike has been hot, hot, hot this past week. It sure would be neat if he kept it up...
By no means should you come away from this article with the impression that Mike Zunino is "fixed". 26 plate appearances could easily be nothing more than a happy little blip. However, the fact that this hot streak came immediately after Mike made some adjustments lends a bit of legitimacy to the idea that this change could be real. Mike almost certainly won't continue to put up an OPS north of 1.000, but if he proves that he can maintain offensive numbers that are near league-average, that would go a long way to helping the Mariners down the stretch this year as well as giving them a bit more peace of mind regarding their roster for 2016.