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40 in 40: Mike Zunino

2016 might well be a make or break season for Mike Zunino

Some day, I'll get you, Foul Pole. Some. Day.
Some day, I'll get you, Foul Pole. Some. Day.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zunino is burdened by competing identities and harsh reality. He's too promising to cut, but too flawed to depend on. His talent is intriguing and frustrating in turn. He's still young, but he's also rapidly approaching the point where his troubles can not be attributed to inexperience. If he's going to be the Mariners backstop of the future, he probably can't be the team's major league catcher in 2016, and if he sees extended action in Seattle, things will have gone horribly wrong. But despite the likelihood of cramped, cheap hotels and a per diem that encourages too much Taco Bell, Zunino has never had a more important season.

2014 Zunino was hardly the paragon of offensive production; any season that features as many hit by pitches as walks probably isn't much of a success. But he seemed poised to take a leap forward. As Colin wrote last spring, Zunino was chasing less junk outside the zone, working counts, and staying alive long enough to really drive the ball. His numbers improved, but more encouraging was the change in approach, and his ability to articulate a plan for each at-bat. While spring training performance should always be met with some skepticism, the changes were tantalizing enough to make you wonder, "What if he has finally figured it out?" The natural skill set was too appealing to believe it had no merit. If he could only punish a few more mistakes and get on base at a better clip, his defense and power would justify his place in the lineup, even if it wouldn't transfigure him into the player the Mariners hoped for in the 2012 draft.

Then 2015 baseball baseballed. Zunino stepping into the batter's box was reminiscent of the guy in a horror movie who insists on opening the cellar door; you wanted to scream, "Don't go in there!" He posted a grizzly .174/.230/.300 slash line, with a mere 11 home runs and a putrid 47 wRC+. He managed to walk a bit more at first, but the flash of plate discipline we saw in spring training evaporated. I don't know what scouting reports on Mike looked like, but I imagine the gist was: "Throw him whatever dumb junk you want; he'll take care of the rest."

















































But even more discouraging than the results was the process. Zunino looked completely lost at the plate. Like the subject of a particularly nasty incarnation of Pavlov's experiments, Zunino appeared incapable of laying off pitches outside the zone, programmed to see a high fastball and swing away, holding nothing back only to miss entirely. There was a brief stretch after the All-Star break where the clouds parted and Zunino rode a 10-game hitting streak to a .361/.395/.583 line with 13 hits and just eight strikeouts. But it proved a fleeting, cruel glimpse of what he could do if everything clicks. Soon he was back to striking out in three pitches and glaring menacingly at the left field foul pole on his way back to the dugout. It must have been crushing to suffer so much failure, to flail so wildly, and then be forced to trudge back out, day after day, inning after inning, with so little to show for it, with no confidence that he could turn it around.

Rushing him to the majors in 2013 was unwise, but this treatment smacked of an almost vindictive neglect. It was clear that Mike desperately needed time away from the daily demands of catching. But following a fever dream, Jack Zduriencik dealt away Welington Castillo, and the club had scant alternatives. So Mike was left to languish in the lineup, clearly frustrated by his own ineptitude, but unable to take the time away to fix it. After Zduriencik was fired in August, the club unceremoniously demoted Mike, a day late and a dollar short, bringing his sad 2015 campaign to an end.

We know the bat was bad. But apart from the ghoulish prospect of Jesus Sucre, Every Day Catcher, why had Zunino been allowed to linger? In a word: framing. Defensive metrics are evolving, as is our understanding of them, but based on what we think we know now, Mike Zunino is a very good pitch framer. Very, very good in fact. Baseball Prospectus recently released new catcher statistics, which measure the efficacy of catcher framing back to 1988, and blocking and throwing back to 1950. Using these metrics, I looked at Zunino's defensive statistics in 2014 and 2015. While his performance certainly fell off last season, he was still quite effective relative to the rest of baseball:


Framing Runs

Blocking Runs

Throwing Runs

Total Runs

Framing Runs Rank

Overall Catcher Rank















These numbers by themselves might not mean much to those not afflicted with framing fever, so let's place Zunino's work in context. In 2014, he was more valuable with the glove than Jose Molina, Jonathan Lucroy, Russell Martin, Brian McCann, and Yan Gomes. Defensively, he steals almost as many strikes as he gives back at the plate. That defensive contribution was enough to make him worth 1.8 fWAR despite a well below average bat. In 2015, his performance dipped and he lost a month's worth of framing chances, but he was still the 15th most defensively valuable catcher in baseball. The bat was irredeemable though; if you're going to hit .174, you have to be defensively flawless, and like everything else for Zunino in 2015, he didn't play up to the level we expected. A quick look at the defensive value he contributes demonstrates why the Mariners are willing to tolerate a middling bat with real pop going forward; the challenge is getting the bat back to middling.

So here Zunino sits. His most important work in 2016 will happen away from Safeco and will be measured on a scale of inches, a matter of seeing and knowing, of retraining movements and muscles put to very ill use over the last year. In his final option year, he is at once out of chances, and being presented with his first honest opportunity in years. The chance to improve his game, to redeem his high draft pick and prospect status, to demonstrate that he belongs in the Show. Zunino apologists have often pointed to how quickly he was rushed to the majors as a developmental setback he had neither the opportunity nor the skill to correct on his own. In 2016, Jerry Dipoto will afford him the luxury he so sorely missed: time. Time to try, time to work, time to figure it all out in the hopes that he might prove to be a franchise cornerstone. Whether that time proves to be enough is the question. If it isn't, he'll end up like so many other Zduriencik prospects: intriguing, but ultimately failed, unable to overcome his flaws. But if it is, and Zunino can right the ship, Dipoto has indicated that no one will stand in his way.