Last season, Mike Zunino hit .174/.230/.300 in 386 plate appearances. He struck out 132 times, and his 21 walks were inflated by his inability to make contact. He was demoted to Tacoma before the end of the season, and after a winter hitting summit and a mandate from the top that 2016 would be a development year, he was an afterthought in Peoria this spring. When the Mariners sent him to minor league camp in mid-March, his re-assignment was less notable (and surprising) than Boog Powell's.
The reasons for rebooting in 2016 are sound. Rushed to the big leagues in 2013 for no clearly discernible reason—he had a sub-.300 OBP and a strikeout rate pushing 30% in half a season in Triple-A—Zunino was effectively robbed of his natural developmental path. He posted a 77 wRC+ down the stretch, which passed for competency given the circumstances. By that point though, he had established himself with the glove, and with the Mariners in contention for a playoff spot and nothing in the way of depth behind Zunino, the M's ran him out there 243 times in 2015-16. The results were predictable.
Clearly overmatched at the big league level, Jerry Dipoto, Andy McKay, and co. determined to let Zunino play catch-up in Tacoma this season. The plan was to let Zunino play in Tacoma all year, which would give him time to not only regain his confidence, but to work on his pitch recognition, strike zone judgement, and ability to mash a fastball. It was a smart, well-intentioned plan: though Zunino was not a Dipoto draftee, the braintrust recognized Zunino's physical tools and pursued a developmental path where he could conceivably get his career back on track.
Nine games into the plan, fans are whispering that Zunino is ready to come back.
All of that sentiment stems from Zunino's torrid start, of course. In nine games, he's mashed the ball, belting six homers—a couple of which were tape measure shots—and three doubles. His OPS is straight out of the Renaissance. He's only struck out six times and it's real hard to find a negative in his overall performance thus far.
But that doesn't mean he's ready for the
Light Rail car ride north. Good numbers in Tacoma are what logicians would call a necessary but not sufficient condition for his eventual recall. As reassuring as this April has been, there are still very compelling reasons to leave Zunino right where he is for the foreseeable future.
It's Nine Games
April is the worst month to analyze baseball. Zunino's hot spurt would have drawn mention even if he had posted these numbers in the third week of June, but his (inevitably) worse performance from preceding months would have masked some of the sheen. There's plenty of room for optimism, but the M's should be willing to wait for Zunino to perform over an extended period first. In and of itself, a hot April means little without a strong May and June.
The Underlying Issues Are Still Present
Zunino's problems last season extended far beyond a poor batting average. He had trouble discerning strikes from balls. Offspeed pitches out of the zone consistently proved too alluring. He couldn't identify spin out of the hand, or at least couldn't react effectively if he did. And even when he got his pitch, he was either unprepared or unable to do damage.
The major leagues can be a developmental level, but the league is a poor environment for a struggling player to work through several major issues at once, particularly if he's already playing the most physically demanding position on the field. Tacoma is the right environment for him to work on seeing spin out of the hand, to learn to hold back on breaking balls in the dirt, to improve his grasp of the strike zone, and to regain his confidence.
He has made some progress: in my viewings last week, he chased a couple of bad pitches, but also demonstrated an ability to take breaking balls out of the zone. Encouragingly, I saw him get ready to swing, start his swing, and then hold back (the umpire disagreed about that last part, but hey, it was progress). That's a good sign, but we need to see more of it. Ideally, we'd also like to see him take a few more walks. He only has one this season, and while that's not a problem when you're too busy hitting dingers, walks are an indicator of plate discipline in the long run, and he'll need to prove he can take a few. Ultimately, until he demonstrates substantial progress on all of these issues, there's no reason to expect him to hit much better than he did in 2013 and 2014.
Even if Zunino's hot week turned into a hot two months, Zunino wouldn't necessarily have a job in Seattle. Chris Iannetta is a legitimate big league starter, the best catcher the organization has had since at least Kenji Johjima, and probably since Dan Wilson. He didn't sign to sit on the bench, and there's nothing in his overall performance to suggest that he's not capable of holding the job throughout the season. This isn't 2010, or September of last season, where Rob Johnson and Jesus Sucre are holding down the fort. Defensively, Iannetta may not be Zunino's equal, but he frames the corners effectively and has been tremendous blocking pitches in the dirt; that last point is particularly important given the number of breaking balls Mariners pitchers have thrown. Iannetta's presence is a blessing for Zunino, in that it affords the organization an opportunity to let Zunino improve. That street runs both ways though: even if Zunino rakes for a couple of months, he'll have to wait his turn.
Most of you probably didn't need to read this post. The idea of recalling Zunino so quickly is a bad idea stemming from malpractice with early season numbers. Zunino will have every opportunity to return to the big leagues in the long run, and if you want to get cautiously excited about how 2016 has started, hey, I'm on board with you. But let's not get carried away. Zunino's long-term development shouldn't be risked just so he can play on Sunday and pinch hit once every two weeks. He probably only gets one more legitimate chance to be a big league catcher, and the Mariners should let that opportunity arise on its own. Save the "call up Zunino" conversation for late summer.