There are many, many thousands of words I want to write about Mike Zunino right now. Players that are sent to the major leagues with 115 professional games experience, who are hitting .227/.297/.478 in AAA, are not destined for success. Twenty-four year olds, hell players of any age, who amass a 47 wRC+, 34.2 K%, and 5.4 BB% over 386 PA do not have bright futures.
There are so many things I want to say, so many angles, so much narrative and data to roll around in. Sadly I’m rushed, so we are going to settle for a quick glance today.
Major league baseball is a cruel sport. Like glaciers on a mountain pitchers will find your weak spot, and if left unchecked will slowly, ceaselessly, grind you into nothing. In 2015 pitchers threw Mike Zunino 643 pitches either in or beyond the low and outside quadrant the strike zone. Those pitches accounted for 40.3% of all the pitches Zunino saw last year. Here is the visual, per Baseball Savant:
Amazingly almost one in four pitches thrown to Zunino were down and away outside of the strike zone. A hole had been identified, and it was ruthlessly exploited. Note Zunino's BA on pitches in these areas:
Fast forward to 2016, and the book on Zunino hasn't changed, yet.
That's actually an increase in low and away pitches, all the way up to 46.8% of pitches. Zunino, through countless hours of study, analysis, and work work work, figured out how to beat it.
The at bat last night, that produced Zunino's gigantic three run home run to right was a perfect encapsulation of this adjustment. On a 2-2 pitch Anthony Swarzak threw Zunino the putaway slider, low and away. That is the pitch to get out every previous iteration of Mike Zunino. This year he takes it and shakes his head, no doubt remembering all those offseason drills with jumper cables attached to his nipples, that electrocuted him whenever he swung at a ball. The next pitch is still outside, but we live in a different world:
Here is Mike Zunino, in 2015:
On this date a year ago, Mike Zunino had a .174/.231/.303 slash line with 128 Ks in 340 ABs ... he would be sent down six days later.— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) August 23, 2016
In 2016: .280/.396/.707, 22 K in 91 PA.
In 1055 PA from 2013-2015 Mike Zunino hit four home runs to the right of dead center field. In 91 PA in 2016 he has hit three.
The league will adjust back, it always does. Zunino's crippling weakness from 2015 allows this new, fixed version to have a very good idea of where pitchers will throw the ball. That will change, as the league accepts that the Zunino portion of a pitcher meeting merits more than wild laughter and popped champagne.
It's ludicrous to expect even 75% of Zunino's current offensive production over a full season. But to be an all-star level catcher, which is the very ceiling that merited his draft position at number three overall, Zunino doesn't have to hit at 75% of his current level. Mike Zunino with a 120 wRC+ is one of the very best catchers alive. Through untold hours of dedication, and a front office that actually has a plan and idea on how to develop talent, that ceiling is suddenly much closer to eye level than it has been in years.
Credit to Mike, credit to Jerry, credit to Andy McKay. Mike Zunino is here, and he looks like a star.