I have always loved Mariners catchers. Kenji Johjima Day 1 Fan Club Member? Check. Dan Wilson neighborhood connection and athletic admiration? Check. Insistence on drafting Miguel Olivo in MVP Baseball 2005 in every fantasy draft for his preposterous hitting attributes vs. LHP? (88 contact, 83 power!!!) Check. John Buck signed rookie card? Check. Period of my life in which I non-ironically proclaimed Chris Widger was my favorite MLB player? Look, kindergarten was a tough time for me and I made some poor choices, I see that now.
Mike Zunino, though, takes the cake. I got a custom Zunino jersey three years ago, argued with dozens of fellow observers about the value of his defensive contributions, and made inexcusably loud sounds of pleasure upon observing perfectly framed pitches bringing the count to 1-1.
This has been a spectacular month for Zunino and his faithful. The Mariners are also having a good month too. These pieces of information are at least nominally related, as the M’s are 10-4 in games Zunino has started this season. We’ve seen good months be only that before, but this seems like a natural progression more than anything we've seen in this organization in years.
A few comments from Mike Zunino on his approach and confidence: pic.twitter.com/2V8F6MtThs— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) August 6, 2016
Zunino's sample size is small this season but he has already been more valuable than Chris Iannetta, and has done it by addressing many of the issues that were so clearly evident to anyone who watched him last year. He did it in spite of years of mismanagement and being asked to do far more than he was prepared for, all without ever letting his defensive game slip. It's been 56 plate appearances, yes. His ISO of .467 is higher than Nap Lajoie's best ever batting average. A wRC+ of 205 would outstrip Mike Piazza's 1997 season in which he hit .362/.431/.638 with 40 HRs. Any BABIP evaluation is muddled by the fact that six of his 12 hits have left the ballpark, and his career BABIP of .248, would indicate that he's not too far from where he's supposed to be. This information is still valuable.
Please join me in revisiting an article written by our own Peter Woodburn last spring, after Zunino's simply appalling first month in 2015. Zunino was, after one month, on pace to strike out more than any player in MLB history, and certainly any catcher. His swings were ugly and erratic. His walks were moments of immense confusion for all involved parties, and even mere contact in fair territory felt like a victory. That month led to a season of exactly that. Over. And over.
This season, Zunino is swinging just 44.3% of the time, down over 5% from last year. Simply swinging less is not the only cure, but he's been swinging smarter too, with his hacks at pitches out of the zone down to just 25.9% of the time, a career low that is 9% below his career average. He's not made significantly more contact, but simply by being more selective it is evident that Zunino has made major adjustments. This isn't to say that he will be able to avoid a regression once scouting reports adjust to his new approach, but last year he did not even require a scouting report. Zu could be the perennial All-Star we hoped he would be when we drafted him if his hitting remains even half as good as it has been so far this year. The defense is still there too, by pitch framing numbers (9.6% oStr) and staff management, and specific matchups against elite opponents. (Remember Rizzo & Bryant vs Félix? Good. That was the only thing of import from that game)
I don't want to linger on the failures of the previous regimes, but since 1999, the collective value by bWAR of Mariners position players (while they were in the Mariners' organization) named Zunino taken in the 1st round is 10.5 bWAR. That's nine position players, including three catchers who, alone, combined for -0.5 bWAR. Without Dustin Ackley's longtime competence (and honestly, he was at least competent), the rest of the eight provided just 2.4 bWAR. Zunino has been worth 1.0 bWAR this year, after receiving the first semblance of a regular chance to develop in Tacoma. I cannot see it as solely a coincidence that the Mariners bullpen has looked significantly better this month. (GoT SPOILER THIS SENTENCE) If Edwin Díaz is Daenerys, fire and blood, then Zunino is Tyrion, controlling the details, and, of course, the Zone.
He shouldn't have even needed to be called upon again this year, but he has stepped up anyway. So smile, and enjoy the Zu.