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Diagnosing Mike Zunino

Maybe Mike Zunino can’t be fixed, and that’s okay

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Washington Nationals
it’s gonna be okay, Mike
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As you can imagine, the Lookout Landing Twitter account mentions haven’t exactly been a field of wildflowers lately. One day I tweeted something about Zunino in Tacoma and got a reply that stated—in a flat, businesslike tone—something to the effect of, “Mike Zunino can’t recognize an offspeed pitch, and will never be successful in the majors because of it.”

If Mike Zunino cannot, in fact, recognize an offspeed pitch, then optioning him to Tacoma if he runs into trouble again will have limited success. He will see bad breaking balls, but very little that will help him recognize an MLB-quality breaking pitch. For example, this homer he hit in Iowa, off a pitch that you could hang laundry on.

It’s undeniable that Zunino has had trouble with the curve in 2017. So far this year, Zunino has seen 30 curveballs in six ABs, and has zero hits. He’s whiffed three times. Part of that is that Zunino had the misfortune of meeting Lance McCullers early in the season, who not only throws the best curveball in baseball, he throws a ton of them. Z has also been unable to get a hit off the 30 changeups he’s seen, recording 7 whiffs on those. These are still pretty small sample sizes because of Zunino’s extended time in Tacoma, but if you extend the sample size to last year, a similar pattern emerges. In 2016, Zunino saw 71 curveballs in 11 ABS and recorded one hit, while whiffing 10 times. The one hit was a home run, because he does enjoy the feasting or the famining but not so much in between, our Mike. (I think the HR might have been this one, off this absolutely terrible pitch from David Price, but even if it wasn’t you should watch this anyway because it’s delicious.) He did do a little better with the 101 changeups he saw last year, batting .267 and slugging .533 on them, although he also whiffed at them about 20% of the time, similar to his performance on the curve.

Things haven’t always been like this, however. In 2015, Zunino did have trouble with the changeup, slugging a woeful .189 on the 155 he saw. But he absolutely crushed the 95 curves he saw; he had 8 hits off those pitches, for a robust BA/SLG of .296/.704, thanks to three home runs hit off the curve—as many as he had off four-seam fastballs. So it’s not a problem with offspeed pitch recognition as a whole that’s causing Zunino’s difficulties. The real problem for Zunino is, and has always been, the fastball. Breaking pitches may be tricky, but they exist in significantly smaller numbers than the good old-fashioned fastball. And while Zunino has performed well against two-seam fastballs these last two years, he has a history of struggling with the four-seam fastball, as well as pitches well off the plate. Zunino’s struggles in 2015 have been well-documented, specifically his weakness for pitches located low and outside:

Baseball Savant

When you see over 20% of your pitches in a place where you’re batting in the double digits, that’s going to be a problem. Zunino might struggle with changeups—as I’m typing this Tyler Anderson just struck him out on a plate appearance full of nothing but changeups, most of which were low and out of the zone—but his problem with chasing bad offspeed stuff is emblematic of an overall poor plate approach.

To his credit, Zunino has learned to mostly resist balls that are so far out of the zone they cross the International Date Line. His O-swing% is down to 26.5%, a career low. The problem is now pitchers are putting the ball in the zone, and Zunino isn’t swinging. He’s seeing pitches in the zone almost 50% of the time, but his Z-swing% is at a career low of 67.4%. And when he is swinging, he’s missing. His K rate is an unsightly 41.2%. There’s no trickery here; he’s just missing. Here’s Matt Magill K-ing Zunino on a middle-high fastball. Here’s intimidating physical specimen Matt Albers freezing Zunino with a pitch right in the zone. Here’s Jose LeClerc getting Zunino on a high inside fastball at 89 mph. The high fastball—another Zunino poison pitch, although one he’s been trying to lay off of more this year, perhaps leading to that precipitous drop in his Z-swing%.

Maybe a brief stint in Tacoma where he could whack the tar out of some baseballs and feel good about himself is helpful for Zunino from a mental standpoint, but there’s probably not anything mechanically beneficial for him there anymore. He won’t get exposure to MLB-quality breaking balls, and he might not need that anyway. Improving plate discipline is great too, but not if it saps Zunino’s one potentially elite hitting tool: his power. His ISO this year is down to a pathetic little .098; in contrast, in 2014, when he was worth 1.8 fWAR thanks to Defense and Dingers, it was .205. What Mike Zunino really needs to do is remember who he is: someone who will strike out a lot and walk never, but also someone who is a destroyer of baseballs who can swing an aluminum bat so hard at a heater that he actually breaks it, who crushed this pitch off Adam Wainwright in his prime, who delivered this 450-foot-plus shot, who made Dave Sims lose the power of speech with this blast, who just this spring hit this ball over the berm at spring training. That Mike Zunino is in there, somewhere beneath all the clutter and expectations and fan vitriol and well-meaning coaching and pressure, so much pressure. Maybe the best thing we can do for Mike Zunino is to stop trying to fix Mike Zunino.