List of worries for the 2017 Seattle Mariners, as of September, 2017:
- The health of the starting rotation
- The health of everyone else on the team
- First baseman of the future
- Slumping Kyle Seager
- The length of time it takes Jean Segura to stand every time he ends up on the ground
- Ben Gamel maybe good, maybe bad, maybe an escaped extra from the caveman ads for Geico
- How many years Edwin Díaz appearances will take off our lives
- Farm system???
- Félix Hernández's mortality
- Our own impending deaths
- Happy hour beer prices at Safeco Field
Pretty standard stuff, right? You know what is conspicuously absent from that list?
That's right. For what feels like the first time since he made his major league debut, Michael Accorsi Zunino is not at the top of Mariners' fans' list of worries. He's not even in the middle area, reserved for gentle concerns about the sustainability of players' successes and Nelson Cruz's upcoming 38th birthday.
So what exactly has Zunino done to move down to the bottom of our worry lists?
Oh, nothing much, he's just become the fourth* best catcher in all of baseball. Seems pretty Good to me.
*By fWAR, with a minimum of 250 plate appearances. This does not take his pitch framing into consideration.
Not only is he currently the fourth best catcher in all of baseball, his 2017 season is the best season (by fWAR) of any Mariners catcher save for Dave Valle in 1993 and Dan Wilson in 1996/7. Admittedly, there wasn't a terribly high bar to clear in that regard, but hot damn, Mike. He has been the beautiful sunrise that spread across the sky as the 2017 Mariners' Titanic slowly sank to the bottom of the ocean.
What's that you say? You're feeling ornery and cantankerous and unwilling to accept the nice things I came here to offer you? Sure thing, let's talk K%.
This is an alarming spike, there's no denying that. A 37.5% K-rate for the season seems to portend doom and destruction, and it's the one stat that makes Zunino appear like a clerical error in those standings. It is a very fair thing to worry about.
An interesting thing happens to that graph, though, when we "input" (aka markup on my phone) his second half K%.
The beginning of this season was brutal- through May Zunino had a 62 wRC+ and a 42.85% K-rate. He then spent a little over two weeks in AAA and returned to put up a 185 wRC+ with a .371/.722/1.092 slash line for the month of June. July it felt like he struggled again, hitting only two homers and striking out 38.9% of the time. His July felt bad, but still managed to put up a 94 wRC+. It's worth noting that he recorded a grim .226 BABIP for that month as well. He seemed to recalibrate himself at the end of July, and has since settled into the kind of catcher many of us have only dreamt of. We shouldn't discount the entirety of his first half, but I think it's important to recognize some of the circumstances that contributed to a less-than-stellar start to the season.
Zunino is always going to be streaky. We've seen the streakiness play out to dramatic effect in past seasons, and we've seen it manifest itself in a more modest degree this season. A 94 wRC+ for a low month is okay; that's not going to aggressively tank a team. The problem with Zunino has never been "how do we stop his streakiness," but rather "can this streakiness become more manageable?" Since his transformative trip to Tacoma we've seen that this hot/cold binary has evolved from a 100 degrees/30 degrees contrast to a much more comfortable 80 degrees/60 degrees. This is what he's done since returning from AAA:
In 87 games since coming back from minors, #Mariners catcher Mike Zunino is hitting .267/.346/.578 for a .924 OPS, w/23 homers, 56 RBIs— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) September 14, 2017
It's also worth noting that all 23 of his homers have come during this period, too.
My skepticism of Zunino runs deep, and I did not expect to find myself writing about his success this season. I didn't trust the hazy hopes of "New Zunino" at the end of 2016, and felt that catcher was still a big hole for the team to fill in the offseason. I sighed any time he came up to bat in the first two months of the season, resigned to an automatic out. When he was sent down to Tacoma it seemed like an obvious thing to do, and when he was brought back up a few weeks later it seemed premature. But then, I kind of stopped thinking about Mike Zunino. There were so many other things to furrow my brow over, and suddenly it was the beginning of September, and I was cheering for Mike's game-tying 21st home run, and then someone in the LL Slack asked what the brightest spot in the season had been, and I typed out "Mike Zunino becoming good?"
Maybe, hopefully, this Goodness will continue into all his future seasons, but we can't know that for sure. That's why this piece isn't titled "Mike Zunino Will Officially be Good for the Rest of His Life." But for this season? For this season, Mike Zunino is indeed Good.