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40 in 40: Mike Zunino

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Haha I guess there’s a Mike Zunino in all of us, screw it, let’s all stand up

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

May I have your attention please?

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His talent is intriguing and frustrating in turn. He’s still young, but he’s also rapidly approaching the point where his troubles can not be attributed to inexperience... Mike Zunino has never had a more important season.

He is at once out of chances, and being presented with his first honest opportunity in years. The chance to improve his game, to redeem his high draft pick and prospect status, to demonstrate that he belongs in the Show. Zunino apologists have often pointed to how quickly he was rushed to the majors as a developmental setback he had neither the opportunity nor the skill to correct on his own.

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May I have your attention please?

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By MLB standards, Mike Zunino has been a successful first-round pick, and arguably even a successful top-10 pick. The MLB Draft is known for being especially volatile, and though some drafts have oodles of talent at the top (six of the first 11 picks in 2005 have at least 25 WAR in their careers), others end up falling flat (six of the first 11 picks in 2007 have less than 1 WAR in their careers). So finding a player who can start at catcher sure doesn’t seem bad! Yet this year represents a milestone in Zunino’s career, one that figures to make or break his future in Seattle.

This is a make-or-break season for the Z-Man. He needs to build on last season and keep his swing adjustments (which you can read more about here from our former Head Honcho). He needs to hit dingers, but more importantly, just hit the ball a bit more. He needs to show he can handle being the major league catcher for an entire season, and that he can make tweaks throughout the year as pitchers alter their approaches.

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Will the real Mike Zunino please stand up?

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I repeat: will the real Mike Zunino please stand up?

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We [might or might not] have a problem here

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Y’all act like you never seen a power hitter strike out before/

Jaws all on the floor like the ghost of Richie Sexson just burst in the door

* record scratch *

Do the first two paragraphs of this piece sound familiar? How about the third and fourth ones? Allow me to direct you to Zunino’s 2016 40 in 40, from Meg Rowley, and his 2017 40 in 40 from Grant Bronsdon, respectively.

In looking back at old pieces we’ve done about Zunino, it’s surprising to see just how similar our narrative of him has remained. There’s always been hope through his rough patches, though it may have waxed and waned, and there’s always been worry when he’s performing at his peak. Will we ever feel comfortable with Mike Zunino: Major League Catcher, the way we do with, say, Kyle Seager: Major League Third Baseman-with-notoriously-slow-starts-to-the-season? I doubt it, but that’s not a knock on Zunino himself, rather a recognition of how we (the overwhelmingly royal we, and also the less-than-royal Mariners fandom we) have come to approach players like him.

We’ve been burned by high draft picks, we’ve been burned by prospects who spent their formative years under Jack Zduriencik’s regime, and we’ve been burned by right-handed hitters who have a lot of power but also a propensity for striking out. Beyond the old scars, Zunino’s skillset lends itself to streakiness, and that’s not likely to change - if all goes very, very well, the valleys simply won’t dip quite as low, while the mountains will crest higher.

I wrote in the middle of September that Mike Zunino is Good, and in the final two weeks of the season that followed he did nothing to dissuade us from thinking otherwise. But after 3+ years of worrying about Mike Zunino, it’s become something of an offseason tradition. Celebrate the holidays, yell about football, worry about Mike Zunino’s K% (for 2018 Steamer projects a 31.9% K-rate, down from a first-half-inflated 36.8%, but also an 8.1% walk rate, despite the positive trends he’s shown in the last two seasons). This offseason those worries have shifted a bit. Zunino’s goodness is no longer a Worry (hey there, starting rotation), simply a more idle concern, fueled by years of being made fools by our belief.

In years past he’s shown flashes of brilliance, but never quite enough to banish the small sample size demons; 2017 changed that, and he proved to us that, throughout nearly a full season, he’s capable of being one of the best catchers in baseball. After years of fluctuating K/BB rates and rejuvenating trips to Tacoma, Mike Zunino’s 2018 isn’t about proving himself, it’s about proving he can sustain.

Tee’s the very, very best