Last year Mike Zunino had a career year. After a disastrous first few weeks, Zu rebuilt his swing in Tacoma (again) and had a dominant second half (again). This year his start was halted once more, albeit by injury this time. Since Zunino’s return from a strained oblique, he’s failed to replicate 2017’s BABIP-fueled dominance, but the 27-year-old has been as invaluable a player as any for the Mariners. The way he’s impacting this year has been less consistent at the plate, but just as remarkable as any year before him.
For Zu, as with most catchers, it starts with the defense. While both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have interesting info on defensive measurements for catchers, Baseball Prospectus remains the industry leader. BP’s catcher metrics have a whole lot of praise to heap on Zunino, but before that let’s get through the ugly: his pitch-blocking hasn’t graded well. Blocking Edwin Díaz sliders and James Paxton curveballs are unenviable tasks, but it’s an imperfect area of his defensive game. Thankfully, it might be the only one.
Zunino has been on the hunt for base-runners all season, and The Eye Test™ is backed up by the metrics: Mike has been the most valuable catcher in terms of catching runners stealing in the league so far. He’s caught 11-of-25 would-be thieves this year, both the highest total caught stealings and the best percentage of anyone in baseball. On occasion, those plays have looked something like this:
Any time you can erase a baserunner, it’s a huge boon. For the Mariners, whose pitching staff is still worthy of questioning, particularly prior to the bullpen, Zu’s excellence has been game-changing. If he continues to hector opposing runners, the Mariners have a great shot at continuing to make off like bandits with close wins.
That’s not the only way Zunino is bailing out his pitchers, of course. He ranks 4th in framing prowess among all catchers with at least 1,000 framing opportunities. While the Big Maple and the bullpen are typically able to get by on plus-stuff, most of Seattle’s rotation has seen a massive boost from increased familiarity and consistency with Zunino. Marco Gonzales’ breakout campaign? Let’s just say Zunino has been spotting him as he climbs.
How about Wade LeBlanc, whose entire career seems held together by charming Cajun aphorisms and soft-to-medium contact? Zu might as well have Wade strapped to his back.
It’s little stuff, but as the Mariners have proven perpetually this year, the little stuff adds up. Measuring things like pitcher management and game-calling arguably are even more important parts of Zunino’s job, but it’s difficult to measure that any more than parsing quotes or tracking down insider knowledge of the M’s advance scouting (if you have that, call me, ASAP. Just kidding, that was a trap, if you have that knowledge and are willing to share it to me, you probably should not be trusted). By all accounts and metrics, however, Zunino’s defense has shined brightly in 2018. All of that, and yet it’s his bat that’s truly freaky.
Hitters who strike out as much as Mike Zunino and his 39.1% K-rate aren’t supposed to exist. They do, obviously, but typically they are weeded out of baseball before the Major Leagues. Noted Three-True-Outcome enthusiasts 2017 Chris Davis and Joey Gallo, along with 2013 Chris Carter, are the only hitters to record a >36% K-rate while earning enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting average title. In addition to boasting light-tower power, all three also managed to run walk rates ranging from 11.6%-14.1%, meaning their strikeout-happy ways were somewhat mitigated by elite on-base skills. Thus far in 2018, Mikey Z has only had two-thirds of that package, yet he’s still not been that bad at the plate.
Following an 0-for-3 night with three strikeouts against Blake Snell and José Alvarado, Zunino has a 91 wRC+ and a .208/.270/.423 line. There have been stretches where Zu has looked hopeless at the plate, and he’s seemingly made an effort to cover for his offensive gaffes with defensive excellence (Kyle Seager has seemingly embraced this philosophy this year as well, to my mild chagrin). And yet, not only are there signs of life, even what he’s done thus far has been a clear step forward from his first three years in the league - 2015 in particular. When Zu HAS deigned to make contact with the ball, the damage has been seismic. Thanks to Baseball Savant’s snazzy re-design we can see Zunino is not only well above league-average in exit velocity, hard hit rate, and Barrel%, he’s setting new career highs on those numbers as well.
In other words, Zu is making every bit of contact count, be it a walk-off homer or a blistering single. By batted ball event per Barrel, Zunino ranks 8th(!) in all of baseball, amidst a few other recognizable names.
It doesn’t take this many charts to convince you that Mike Zunino strikes out an insane amount but also tears the cover off the baseball. I sincerely hope Zunino can rediscover his on-base skills, because as we saw in both 2016 and 2017, he’s a full package when he’s walking consistently. If you’re a Mariners fan, you know that. If you’re not a Mariners fan and you’re reading this, congratulations on your newfound Mike Zunino knowledge. What you can take away regardless is that even as a slightly below-average hitter, Mike Z has been a huge part of Seattle’s surprising success this year.
Here’s to a summer (and autumn) full of back-picks, beautiful frames, dingers, hard swings, and, if you’re feeling greedy, maybe just an occasional walk. Mike Zunino is, well, you know.