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Mike Zunino is good, getting (incrementally) better

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Injuries have derailed Z’s 2018, but he looks to be on the right track in August

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros
hard to do with a strained oblique, it turns out
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Lamenting Mike Zunino’s offensive numbers is a summer in Seattle tradition on par with Seafair and Yakima peaches. But this year, there’s a heavy asterisk that needs to be placed next to Z’s 2018 numbers.

After years of being the very model of a resilient backstop, Zunino has had two separate lengthy injury stints this year: he missed most of April with an oblique strain, and then missed most of July due to the All-Star Break and a bone bruise in his ankle. Those were Z’s first trips to the DL since 2013, when a broken hamate bone sidelined him for the last month of the season. Because our sweet Mike doesn’t have...a robust record of success in the majors, it’s easy to chalk this year up to another offensively wimpy performance and assume Zunino will continue to struggle as a pro hitter. But looking at Z’s August numbers, three months removed from his oblique strain and over a month since his ankle injury, offers some hope for the stretch run, even if it’s too late to salvage his overall line.

We saw last year how much Haniger’s oblique strain limited him last season, along with a crop of other pesky injuries, when he went from a possible Rookie of the Year candidate to losing playing time to Ben Gamel. Zunino’s average ISO over May-July was about .190; he’s up to .250 in August. A stronger, healthier Zunino playing in warmer August air has resulted in an uptick in his HR/FB rate from 22% to 28%, and he’s basically halved his soft contact rate (12.5%) from July. If he hits even one dinger before the calendar flips to September, he’ll have a new season-high for HRs in a month. His exit velocity is trending up, as well:

Mike Zunino, Average Exit Velocity by month

Month Avg. EV (mph)
Month Avg. EV (mph)
May 90.8
June 88
July 84.9
August 91.4

Z struggled in both June and July, but it looks like he’s found his footing in August. What’s even more impressive is the quality of pitchers off of whom he’s making hard contact. Zunino was smacking the ball pretty well in May, but against names like Tim Mayza, Blaine Hardy, Mike Minor, and Warwick Saupold, who I’m still not convinced is an MLB player and not a 19th century industrialist. In August he’s recorded balls hit 100 mph+ off the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, and Collin McHugh.

Zunino’s numbers might look terrible in July, but really he’s a small-sample size victim, receiving just 33 PAs. The true culprit for Z is the month of June, during which he posted a 43% K-rate, while not walking basically at all. For Zunino, June really splits into two halves: the first half of the month, where he posted a wRC+ of 117 and a .513 SLG (although he struck out almost HALF the time); and the second half of the month, when he struck out less but also didn’t do anything else, posting a wRC+ of 2. It wasn’t the schedule, either; sure, the back half of June had the Red Sox and Yankees, but it also had the Orioles and Royals.

Managing Z’s strikeouts (a lot!) vs. his walks (much less!) is always going to be part of Z’s offensive profile (because the tradeoff is DINGERS!!), but the plate discipline has been exceptionally poor this season. Zunino is striking out over 38% of the time, which is the highest among all players with at least 300 PAs. He’s chasing the ball outside the zone (34%) more than he did last year, which is especially bad because he’s seeing a career-low of 42% of pitches in the zone. Z has, encouragingly, upped his walks in August to over 9%, closer to his 2017 levels than his 2018 mark of sub-6%. He’s also lowered his K% slightly from earlier in the season: in June, his K-BB ratio was .09 (which is really, really, almost impossibly bad, worse than pitcher hitting bad); in August, he’s got that up to a season-high .24.

Sadly, Junino was more like Ew-nino this year, and the hopes for a breakout Zu-gust have also been dampened, but the embers still glow with hope for a Zuntember. If the burly backstop can remain healthy, continue hitting the ball with authority, and maintain the glimmers of plate discipline he’s shown in August, he’ll enter the final month of the regular season poised to provide some punch at the bottom of the Mariners’ offensively sluggish lineup. If Z can hang in there against balls thrown out of the zone and force a pitcher to challenge him in the zone, he’s now healthy enough to be able to do damage there. Hopefully it won’t be too late to help the team push for the playoffs.