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Mike Zunino, Reclamation Project

By: Jared Ellis

Follow on Twitter: @jarlyjarhead

My wife scrolls Pinterest a lot, not quite for hours at a time, but at least for many minutes at a time. I suppose she could be reading a blog post, but if she is, she found that blog on Pinterest. Pinterest is weird. It’s classified as social networking, but there is nothing social about it. She doesn’t follow anyone, or engage in conversation. She doesn’t post anything either. But Pinterest is a hobby of hers, which sounds odd, but hear me out.

My wife loves reclamation projects. When she’s scrolling Pinterest it isn’t a mindless activity, but rather an involved activity. She’s on the hunt for a DIY, cataloging every cute idea that comes between her fingertip and her iPad. She’ll take those non-descript boards of wood, scrounge up some rope and, boom, here’s a shelf. She found some terracotta pots at a garage sale for a dollar once, and now we have a potted plant waterfall thing in our front yard.

She takes pride in improving something, but it’s about the process just as much as it is about the end result. If she cared about baseball, I’m sure she would take pride in the process of Mike Zunino, reclamation project.

***

As I write this, Zunino is hitting in the sixth inning with the Mariners losing to the Yankees 5-3. It’s the end of August, and the Mariners are only one game out of the second wildcard spot. The Yankees are within striking distance of the playoffs as well. This is meaningful baseball. There are two runners on and the Yankees just brought in a right handed pitcher, only one out after their last call to the bullpen. Obviously a same-handed strategy designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of a once struggling Zunino.

Zunino works a full count, at one point down 1-2, and takes ball three in the dirt as he steps out of the box. He shakes his head, reminding himself of what would have certainly been a strikeout this same time last year. The sixth pitch is a slider, on the lower outside corner, a pitch that has haunted Zunino in the past, but this time it’s different. He sits back, waits on the pitch and drives it to the opposite field for an improbable three run homerun. A homerun that would prove to be the difference in this game. This at-bat encapsulates the reclamation project that has become Mike Zunino. He used to be a couple of boards and some rope, now he’s starting to resemble a shelf.

***

This is all very dramatic, but it isn’t without some context. Zunino was a disaster last season. Of all players with at least 350 plate appearances in 2015 (248), Zunino was next to last in wRC+.  That’s bad enough in and of itself, but he also struck out more often than any of those players as well, at just over 34% of the time. He also had the worst batting average and on base percentage of the bunch. Hell, more than 200 players had a higher batting average than Mike had OBP! I could keep going, but no need to pile on and you get the point. Dude was awful.

In 2016, Zunino is just now getting consistency as a regular in the lineup and the sample size is still extraordinarily small. But the reason for hope is in part because of the way that he was handled at the beginning of the year. It’s been obvious to Mariners fans that Zunino was called up too early in his career. Especially without ever really dominating the minors the way one would hope for a high level talent. Jerry Dipoto also realized this and put on his kid gloves with Mike from the start. He signed Chris Iannetta with intentions of him being the starter and traded for Steve Clevenger with the sole purpose of him acting as a backup and put more plainly, to keep Zunino in AAA for as long as possible. It was only after Clevenger got hurt that Dipoto’s kid gloved hand was forced and he moved Zunino up to the big league team. Yet even then Dipoto wasn’t convinced, he sent Zunino back down only a week later and recalled Jesus Sucre from the disabled list. Sucre however didn’t last long and we’re now experiencing our current iteration of Zunino. An everyday catcher still great at defense and pitch framing and also the guy with a wRC+ that currently sits four times higher than his total last year, 189.

All of this is very interesting and inspiring, Zunino seems like a good guy and he certainly deserves this surge. But the more interesting question, is how in the hell he’s made such a drastic improvement. The low hanging fruit is that he has simply become more patient at the plate and he’s swinging less in general. This includes pitches outside of the zone, a weakness of his before and a big reason for his lofty strikeout numbers from last season. This year he’s swinging less on all pitches and has lowered his strikeout rate by more than 10%, which over the course of the season is in the neighborhood of 40 fewer strikeouts.

Year Swing Percentage Strikeout Percentage
2015 49.60% 34.20%
2016 46.00% 23.00%

 

He is also starting to make better contact. Zunino, and a player with a similar profile, will rarely be league average or better as a contact hitter. He likes to swing hard, hit dingers and clear bases. But even an all-world player like Giancarlo Stanton has contact rates well below league average. So that isn’t necessarily the problem to begin with, but an improved contact rate certainly helps.

A nice little byproduct of both swinging less and making more contact is that Zunino is starting to get on base a lot more in the way of walks. His walk rate is more than double what it was a season ago, a change in more than 20 additional times on base over the course of a season.

So Zunino is beginning to eliminate outs and effectively replace them with walks. He’s also changing the way in which he hits the ball. His BABIP is actually lower this season than it was in 2015, so luck isn’t a factor. What is a factor though is that his line drive rate has increased, his groundball rate has decreased and oh shit his HR/FB ratio has nearly tripled.

Year LD Percentage GB Percentage HR/FB Ratio
2015 17.40% 32.60% 10.10%
2016 19.20% 28.80% 29.60%

 

More important than being more selective and making better contact, is that he is also beginning to take advantage of areas that were recently exploited. In 2015, he was mostly challenged on the low outside corner of the zone (the four lower right squares of image).

Zunino2015ZoneBrooks.JPG

Nearly 30% of all pitches that Zunino saw last year were in the low and outside quadrant of the strike zone. And he didn’t do well.

Zunino2015ZoneSLGBrooks.JPG

To be clear, these are slugging percentages not batting averages. Zunino had a clear weakness and major league pitchers aren’t one for charity.

For comparison, below is the percentages of pitches per zone for 2016.

Zunino2016ZoneBrooks.JPG

Once again pitchers continue to attack Zunino in the same area and do so about 30% of the time. But he has begun to improve and has applied a child’s size Band-Aid to this area.

Zunino2016ZoneSLGBrooks.JPG

He still struggles with pitches in this area that are outside of the strike zone, but we know that he mitigates that by swinging less at those pitches. But in the strike zone for that area, the dude is raking. A weakness can only be a weakness for so long until the player begins to evolve.

Time will tell if Zunino’s play is sustainable, but it’s nice to see that there is actually data to back up his surge. With Zunino’s already strong reputation as a defender, even becoming an average offensive player will make him a better than average big leaguer. Then again, he is a high end draft pick with the talent to match, perhaps Dipoto has created his potted plant waterfall thing that will sit behind home plate and hit in the middle of the order for years to come.