What Happened to Mike Zunino?

(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, seen here)

Mike Zunino has been an enigma thus far in his major league career. After winning the Golden Spikes Award (best college player in the nation) and the Johnny Bench Award (best college catcher in the nation) for the University of Florida in 2012, Zunino has not been able to translate his game from college to the pros. Zunino is currently in baseball limbo after being drafted fourth overall by the Seattle Mariners,  making constant trips between Triple-A and the majors. Having watched him the play in college, the case of Mike Zunino has become more interesting to me, especially given the success of other winners of the Golden Spikes Award including Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Buster Posey, to name a few. Delving deeper into the numbers, maybe there are some statistical discrepancies which can explain why Zunino has struggled since college and how the Mariners should approach his development.

In his sophomore and junior years at Florida, Zunino hit a combined 38 home runs and drove in 134 runs. Only this season with the Mariners did Zunino show off his power from college, earning career highs in both home runs (25) and RBIs (64). Before 2017 his home run and RBI splits were not as impressive, Unlike at Florida, Zunino seems to be having greater difficulty driving in runs unless he hits one out of the park. This issue is also evident by the sharp contrast in his SLG and OBP from college to the pros. In his sophomore year, Zunino had a .442 OBP and .674 SLG on top of a .371 batting average. His slash line in 2017 was .251/.332/.509 all career highs, but in comparison to his college numbers it’s clear that Zunino is not putting the ball in play enough and not driving the ball for extra base hits. Zunino should work to try hit the ball in play more given that his BABIP this year was .356.

The blame shouldn’t only lie with Zunino. This year, scouts and coaches have begun emphasizing numbers such as launch angle and exit velocity which in turn created a shift in philosophy where players have changed their swings in favor of more home runs rather than the small ball approach of years past. As a result of this, not only have home runs sky rocketed (no pun intended) but so have strikeouts, with Zunino being one of the victims.

In 2017, Zunino pulled the ball over 50 percent of the time and hit fly balls 48 percent of the time, which made it easy for teams to shift against him and take away potential hits. Zunino also struck out 160 times more than in three years of college combined (137). The increase in strikeouts is another contributing factor to Zunino’s lack of production which, in turn, has caused his OBP to decrease significantly.

Another aspect of Zunino’s game that he should work on is pitch selection. Any good hitter knows it’s important to lay off some pitches in order to wait to capitalize on that one mistake pitch. I have always been adamant that strikeouts are incredibly counter-productive, a philosophy which college coaches tend to teach more than major league coaches. With this information, Seattle should be able to help Zunino improve his performance or risk him becoming the next in a long line of disappointments. This list includes Dustin Ackley (2B), Jesus Montero (C), and Kenji Johjima (C), but most notably another catcher, Jeff Clement, whom Seattle opted to draft third overall in 2005 over All-Star talent such as Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki, and others. I would recommend checking out the draft list online. You will cringe when you see all of the names that Seattle passed on that year. The only question left now is whether Zunino will become the next Johnny Bench or the next Jeff Clement? Only time will tell.

(All stats provided by Fangraphs and The Baseball Cube)

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