Mike Zunino is one hell of a player. Once picked third overall in the draft, he’s freshly 24 years old and is now playing in his third big league season. He’s been worth 2.0 career WAR, and consistently grades out as one of the best defensive catchers in the bigs. During his first professional season he posted wRC+s of 107, 233, and 166 while advancing to AA. After struggling at AAA to open 2013, he was quickly promoted to the Seattle Mariners. Since then he has an 83 wRC+ and hasn’t left the majors.
While he’s already done a lot, it’s readily evident that Zunino has yet to really approach his ceiling. He was a very Mariners draftee – high floor, high ceiling, relatively safe. Also true to Mariners form is that he has significantly underperformed offensively in the major leagues, relative to what could have been expected. Or maybe he’s just struggling in ways that we should have seen coming a long time ago.
For the longest time, the biggest concern with Zunino has been his strikeouts. His strikeout rates at each level during his nutso 2012 were 23.3%, 19.5%, and 12.3% – steady improvement, topping out with a relatively excellent mark in the high minors. But during his AAA slump the Ks jumped to 28.6%, and as a big leaguer he’s been at 31.6%. And it’s gotten worse each year, too.
Last night against the San Diego Padres, Zunino went three for four with two home runs and a single. The single came off of starting pitcher Ian Kennedy, while the homers were off of relievers Shawn Kelley and Frank Garces. That alone is fantastic, but dig just a little deeper and his performance becomes all the more impressive. That’s because all three hits came with two strikes in the count.
Zunino leads the 2015 M’s with 37 strikeouts. For perspective, second place is Nelson Cruz with 28. Zunino is only seventh on the team in plate appearances, and has seen his failures with two strikes ultimately destroy his value. For him to convert three big hits at his most vulnerable is a great sign. Two strike counts have basically been outs to Zunino so far.
Also of note is that these hits came off of curves and a slider. He’s hitting the bendy stuff and not just mashing fastballs. None of these counts got more favorable than the 2-2 he earned before homering off of Kelley. This wasn’t a free-swinger taking advantage of a pitcher with his back against the wall. Every part of this was impressive.
Of course, not working counts is still a problem. Even after a huge night, Zunino’s still got a strikeout rate that is unacceptable long term. But a promising sign is a promising sign, and Zunino just gave us three promising signs, two of which were of the yard-leaving variety.
Mike Zunino is a young player who has premier defensive abilities at the most critical position. He boasts prodigious power, and comes with a pretty tremendous draft pedigree. If he learns how to work counts and take pitches he could well become one of the best players in the league. The upside is so tantalizing that it’s easy to overlook that all he has to do in order to be a star is learn a little selectivity. Nobody’s asking Zunino to be anything other than a little more selective. That’s an attainable goal, and hopefully he’s really on his way.
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