Why Mike Zunino Needs More Seasoning

Dave · April 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I like Mike Zunino a lot. I think he’s going to be a very good player, and he might be the best catcher in the Mariners organization right now. I think he’s been generally underrated as a prospect because his tools aren’t so flashy, but his combination of skills project out to star level quality. I’m probably more excited about Zunino than I have been about any Mariners prospect in a while.

And, yes, his early results down in Tacoma have been excellent. With Jesus Montero looking more and more like a bust — at this point, I don’t see him as a productive Major League player any time soon — the M’s are going to be tempted to call Zunino up sooner than later. I think they’re probably best holding off for a while, and it has nothing to do with service time or Super-Two status. It has to do with his contact rate.

You’ve seen all of Zunino’s good numbers. You know his overall line is great. Here, however, are the contact rates for all of Tacoma’s hitters this season*:

Name Age PA Pitches P/PA Strike% Swing% Contact%
Jesus Sucre 25.17 11 49 4.45 59.2% 40.8% 90.0%
Carlos Triunfel 23.33 47 182 3.87 68.1% 48.4% 85.2%
Nick Franklin 22.25 21 82 3.9 69.5% 53.7% 84.1%
Nate Tenbrink 26.5 45 165 3.67 59.4% 43.0% 83.1%
Scott Savastano 27 17 80 4.71 57.5% 32.5% 80.8%
Endy Chavez 35.33 31 113 3.65 61.1% 36.3% 80.5%
Rich Poythress 25.83 43 167 3.88 61.1% 35.3% 79.7%
Alex Liddi 24.83 50 182 3.64 59.3% 42.9% 74.4%
Eric Thames 26.58 49 202 4.12 62.9% 47.5% 72.9%
Mike Zunino 22.25 37 126 3.41 65.1% 47.6% 71.7%
Carlos Peguero 26.33 50 164 3.28 72.6% 56.1% 71.7%
Denny Almonte 24.75 27 111 4.11 67.6% 51.4% 49.1%

*Minor league pitch data isn’t as good as major league pitch data, so none of this is gospel. These numbers could be somewhat incorrect, but the general idea is probably right.

Mike Zunino has the same contact rate as Carlos Peguero. He’s making less contact than Eric Thames or Alex Liddi. We’ve seen these guys at the big league level, and we’ve seen how major league pitchers exploit an overly aggressive approach. Despite their power, they’ve flopped in the majors, because they simply don’t control the strike zone well enough to be real offensive contributors.

Zunino is better than these guys, and the bar for offensive production is lower because he’s a catcher, but if Triple-A pitchers are getting him to miss on 30% of his swings, you shouldn’t expect him to do much better against Major League pitchers, and the list of Major League hitters who have succeeded with contact rates in the below 70% is very small.

Long term, I don’t think this is going to be a huge problem. Zunino posted a very high contact rate in his short stint in Jackson last year, and he’s shown a good approach at the plate both in college and in his prior minor league stints. We’re dealing with a sample of 126 pitches. The first 126 pitches a guy has seen from Triple-A pitchers. Pitch selection is something that improves with experience, and Zunino has very little.

But that’s why the minor leagues exist. They’re not just for fringe big leaguers to hang around and wait for someone to get hurt. Zunino is getting valuable experience against guys who can spin breaking balls and get him to chase pitches out of the zone. He’s good enough to punish their mistakes, but he also needs to learn how to lay off pitches that he can’t destroy. It is better for Zunino to learn those things in the minor leagues. Not only should the organization should be hesitant to start his service time clock, the Mariners should be hesitant to expose yet another young player to a frustrated fan base that is used to seeing every offensive prospect turn into a bust. If the Mariners bring Zunino up and he hits like Aaron Hicks has in Minnesota or Jackie Bradley Jr has in Boston, it could be damaging to both his development and the psyche of an already frustrated fan base.

Because of how fast he rose through the minors, Buster Posey is the often used optimistic comparison for Zunino. During his 359 plate appearances in Triple-A, Posey posted a 14.7% strikeout rate. Not only did the Giants give him a half season at the minors highest level, they also didn’t give him a regular job until he showed he wasn’t fooled by minor league pitchers. Given how well he performed after getting the call, you could argue that he might have been ready earlier, and I’m not sure Zunino will need 359 Triple-A plate appearances before he’s ready for the majors, but I would like to see him controlling the strike zone better than he is right now.

And that’s not something that you can rush. The power is tempting, but undisciplined power hitters get to the big leagues and get exposed all the time. The Mariners should avoid getting seduced by the power and evaluate how well the total package will work in the Majors. Until he starts making better contact, it’s best to let him get that experience in the minors. He’ll be ready soon, but rushing him won’t help Zunino or the Mariners.


44 Responses to “Why Mike Zunino Needs More Seasoning”

  1. PackBob on April 15th, 2013 1:41 pm

    And the minor leagues is the place to learn, not “on the job” in the majors, especially with the extra duties given to a catcher.

  2. djw on April 15th, 2013 1:46 pm

    Thank you. The uncritical clamoring for rushing prospects recently has been frustrating to see.

  3. stevemotivateir on April 15th, 2013 1:52 pm

    I’m still wondering if it would have been wise to have shipped Montero this last offseason. Maybe he could have headlined a package for Stanton? While the team seems bent on boosting his stock, I wonder if we’ll see the opposite. Right now his catching looks every bit as bad, or worse, than it did last year. Combine that with a slow start with the bat, and it’s easy to see how teams that might have been real interested, may no longer be.

    Having said that, I agree that it would probably be wise to keep Zunino where he is for a while. What Montero does or doesn’t do shouldn’t interfere with Zunino’s development.

  4. djw on April 15th, 2013 1:52 pm

    …although I wonder: what was his contact rate like last year (can’t find it on fangraphs)?

    And if it was higher was higher, when does sample size stabilize for contact rate, such that we can say this is a worrisome trend in his development? I assume “not yet but soon”?

  5. Klatz on April 15th, 2013 2:11 pm

    And you have to add in defense and handling a pitching staff. Even if his contact rates were good, it’s not clear where he stands as a catcher. I believe the scouting reports are good although his pass ball rates were not so good last year (I think).

  6. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 2:12 pm

    I like the idea of him staying down until a Hultzen or Paxton comes up, just to keep them all together and let him focus on the guys he’ll be catching the next 3-5 years. Another tiny reason I wouldn’t have minded if Maurer was the one Harang replaced.

    And catching at the major league level is definitely the most difficult position to play well, so it goes without saying it takes longer to master. The “Fundamentals” alone could be an entire bible-sized book, before even getting to “Graduate-level Catching”.

    Also, like djw said, where do we find Zunino’s 2012 contact rates? I couldn’t find them either.

  7. jimabbottsrightarm on April 15th, 2013 2:14 pm

    Maybe a discussion for another time, but any idea why our offensive player development is so bad? Bad luck with a small sample? While still early in a lot of their careers, many “can’t miss” prospects seem to be nearing “bust” status.

  8. easternWAmsfan on April 15th, 2013 2:17 pm

    Blue Jay’s just DFA’d Casper Wells. What are the chances we pick him back up? We could release Endy Chavez, Ibanez, Bay, etc..

  9. fcb on April 15th, 2013 2:20 pm

    I dont think Montero could have headlined a package for a bucket of baseballs in the offseason, much less Giancarlo Stanton. What surprises me about Montero is the complete lack of power.

  10. djw on April 15th, 2013 2:28 pm

    Yikes. I feel kinda bad for Casper Wells. He seems like, at worse, an above average 4th OF, but nobody likes him.

  11. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 2:32 pm

    Total feeble materialistic assessment on my part– but Jesus just seems to have not “grown” well since coming over. His build is getting bulky in a lot of non-helpful ways. I accidently compared him to Lopez the other day, but there is a similarity- 2 guys who were not awful as far as athleticism when first coming up, but became bulky, less limber, and slower as they aged… Until just incredibly awkward to watch. And Montero still has a few years to get worse. Someone else made the comment the other day, and it went “ding ding ding” in my head, unexpectedly– “At this point he has’t shown a single above average talent.”

    Hadn’t thought of it that way, but– “ut-oh”.

  12. zackr on April 15th, 2013 2:32 pm

    It will be telling to see if Zunino can make the transition to the bigs as a hitter. Our hitter development is so bad that I’m glad we didn’t pick Trout. He’s fun to watch right now, and would have flopped with us, like all other high profile hitting prospects we have brought up. You just know Ackley would be raking with the Angels right now.

  13. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 2:36 pm

    Attenton Jason Bay– Casper Wells just stuck a few pins in the “muscle tightness” part of his Jason Bay Voodoo Doll. (Just one amongst his Guty, Saunders, Morse, and Bourn dolls.)

    I tried to put the same Scottish curse on you, but Guty cut you off on the play where I attempted it. (Oops. Sorry guys.)

  14. Westside guy on April 15th, 2013 2:47 pm

    Casper Wells got DFAed again? He wasn’t in Toronto long enough to even make an impression!

    BTW MrZ – please hold off putting any curses on Jason Bay until we have the two Michaels back. After that, you can go nuts.

  15. NorthofWrigleyField on April 15th, 2013 3:02 pm

    If Zunino needs more seasoning, then how bland is Jesus Montero? Zunino needs to stay in the minors preparing to hit major league pitching. Montero needs to go back to the minors and prepare to do anything well at the major league level.

  16. thurston24 on April 15th, 2013 3:27 pm

    I’m getting scared now. This is the first prospect that I have seen Dave not be down on. Granted, I have only been reading this blog for about five years but still. It always seems like he doesn’t think much of prospects so Zunino must be really good for Dave’s approval.

  17. sergey on April 15th, 2013 3:33 pm

    To see contact rates in AA, please look at the last two tables of Mike Zunino page:


    FYI, BB% = 5.4%, K% = 24.3%, results into K/BB = 4.5. It was 1.4 in AA.

  18. henryv on April 15th, 2013 3:39 pm

    Montero’s career contact rate in the majors is 8% better than Zunino’s in AAA. And Zunino is seeing a fair amount of strikes. His P/PA is a little concerning, too. He is swinging at a similar number of pitches (probably a few too many), and not striking enough of them. (Of course, the ones he does hit are hit hard, but that is going to be tougher with pitchers with more movement to their pitches.)

    Not that I’m saying that Montero is going to be better, long term… I’m just saying that based on what we can see here, Zunino does indeed have a bit to work on before coming up to the majors.

  19. sergey on April 15th, 2013 3:40 pm

    thurston24, Zunino must be really good for Dave’s approval
    Generally, it helps that Zunino is a position player. Also, Dave was high on Felix. Ackley’s patient approach was admired.

  20. Paul B on April 15th, 2013 3:47 pm

    My fear is this team only considers triple crown stats in the minors.

  21. djw on April 15th, 2013 3:57 pm

    And Pryor to the DL. This is getting ridiculous.

  22. djw on April 15th, 2013 3:57 pm

    And Pryor to the DL. This is getting ridiculous.

  23. JasonJ on April 15th, 2013 4:06 pm

    Must say I am relieved that Dave likes Zunino although not surprised that he found a small hole in his game – even if it’s only temporary (we hope).

  24. stevemotivateir on April 15th, 2013 4:20 pm


    Coming off his first full season in the ML at age 22, yes, he probably could have headlined a package for a notable player. There’s a reason he was a top ranked prospect and he’s still real young. He struggled to hit RHP, and his defense clearly needs work, but you’re acting like he’s already a bust. He may end up being just that, but it’s not hard to see how or why other teams would be interested in him. Or would have been interested.

  25. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 4:33 pm

    Not trying to be an annoyance, but the for the sake of argument, what is the “not hard to see” thing that others would be excited about? ‘Cause if I’m the Mariners I don’t know what my selling point would be to another team. AND how do you do it without coming off as “we’re trying to get rid of this guy” at this point?

    I think your top return would be another guy who looked good on paper but hasn’t panned out yet. Once a guy is in the majors, people don’t overspend for “potential” as much, because they already have learned a bit about what he can do at this level. (Or CAN’T do, as the case may be.)

    I mean, it has to go a little deeper than “a couple years ago people were really high on this guy” if you want a top player in return, doesn’t it?

    Personally, I don’t think he’s a bust yet, but that doesn’t mean I could muster up a good argument for why another team should trade one of their top guys for him– even IF he’s part of a package.

  26. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 4:34 pm

    Thanks for the link! Bookmarked that site.

  27. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 4:38 pm

    In Zunino’s defense, the jump from AA to AAA has always seemed to me to be where the emphasis changes from “guys learn to pitch against good hitters” to “guys learn to hit against good pitchers”.

    I think that’s why pitchers usually make it through AAA much quicker than position guys– they’re biggest learning curve comes in AA (learning to pitch instead of just throw their fastball past guys), while position players have the steepest learning curve in AAA (ie, hello “breaking balls/offspeed stuff that are out pitches!”)

  28. diderot on April 15th, 2013 4:43 pm

    I have to agree with HenryV here. It seems a little ridiculous to term Montero a ‘bust’ yet.
    He’s only 16 months older than Zunino. He was already playing in the majors when he was Zunino’s age.
    He swings a little more often than Zunino has at Tacoma…but he also makes more contact.
    Yes, small sample size for Zunino–but his MLB sample size is non-existent.
    So Dave’s right about more time for him…but why Dave is so intent on seeing Montero fail is beyond me.

  29. djw on April 15th, 2013 4:52 pm

    why Dave is so intent on seeing Montero fail is beyond me.


  30. stevemotivateir on April 15th, 2013 4:53 pm


    The selling points were the ones I already noted! He was a top ranked prospect, primarily because of his hitting. He’s still young, he at least hit lefties well in his first season, and some teams may very well have believed his defense could/will improve -as would his performance against RHP. Is that really unbelievable? I may very well be naive with this, but I can easily see there being considerable interest in him.

    Part of my point was that it might have been easier to sell that profile in the offseason, essentially cashing-in on the potential, rather than wait for more results. Hopefully he’ll figure out how to hit RHP and not completely suck behind the plate, so he can be swapped for someone useful. I really don’t see him sticking around as a DH, but that’s nothing more than a feeling.

  31. stevemotivateir on April 15th, 2013 5:05 pm


    I don’t think Dave or anyone else here is intent on seeing Montero fail. They’re just skeptical of his ability to be a true ‘star’ or serve as a legitimate catcher. Expectations of him were high when he was acquired and he was less than stellar with the bat last season, so the concerns and doubts are warranted.

    But there’s still time and he may very well become a decent hitter. Expectations of him becoming a decent catcher are probably more of a stretch.

  32. djw on April 15th, 2013 5:11 pm

    Right. It’s bizarre that some people can’t distinguish between pessimistic analysis and desire to see someone fail. Separating what one wants to see happen and what you think could realistically happen isn’t really that complicated of a concept.

  33. BackRub on April 15th, 2013 5:52 pm

    Well said djw, except I thinks its “realistic” analysis, not pessimistic.

  34. djw on April 15th, 2013 5:53 pm

    With Montero’s defense, the two converge.

  35. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 5:58 pm

    That’s true. End of last season was probably the prime time to do something if we had ideas to sell high on Montero’s potential. I see that’s what you actually said now. Sorry.

    But yeah, to move him NOW you’d have to basically sell the idea “this kid is still gonna be a stud, but not if he stays in Seattle– look what we’ve done to all our other top hitting prospects!” (laugh)

    And Diderot did make good points about Montero. He’s only a little over a year older than Zunino, and in his 3rd year in the majors. So plenty of room/time to grow. (It still frightens me how much he looks like Edgar and Lopey’s step child running around the bases.)

  36. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 6:00 pm

    Backrub said: “Its realistic analysis, not pessimistic.”

    DJW said: “With Montero’s defense, the two converge.”

    MrZDevotee pulled his Lat and went on the disabled list, from laughing. (Damn you Casper Wells and your curses!)

  37. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 7:12 pm

    Damn… It’s a TORN Lat for Pryor. Gonna take longer to heal than expected. (Maybe you guys already knew that, but last I heard it was just a strain?)

  38. Jeff Sullivan on April 15th, 2013 7:30 pm

    A strain is a tear.

  39. where have u gone edgar on April 15th, 2013 7:44 pm

    Did this injury just occur in this past game?

  40. alan smithee on April 15th, 2013 7:49 pm

    Montero is a bad catcher and will never be a good one. That said, this team is going nowhere anyway so you might as well play him and not waste zunino on a year the team has no shot at doing anything.

  41. where have u gone edgar on April 15th, 2013 7:58 pm

    At the age of 24 Mike Morse was struggling while playing in Tacoma. The M’s traded him and he became a big power hitter. I’m not saying we should bring Zunino up because of how it seemed to help Morse but sometimes bringing a player up helps him get a good feel of the big leagues.

    In Zunino’s case more time in Tacoma would only be beneficial because of the position he plays.

  42. MrZDevotee on April 15th, 2013 8:00 pm

    (Uh… I knew that, Jeff. Sort of, in a “didn’t know that” sort of way. I was going by my own experience, when I had a strained oblique but it wasn’t torn… And a torn tendon another time, which didn’t get referred to as strained. But I just learned a strain can be either a stretch or a tear of a muscle or tendon, courtesy of Dr. Google. Who also explained to me that a “sprain” is the same, but with ligaments.)

  43. G-Man on April 15th, 2013 8:50 pm

    I am delighted that the thread has gone this far without any “bring Zunino up now” posts. That’s tribute to the quality of the cast. (breaks arm patting self on back)

  44. goalieump413 on April 16th, 2013 9:41 am

    Ok, so Dave’s chart shows the results of contact percentage based on pitches in the strike zone? What about pitches he’s swinging at out of the zone? I’ll bet anything that Peguero’s rate of swinging at bad pitches is higher.

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