Why Mike Zunino Needs More Seasoning
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*:
*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.