Mike Zunino Facts Of Uncertain Fun-ness

Jeff Sullivan · May 23, 2014 at 3:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Hello! This won’t be much of a post, because I only have a moment, but there’s something I wanted to put out there before disappearing for the holiday weekend. You should also go disappear for the holiday weekend. But not before reading this? You’re already reading this. Get to the end of this, then do whatever.

There’s something you might’ve missed in April, and that’s that Mike Zunino had the highest swing rate of any regular or semi-regular hitter in baseball. Zunino swung at 62% of all pitches, and that’s a higher rate than, say, the most undisciplined version of Josh Hamilton. Zunino also ran a low contact rate, and the next-closest Mariner had a swing rate of 51%. Yet, for as much as Zunino was swinging, he was also producing, with power compensating for a lack of walks.

It’s not April anymore, and Mike Zunino isn’t April Zunino anymore. In May, Zunino’s swing rate has been 47%. He hasn’t really seen fewer strikes, and he also hasn’t really lifted his contact rate, and it’s odd to see such a fluctuation in swing rate over a decent sample because swing rate is one of those things that just comes naturally to a hitter. Hitters are as aggressive as they are, and that’s a pretty stable trait.

Around the league, 200 different players have batted at least 50 times in April and May. Zunino’s drop in swing rate is the biggest, by more than a full percentage point. Only six players have had drops in the double digits. The biggest overall swing is about 16 percentage points, a swing-rate increase by Pablo Sandoval, but the primary point is that Zunino’s numbers are extreme and uncommon.

That’s what I thought would be a whole post. Then something else and presumably related caught my attention. According to FanGraphs, in April, Zunino saw 65% fastballs. According to FanGraphs, in May, Zunino has seen 45% fastballs. That is a big big drop in fastballs.

Let’s look at that same pool of 200 players. Here are the biggest changes in fastball rate, in percentage points:

  1. Mike Zunino, -20.4%
  2. Mike Aviles, -18.4%
  3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, -16.5%
  4. Denard Span, -14.5%
  5. Mark Reynolds, -14.2%

(At the other end, Billy Hamilton leads the way at +13.8%.)

Between April and May, Mike Zunino has swung way less often, and he’s gotten fastballs way less often. These are not independent points. Other Mariners have mostly seen the same pitches, so it’s not really obviously about opponent scheduling. This is about adjustments to Mike Zunino, as the changes in his numbers are too large to just be dismissed as coincidental noise.

So? On the one hand, Zunino has dropped from a 110 April wRC+ to an 80 May wRC+. He definitely hasn’t been nearly as productive. But then, while his strikeouts are up, his walks are up, and his ISO hasn’t changed. It’s mostly about singles dropping in, and we need more than a few weeks to be able to say anything about that. Maybe Zunino can handle this. Maybe he can’t. There are positive signs and less positive signs.

Brooks Baseball offers some simplistic classifications. There’s hard, breaking, and offspeed. Some Zunino data, from there:

2013: 68% hard pitches seen
4/14: 68%
5/14: 51%

So, Zunino saw as many fastballs in April as he did during his cup of coffee last summer. But the big difference is that, this April, Zunino hit, where, last summer, he really didn’t. So my suspicion is that, once Zunino demonstrated that he can hit a fastball-heavy approach, opponents decided to not give him that anymore. They fed him fastballs until he started adjusting, and now he’s going to have to make another adjustment, to counter the league adjustment. Fun fact: the adjustments never stop. Even Pedro Martinez kept tweaking things over the course of his career, and Mike Zunino isn’t the Pedro Martinez of hitting.

When Zunino was struggling in triple-A, word was he was struggling with offspeed stuff. Now he’s seeing a lot of offspeed stuff, finally, and there’s good news and bad news about that. I don’t know if these are fun facts or not, but they are facts, so, now you know them. Mike Zunino probably also knows them. Now it’s a matter of what he can do about it. He sure is strong. He sure does miss a bunch. Thank God he can catch a damned baseball.


6 Responses to “Mike Zunino Facts Of Uncertain Fun-ness”

  1. Shoeless Jose on May 23rd, 2014 3:24 pm

    Of course most hitters spend more time in AA and AAA where they get exposed to a lot more offspeed pitches; Zunino didn’t have that. I’m sure the coaches are working with him on that — swing rate may be more of a constant for a finished hitter, and Zunino is far from finished (we hope) — but unfortunately he has to do his real learning at the plate in games that count.

  2. Microsoft Zunino on May 23rd, 2014 4:35 pm

    “I see nothing wrong here.”
    –Garrett Anderson

  3. PackBob on May 23rd, 2014 5:00 pm

    Zunino is a student of the game and a catcher, so he knows full well how to get hitters out. I have to think he’s aware of what’s happening and is trying to adjust. Of course knowing something and applying it are two different things, but Zunino is also still pretty raw and it will be interesting to see how well he can adjust.

    If he needs to improve as a hitter it makes sense there is also room to get better as a receiver, and that’s fun to contemplate.

  4. Westside guy on May 23rd, 2014 5:19 pm

    It would be great if he doesn’t end up as Miguel Olivo plus good defense. But the defense is definitely nice to have.

  5. maqman on May 24th, 2014 10:54 am

    If he turns into Olivo his teammates better get rabies shots.

  6. junglist215 on May 24th, 2014 11:36 am

    I would be interested to see how Zunino’s O-swing% fluctuates between different counts. Just watching him in the Minnesota series, I noticed their game plan against him was basically once there was two strikes everything was a breaking pitch down and out of the strike zone. Reliably, Zunino couldn’t lay off of em.

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