Game 139, Rangers at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Cole Hamels, 7:10pm
To the surprise of no one, the M’s added another catcher from AAA Tacoma today, now that the minor league season’s ended. To the surprise of many, that catcher was not Mike Zunino, but Steve Baron. Picking over Zunino’s batting stats seems like it’s kicking a man when he’s down, but it really is a target-rich environment for bloggers. Zunino had one of the worst contact rates, and one of the absolute worst contact rates for pitches *in* the strike zone. I mentioned before the year that he’d need to reduce his O-Sw%, and he did exactly that. It just didn’t matter, due to his problems hitting strikes and a surprising inability to drive the ball at all against left-handed pitching.
Zunino is pretty far off in the tail of the big league distribution for contact, and it’s true that many of the players whose contact stats are similar make up for their failings by walking a lot and/or slugging the crap out of the ball. But in looking at Zunino’s stats, it’s somewhat surprising that the peripherals aren’t *worse*. That is, he’s got a very similar zone-contact rate as Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant, and Zunino’s numbers are better than Chris Davis’ or George Springer’s. You *can* make it in the league if your pitch recognition is poor, but you need to punish the ball – consistently – when you DO make contact. That’s the part that’s frustrating. Zunino doesn’t have to hit as well as Bryant or Pederson or Davis – he’s a good catcher, and that goes a long way. But something was going very wrong with Zunino’s approach, and it’s clear the M’s don’t think it was fixed in the last 10 days. As Ryan Divish reported, Zunino (and SS Chris Taylor*) will head to extended Spring Training where they’ll work with Rainiers hitting coach Cory Snyder. It sounds like Zunino’s not working on tweaks or approach (as he did this spring) but an entirely new swing.
The Rangers’ Joey Gallo’s numbers are, if anything, more eye-popping than Zunino’s. SSS warning, but in a little over 100 plate appearances, Gallo’s struck out 49 times. His O-sw% is similar to Zunino’s, and nothing out of the ordinary, but he’s made contact on only 6 of 10 swings at pitches in the zone – far worse than Zunino. Zunino has the whole “catcher” thing that takes the sting out of poor plate discipline, but Gallo has another good reason for patience with developmental…uh…hurdles: true 80-grade power. It’ll be worth seeing if he can make it work, though his K% spiked after his demotion to AAA earlier this year. The Cubs Javier Baez seems to have made real progress this year, so it’s not the kiss of death, but Gallo’s a great test case; if Gallo can stick in the majors, then Zunino can.
Taijuan Walker’s had a frustrating year, like many of his teammates, but with nearly 2 fWAR already, he’s been incredibly valuable in stabilizing an M’s rotation that’s struggled in the second half. Sure, his ERA is worse than his FIP, and he’s given up too many HRs, but luck has obviously played a part in that. The M’s OF has been, depending on how you measure it, either the worst in the AL or merely below-average, and that’s been tough on a fly-ball pitcher like Walker. His K:BB ratio of 3.7 is promising, and though he’s clearly got plenty to do this off-season, it’s a great sign that this and his K-BB% continues to climb as he gets older. We haven’t seen the best version of Taijuan Walker yet.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Romero, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, LF
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Montero, DH
8: O’Malley, CF
9: Sucre, C
Looking at the M’s WAR by position is kind of interesting. I thought CF might be a possible area of weakness, but they’ve been OK thus far, posting 2.3 fWAR and being essentially dead-on league average at the plate. What *IS* stunning is that Shawn O’Malley has been worth fully 0.6 fWAR of the 2.3. In 4 games. In 15 PAs.
To make room for Steve Baron (and JC Ramirez), who wasn’t on the 40-man roster, the M’s transferred Charlie Furbush from the 15- to the 60-day DL. They had an open spot when they outrighted Lucas Luetge to AAA a few days back.
* Chris Taylor seemed to respond well to small changes recommended by Snyder – he posted an .880 OPS in the 2nd half of the year after struggling in the month before his call-up.