Has Mike Zunino finally broken out?

When the Mariners took Mike Zunino third overall out of the University of Florida, behind Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa, they were getting a polished catcher whose bat was close to major league ready (according to scouts) with the defensive acumen to stay behind the plate – unlike many catchers taken, like Kyle Schwarber, Bryce Harper, and Wil Myers. The tools were present, along with the accolades, as Zunino won about every collegiate award he could during his time at UF, and he brought high hopes and promise to a Mariners farm system that looked as good as any at the time.

Zunino was brought up very quickly by Seattle, a combination of his talent and the lack of depth at the major league level, and made his debut in 2013 after only 52 games at Triple A. He only spent 15 games at Double A the year before, and his Triple A numbers were far from scorching, hitting for a 96 wRC+ (and before anyone mentions pitcher heavy environments, wRC+ is a weighted stat against averages, negating any ballpark effects), crushing 11 bombs in his short time but hitting just .227 with a 7.4% walk rate. Besides the burst of power, nothing was screaming that he was ready for the show, not even a good record to promote him for a playoff push, and it appeared that we were getting a still raw Zunino heading up to Seattle.

This turned out to be exactly the case, as he hit for just a 77 WRC+ during the rest of 2013. He improved to a 87 wRC+ in 2014, but in 2015 his strikeout rate skyrocketed to 34.2%, his walk rate plummeted to 5.4%, and he hit for just a 47 wRC+.

2016 and 2017 are certainly tales of good fortune for him and Mariners fans, as he figured the bat out to a 115 wRC+ and then a 126 mark in 2017. He still struggles mightily with contact (more on this below), but his power was good enough to make him a very valuable hitting catcher, hitting 37 bombs the past two years with a .259 isolated slugging rate during the time frame. The power arrived, and appears to be doing so consistently enough to make him not only fantasy relevant, but a key piece to a successful team.

The biggest knock on Zunino heading forward is his contact. He sells out for power basically with every at bat, swinging hard and missing often (17.9% whiff rate, one of the worst marks in the league). This results in a huge amount of strikeouts (36.8% last year) and hence, a miserable batting average as well. In 2016 he hit for just a .207 batting average, and although he improved mightily to a respectable .251 average in 2017, it’s hollow and looks nearly impossible to repeat. He needed a BABIP of .355 to make it happen, which would be ninth overall if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

While this number already screams regression, what makes it even tougher to repeat is just how often Zunino has one of the three true outcomes at the plate, hitting 25 homers, striking out over a third of the time, and a decent 9.0% walk rate. His hard contact rate is a strong 38.2%, which will help him get balls through the infield, but he increased his pull rate to a career high 50.9%, which would have been the third highest number in the majors last year. Now, as a righty, Zunino will be shifted less because of the risk of pulling the first baseman too far off the bag, but Zunino is very slow (he is a catcher after all) and his profile matches exactly the type of hitter to shift on.

Mike Zunino is s decent catcher defensively, and the Mariners have next to no depth at the position heading into 2018 (barring any future moves), so you shouldn’t have any concern about him losing his catching eligibility for a while (applies mostly to dynasty leagues). His big game power combined with a lack of depth is going to give him consistent starts, which means more opportunities for him to hit some dongers. But Zunino’s complete inability to have any semblance of a contact aware approach gives him high volatility and extreme risk.

Until he can add some consistency to his game, Zunino is just too risky for me to be drafting at his current valuation, and I would recommend to just pass altogether, unless he drops a crazy amount. High strikeout guys have a short shelf life, and it becomes a game of Russian roulette the longer you keep him.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.