One reason for the Seattle Mariners' disappointing season has been the disappointing season of catcher Mike Zunino. Heading into his second full season in the majors, there was hope the power-hitting backstop would improve at the plate, at least to the point where he'd provide acceptable offense at the bottom of the order. Instead, he's plummeted to a triple-slash line of .175/.232/.308 in 364 plate appearances, an occasional home run -- he has 11 -- hardly offsetting the low batting average and terrible on-base percentage.
Only seven players since 1901 have finished with a lower average while batting at least 350 times. Only 14 have had a lower OBP. When the Mariners drafted Zunino third overall in 2012 following a storied career at the University of Florida they didn't expect to be drafting the next J.P. Arencibia.
As Jonah Keri wrote last week on Grantland, the Mariners' inability to develop prospects has doomed the once-promising season. Outside of Kyle Seager and Brad Miller, the farm system has been barren when it comes to position players, with Zunino and the now-exiled Dustin Ackley the poster boys for those issues.
Zunino was viewed as a good pick at the time. Baseball America rated him the second-best prospect in the draft after he hit .322/.394/.694 his junior season at Florida, with 19 home runs in 245 at-bats plus a strong arm behind the plate. His defense for the Mariners has been excellent, with a 36 percent caught stealing rate that is above the league average and good pitch framing skills.
In the batter's box, however, he's been lost. In 2014, when he hit .199, he struggled against offspeed stuff, batting just .163/.196/.337. His problems were two-fold: Lack of pitch recognition, which led to a high chase rate on pitches out of the zone. He did show some promise against fastballs, hitting .239 with a .479 slugging percentage. In spring training, he worked on driving the ball more to the opposite field. He hit .352 with seven home runs and everyone was optimistic. Then the regular season started. He was 3 for his first 26 and hasn't been above .200 at any point all season. Basically, his entire approach now is so messed up he can't even hit fastballs:
He's hitting .153 against fastballs, likely an offshoot of his issues against offspeed stuff. Sit on the breaking ball, get a fastball, swing and miss. As you can see from the heat point, he's particularly struggled against fastballs up in the zone. At this point, Zunino probably needs to head back to Triple-A for a season and re-learn to hit. He was rushed to the majors back in 2013 after just 96 games and 419 plate appearances in the minors; even Buster Posey, a more polished hitter coming out of college, played 172 games in the minors.
On the other hand, maybe it was inevitable Zunino would struggle. I checked the draft-year statistics at thebaseballcube.com of all college players drafted in the first 10 picks over the past 10 years, a list of 22 players. The only one with a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Zunino was Jason Castro. Most had more walks than strikeouts but Zunino had 47 strikeouts and 31 walks (the numbers don't include intentional walks, which were unavailable):
Dansby Swanson, D-backs (2015, 1st): 43 BB, 54 SO
Alex Bregman, Astros (2015, 2nd): 36 BB, 22 SO
Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox (2015, 7th): 50 BB, 32 SO
Michael Conforto, Mets (2014, 10th): 55 BB, 38 SO
Kyle Schwarber, Cubs (2014, 4th): 44 BB, 30 SO
Kris Bryant, Cubs (2013, 2nd): 66 BB, 44 SO
Colin Moran, Marlins (2013, 6th): 63 BB, 25 SO
Hunter Dozier, Royals (2013, 8th): 34 BB, 35 SO
Mike Zunino, Mariners (2012, 3rd): 31 BB, 47 SO
Anthony Rendon, Nationals (2011, 6th): 80 BB, 33 SO
Christian Colon, Royals (2010, 4th): 34 BB, 18 SO
Michael Choice, A's (2010, 10th): 76 BB, 54 SO
Dustin Ackley, Mariners (2009, 2nd): 50 BB, 34 SO
Tony Sanchez, Pirates (2009, 4th): 30 BB, 40 SO
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (2008, 2nd): 28 BB, 28 SO
Buster Posey, Giants (2008, 5th): 57 BB, 29 SO
Yonder Alonso, Reds (2008, 7th): 76 BB, 35 SO
Gordon Beckham, White Sox (2008, 8th): 54 BB, 30 SO
Jason Castro, Astros (2008, 10th): 26 BB, 42 SO
Matt Wieters, Orioles (2007, 5th): 51 BB, 37 SO
Matt LaPorta, Brewers (2007, 7th): 55 BB, 16 SO
Evan Longoria, Rays (2006, 3rd): 40 BB, 29 SO
Obviously, having a good strikeout-to-walk ratio is no guarantee of success. But it's probably not a good sign if you're striking out more than you walk in college. In fact, it's interesting that Zunino's teammate in 2012 was current Astros outfielder Preston Tucker, a seventh-round draft pick that year. His overall numbers were pretty similar to Zunino's:
Zunino: .322/.394//667, 19 HR, 31 BB, 47 SO
Tucker: .321/.405/.584, 16 HR, 35 BB, 27 SO
Similar, that is, with one exception: Zunino struck out a lot more often. And, yet, his bat (and defense) was projected to be good enough to go third overall while Tucker was an afterthought as a cheap senior sign. College stats don't mean everything but they mean something. Organizations like the Cardinals and Astros have analytics that attempt to project college stats. Smart teams have would seen Zunino's strikeout-to-walk rate as a potential red flag.
If you go through today's elite hitters who were drafted out of college, I'll bet you find that all of them walked more than they struck out in college: Paul Goldschmidt (54 to 29), Josh Donaldson (38 to 27), Jason Kipnis (51 to 32), A.J. Pollock" target="_blank">A.J. Pollock (30 to 24), Todd Frazier (62 to 51), Brian Dozier (16 to 15) and so on. OK, Ian Kinsler had 27 strikeouts and 23 walks; he was also a 17th-round pick, not the third overall pick.
Zunino is just 24, so I'm not completely writing him off. At the minimum, his defense and leadership should lead to a long a career as a backup. But back in 2011, Arencibia hit .219 with 23 home runs as a rookie. Like Zunino, he struck out a lot and rarely walked. He's spent all of 2015 in Triple-A.