When the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino with the third overall pick, it was a good pick. It provided depth at a very shallow spot in the organization and generally was seen as a “safe” pick. Meaning that Zunino would rise quickly and while he didn’t have the highest ceiling in the draft, he would be a solid player at the MLB level. Part of that is already true, Zunino flew through the organization and is currently the starting catcher for the Mariners.
The purpose of this post is not to fawn over how fast Zunino made it to the MLB or how I think he will be the greatest catcher ever. This is about a flaw in Zunino’s swing and why he doesn’t have the highest ceiling compared to other draft prospects. I really don’t like writing these posts and for the record I do believe Zunino will be a franchise player for a long time. However, his swing is going to hold back his offense and specifically his strikeout rates.
If there has been a knock on Zunino in his brief time in the minor leagues it was his K rate, 23.1% through 484 AB’s at four different stops, including the Arizona Fall League. That is not good, and certainly doesn’t project well to the MLB level. That was one of the issues with calling up Zunino so soon, he was still struggling with his contact rates, and that does not project well to major league pitching. The reason why he is struggling to make contact is because of his swing.
His swing is dependent on timing the pitch as it comes out of the pitchers hand. The problem with this is that different pitches travel at different speeds. So if his timing is off, he will not be able to hit the ball hard or even make contact with it. The reason why this problem is getting worse and worse is that as he faces better and better off-speed pitches, he will have a tougher time recognizing and timing each pitch.
Here is a link to a video of his swing with the Everett Aqua Sox last year. If you skip ahead to 1:02, you will see his swing slowed down. At 1:02 he is waiting for the pitch, his weight is balanced and his hands are in a good position. As the pitch comes, at 1:04, he transfers a lot of his weight to his back foot. This is not uncommon, but the problem is that he waits to put his front foot down. His front foot triggers his hips and then his hands to swing, at about 1:05. He times the pitch with his front foot and that triggers his whole swing. If he puts his front foot down earlier, before the pitch comes, his swing will be much quicker. Instead of using his front foot as a trigger to start his swing, he will start his swing with his hips and his hands. He will have a solid foundation on which he can transfer his weight through his hips and his hands, which will allow him to adjust his swing to off-speed pitches and hit them with power.
Right now, Zunino has to recognize the pitch out of the pitchers hand and then time it as it approaches the plate. This leaves him vulnerable to off-speed pitches, and especially good off-speed pitches, like those seen at the MLB level. If he mistimes a pitch, he has no chance of hitting the ball hard or making contact. This can be seen in his growing K rates as he faces better and better pitchers. He has a good swing, and he will be a good player with that swing. However, if he plants his front foot sooner, he will be able to hit off-speed pitches with power, and become a much better hitter.
Zunino is a good hitter, and has shown that he can hit at the MLB level. However, he can be a much better hitter if he can adjust to MLB off-speed pitches and hit them with power. That is the difference between good and great MLB hitters. Zunino could be a great hitter and right now he is a good one. He is still young and he will become a much better hitter. Right now the only question is where his ceiling is and whether his swing will hold him back.