Mariners Profile of Arbitration: Mike Zunino, Is He for Real?

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 02: Mike Zunino /

Mariners Catcher Mike Zunino enters the 2017 off-season as a player with just over three years of Major League service time. As such, he’ll be eligible for salary arbitration, a process that will determine his 2018 salary.

The Mariners could opt to sign Zunino to a long-term contract. However, for the purpose of this article, let’s assume Zunino either goes to arbitration, or he settles with the team on a one-year deal prior to the hearing.

Entering the 2017 season, the majority of Mariner fans had a pretty good idea of what Zunino brought to the table. Massive power, solid defense and a propensity to swing and miss a ton. For his career Zunino has struck out 33.5% of his at-bats. Despite improving his surface numbers in 2017, Zunino’s strikeout rate continued to climb in 2017, landing at 36.8% on the year.

Even with the increased strikeouts this season, Zunino was still a valuable asset for the Mariners. According to FanGraphs WAR, Zunino was worth 3.6 WAR in 2017. Among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances, this tied Zunino with the Marlin’s J.T. Realmuto for the third highest figure in all of baseball at the position last season.

We can also look at a purely offensive metric (wRC+) and see how Zunino compared to the league as a whole. For those unfamiliar with wRC+, it is a catch-all offensive statistic, which takes into consideration all offensive contributions by a particular player, adjusts for things such as park effects and also the run scoring environment for the particular season. The beautiful thing about wRC+ is that it scales to 100, meaning that average offensive contributions for any particular season would be a 100 wRC+, while anything below or above would be that many percentage points better or worse.

Seattle Mariners
Seattle Mariners /

Seattle Mariners

For the 2017 season Zunino posted a wRC+ of 126, or 26% better than the league average. Again, all while striking out 36.8% of the time. You may be asking yourself, “why am I continue to drive home the point regarding Zunino’s swing and miss tendency.” I view myself as a numbers oriented person and someone who attempts to project future performance based on past performance as a part of “my job”.

A 36.8% strikeout rate has the ability to swing future performance projections in many different ways. Not only is this figure the highest among all catchers with at least 350 plate appearances, it is also tied for fourth highest among all hitters with the aforementioned 350 plate appearances last year.

The question then becomes, how did Zunino manage to hit .251 (career .199 entering the 2017 season), even with his strikeout rate increasing this season. The answer appears to lie in BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and his ability to hit the ball hard.

Lets start on the BABIP side of things. For the season, Zunino had a .355 BABIP, which is considerably higher than his career mark of .251 entering 2017. It is also much higher than the league average mark for catchers (.290 in 2017).

This isn’t to say all of Zunino’s 2017 performance was built on a foundation of luck. However, it does make projecting his 2018 offensive performance slightly more difficult when dealing with such an outlier of an underlying portion of his offensive profile.

One possible change in Zunino’s offensive approach that could help sustain a higher BABIP going forward was his increase in pull percentage this season. In both 2015 and 2016, Zunino pulled the ball roughly 45% of the time. In 2017 that figure jumped to 50.9%.

We can also use the Hard Contact Percentage (Hard%) found at FanGraphs. Notice the jump in that area as well, from 28.5% in 2015, to 35.0% in 2016, all the way up to 38.6% in 2017. Going back to our catching pool, with at least 350 plate appearances, Zunino’s 38.6 Hard% would rank him third this past season.

Clearly Zunino was able to make better contact this season, while also getting out in front of the ball and driving it to areas of the park that are easiest for him to hit over the fence. In the end we have a catcher who hit 25 home runs at the big league level in only 124 games.

We’ve covered the offensive side of Mike Zunino’s 2017 season extensively now. Of course as a catcher there is also the value he brings on the defensive end of the spectrum and the mostly immeasurable effect a catcher has on an entire pitching staff. For the purpose of this post, we aren’t going to deep dive this area, as Zunino’s defensive past performance has never been in question.

For example, in 2016, Mike Zunino hit .207/.318/.470 (115 wRC+) over 55 games for the Mariners and was worth 1.2 WAR according to FanGraphs. In 2015, .174/.230/.300 (47 wRC+) over 112 games and was worth -0.5 WAR. His defense was a positive that year, it was the massive black hole on offense that brought down his WAR total. In fact, besides from his 52 game rookie season in 2013, Zunino has always been a positive player on defense according to FanGraphs’ metrics.

With all of that considered, it feels safe to assume that side of Zunino’s game should remain strong. What type of overall value Zunino brings to the 2018 Seattle Mariners will largely depend on his offensive contributions then.

My early 2018 projection for Mike Zunino is as follows:

460 Plate Appearances, 23 Home Runs, 47 Runs, 60 RBI, .223/.302/.446

As you can see, my projection model doesn’t fully buy into Zunino’s 2017 surface statistics. The biggest problem being the strikeouts as many of the previous paragraphs explain. All this said, with the state of catching in Major League Baseball currently, this type of offensive stat line, coupled with Zunino’s defensive ability still makes him a valuable asset.

Next: Yu Darvish to the Mariners?

Each season MLB Trade Rumors estimates Arbitration Awards for all players eligible during the off-season. Their formula currently has Mike Zunino projected for a $3.2MM salary in 2018. If the Mariners receive the 3.5 WAR that they did from Zunino in 2017 next season, that’s a major steal. However, even with some pullback on the offensive side of his game, Zunino should still be a relative bargain when you consider his 2018 salary versus his projected performance next season.

Sources: FanGraphs & MLB Trade Rumors