Mike Zunino’s Keeping Unusual Company

It’s a sign of the times that, when you think about Mike Zunino, you might well first think of his defense. He’s proven himself to be a tremendous receiver of pitches, and when you fold in the rest of his defensive skillset, Zunino has a lot of value, even independent of his bat. There’s evidence to suggest that Zunino is one of the people behind Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young-caliber campaign, and Zunino’s been trusted as a staff leader in his first full year in the bigs. Behind the plate, and off the field, Zunino scores high marks. At the plate, he’s also been interesting, but in more of a peculiar way.

It’s easy enough to look at the normal numbers. An 84 wRC+? He’s young, and, good thing he plays a premium defensive position. A .199 average, a .254 OBP, and a .404 slugging? This provides more insight on the sort of hitter Zunino is — he’s the picture of an over-aggressive power hitter, and you can see why his offensive profile has drawn comparisons to J.P. Arencibia. We’re familiar with this kind of hitter, and most teams probably have at least one or two of this kind of hitter. But it’s in the more minute details that Zunino’s season really stands out.

This post is the very definition of a fun fact, talking about something that exists only on Zunino’s various player pages. In that way it’s like last week’s post on Christian Yelich, but fun facts also serve as skillset indicators. Fun facts are fun because of the facts, but they can also be meaningful because of what they suggest. So, go ahead and take a closer look at Zunino’s numbers. The season’s not over for another few weeks, but he’s gone beyond 400 trips to the plate. He counts as a regular player. The strikeouts are eye-popping. There have been 137 of them. Brush those aside and look elsewhere. You see 19 home runs. You see 14 unintentional walks. You see 14 hit-by-pitches. Look away from the page, and think about it.

We’ve got records of intentional walks going back to 1955, so we’ve got a window of 60 seasons. Over that window, there have been 13,422 individual player-seasons with at least 300 plate appearances. In 404 of those instances, a player has finished with at least as many home runs as unintentional walks — roughly seven a year. In 20 of those instances, a player has finished with at least as many hit-by-pitches as unintentional walks — roughly one every three years. There have been nine instances of both, Zunino’s 2014 included. In 59 years of baseball, eight regulars or semi-regulars have finished with at least as many home runs and hit-by-pitches as unintentional walks. In the 60th year, Mike Zunino is on track to become the ninth member of the group.

The population:

Oliver was a first baseman and an outfielder. Dawson, at that point, was a DH. Miller was a middle infielder. Interestingly, we’ve seen a handful of these seasons since the mid-90s, and all of them belong to catchers. Three of them happened in the same year, which is its own kind of nuts. If you think about it, the profile is that of an undisciplined hacker, so it makes some sense that you’d see more of these seasons from premium-position defenders, since they provide a lot of value in the field. Not that the catchers above have really provided a lot of value in the field. Zunino’s the exception in that regard.

What can we do to try to explain this? Firstly, Zunino is a fly-ball hitter, and a pull-power hitter. He’s pulled 62% of his fly balls, against a league average of 43%. To the pull side, he’s been one of the most productive hitters in baseball; to the opposite field, he’s been one of the least productive hitters in baseball. Zunino’s strong, and he’s looking to drive the ball out of the yard. That’s how you get dingers. Miguel Olivo had one of the worst eyes ever, and he slugged 145 career dingers. Hackers aren’t always unsuccessful.

Then you get to Zunino’s approach. He has one of baseball’s highest rates of swings at pitches out of the zone, which is why he so infrequently walks. He’s particularly vulnerable to sliders down and/or sliders away. Now, it’s not just about Zunino’s discipline; he also has one of baseball’s highest rates of first-pitch strikes, which means that Zunino is behind in the count a good deal more often than the average hitter. Hitters who are behind in the count have to be more aggressive and protective than hitters who are ahead in the count, so this is one of the reasons why Zunino so frequently expands his zone. On average, hitters are behind in the count 37% of the time. Zunino shows up at 41%. He’s aggressive by nature, and he’s also aggressive due to context.

And then you’re left with the hit-by-pitches. Getting hit by pitches can be a skill, in that to some degree it can be under a hitter’s control. When Zunino gets hit, it usually feels kind of fluky, but he might just be building himself a track record. He doesn’t get pitched inside unusually often, but there is evidence that he’s more likely to get hit. The average righty hitter HBP is 2.1 feet inside from the center of the plate. Zunino’s average is closer than 1.8 feet, which gives a difference of four inches. So, the average Zunino hit-by-pitch has been four inches closer to the plate than the league-average hit-by-pitch, and if Zunino stands closer than most, he’ll be somewhat prone to this. Maybe he stands closer to try to be less vulnerable against those low-away sliders. Maybe pitchers try to set Zunino up with fastballs in before going with a slider away. It’s worth noting that, of Zunino’s 14 hit-by-pitches, 13 have been thrown by righties in 70% of the plate appearances.

To some extent, this is fluky; to some extent, this is explicable. Mike Zunino has drawn 14 unintentional walks. He’s been hit 14 times, and he’s left the yard 19 times. He drew eight walks in May, but since June started, he’s drawn six, while being hit ten times. If this is trending anywhere, it’s trending in the unexpected direction. What Mike Zunino’s doing has very rarely been done. That doesn’t define the player that Mike Zunino is, and it doesn’t define the player that Mike Zunino will be, but three little numbers together sure can tell you a lot about how a player performs. Sure, you could just go with the usual triple-slash, but that can be a little bit boring.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

fun fact noun \?f?n ?fakt\
: a piece of verifiable information that is amusing or enjoyable
: Jeff Sullivan’s Sept. 5, 2014 internet post “Mike Zunino’s Keeping Unusual Company”

Well, that checks out.