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Mike Zunino has an aggressive new approach at the plate, and it’s paying off

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Zunino 2.0 is hunting pitches to drive and t’s paying off

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 version of Mike Zunino is a different hitter than the pre-2019 version of Mike Zunino. This becomes apparent when you look at his plate discipline stats.

From 2016 to 2018, Zunino had a swing rate (rate at which he swung at all pitches) of 48.8%. This year his swing rate is 53.3%. From 2016 to 2018 he had a contact rate (rate at which he made contact with the pitches when he swung) of 64.2%. This year it’s jumped to 74%.

That’s a marked change in swing rate and contact rate in 2019. We should pay attention to those!

Only during a few stretches in his career has Zunino posted such a high contact or high swing rate as he is in 2019, and he’s never had a contact rate and swing rate this high at the same time.

The result has been the Rays catcher cutting his K rate by a third over 62 Plate Appearances this season, down from his career rate of 34% to his current rate of 23% (where strikeout rates stabilize after 60 PA).

In fact, Zunino is among the largest swing rate increasers and contact rate increasers from 2018 to 2019. Here are the hitters who have the highest differences between their 2018 swing rate and their 2019 swing rate (minimum 300 PAs in 2018 and 50 PAs in 2019).

And here are the hitters who have the highest difference between their 2018 contact rate and their 2019 contact rate (minimum 300 PAs in 2018 and 50 PAs in 2019).

Now let’s look at the combination of those two increases -- the hitters who have both swung a lot more and made contact at a much higher rate on those swings.

That’s a big change for Zunino, who’s only surpassed in this regard by Hunter Renfroe in 2019.

What’s driving this change?

Here are some heatmaps from Fangraphs showing Zunino’s swing rate and contact rate on pitches in varying areas of the strike zone from 2016-2018:

... and his swing rate from 2016-2018:

Compare those to 2019.

Typically it’s too early for these heatmaps to tell us much, but we can at least identify that Zunino is swinging at and making contact with pitches on the inner third more than he has in the past.

He’s also hitting those pitches harder than he has in the past. Here’s Zunino’s exit velocity by zone on balls he’s hit in 2019.

Here’s 2016-2018.

Not only is he swinging at pitches on the inner third more than ever, he’s also hitting them harder than ever. Often hitters sacrifice power for contact or vice versa, but so far it doesn’t appear than Zunino’s newfound aggressiveness has led to him making this trade-off.

A byproduct of swinging more aggressively is that Zunino has seen fewer pitches per plate appearance while also seeing fewer two-strike counts.

If Zunino doesn’t see a two-strike count, he can’t strike out. Simple.

He’s also made some mechanical changes.

Let’s look at Zunino’s leg kick. Here’s Zunino in Wednesday’s finale against Kansas City on Wednesday of this week:

... and compare to an example at bat from August of 2018.

That kick’s hardly even a kick anymore; it’s much more of a traditional pre-stride load.

Zunino first made the change in September of 2018 while with the Mariners and carried it over to 2019 with the Rays. Here’s the leg kick in September of 2018:

It’s reasonable to think a smaller leg kick might make it easier for Zunino to time up his swing, which could make him quicker to pitches on the inner half.

We know Mike Zunino is a strong guy, but with or without his newfound “dad strength,” he can still generate plenty of power without a big leg kick.

Mike Zunino is not the same hitter he’s been, at least in the early going of 2019. He’s more aggressive early in the count, hitting the ball harder and more often than ever. He’s muted his leg kick and attacked pitches on the inner half. This is not your Mariners’ Mike Zunino.

Perhaps 2019’s Mike Zunino is more than “Good.”

Previously at DRaysBay:

Editor’s Note: Looks like we like Mike Zunino here...

*All stats considered were current and updated through April 25th