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At least one more rodeo for Mike Zunino

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Big Z has struggled offensively; the Rays brought him back anyway.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Mike Zunino has been struggling at the plate since joining the Rays. In 2020, he hit .147/.238/.360 (AVG/OBP/SLG). As a catcher, Zunino’s performance offensively is not imperative for the success of the line-up, as the Rays brought him back this season for his defensive ability.

That being said — as DRaysBay has written before — Zunino has some offensive potential, but something isn’t quite clicking. Let’s see what’s going on with him.

Zunino’s Career Offensive Ability

Zunino was a Mariner for the first six years of his major league career before he joined the Rays via trade in November of 2018. Zunino has never been the best hitter, but for a catcher his career numbers are not that bad.

He had his best year at the plate in 2017, with an OPS of .840:

Data from Baseball Savant

Looking at the graph of his OPS by year, we can see that his numbers rose after 2015, and then started declining after the 2017 season.

Ironically, during his best season he also had one of the worst strikeout rates in the league, at 37% (league average strikeout rate is 20%). He’s always been above 30% in terms of strikeout rate in his career. So far there is no sign of improvement.

Is there any chance he can manage to turn things around?

Zunino Has Made Changes to His Swing

During the 2019 offseason and quarantine, Zunino worked on some changes to his swing in hopes that the changes would improve his offense in 2020.

Some of these swing changes included shortening his swing and working on his body positioning, focusing on his lower half. Check out the comparison below to spot the differences. Here are the things I noticed:

  • Zunino’s stance was lower, knees are more bent
  • His stance was more open in 2020, in years prior it was more straight
  • His left arm and shoulder are positioned lower

Are the swing changes working?

As a right handed hitter, I would expect Zunino to perform better against left handed pitchers than right handed pitchers.

Even though the sample size is small — really, really small — to establish a baseline on what might be going on with his current results, let’s look at his splits from 2020:

Mike Zunino’s 2020 Splits

Splits Plate Appearances AVG OBP SLG
Splits Plate Appearances AVG OBP SLG
Vs Left 25 0.045 0.16 0.182
Vs Right 59 0.189 0.271 0.434

It looks like Zunino is not doing better against left handed pitchers so far. He had one hit and two walks against left handed pitchers last season.

Digging a little more into this, I found out that according to his career splits, Zunino actually performs better against right handed pitchers. And looking back to his splits for this season, nearly all of his hits and walks came against right handed pitchers.

With that being said, we are still only looking at ten hits and four walks against right handed pitchers in 2020, and even though he bats better against right handed pitchers, he should be putting up better numbers against left handed pitchers.

At the very least, he should be getting on base more frequently.

With such a small sample size we are limited in the results we can analyze, but what we do have a stronger population of is pitches seen. To try and see if Zunino is trending in the right direction, one quick litmus test may be to simply see if pitchers have adjusted to his new approach.

Has Zunino been pitched differently since joining the Rays?

If a hitter is doing well, or other teams pick up trends for certain hitters, pitchers will make adjustments accordingly. It’s possible that opposing pitchers switched up what they are throwing to Zunino when he joined the AL East. If that’s the case, it may provide some insight on why Zunino is struggling.

For this analysis, I used pitch data from Brooks Baseball and compared Zunino’s time with the Mariners (2013-2018) to his time with the Rays (2019-2020).

Against Left Handed Pitchers

First, let’s start by looking at how Zunino is pitched against left handed pitchers.

First Pitch Against LHP

When facing left handed pitchers, Zunino is seeing more four seam fastballs, cutters, sliders, and cutters with the Rays than he was with the Mariners. He is seeing significantly fewer sinkers and curveballs.

Data from Brooks Baseball

The decrease in sinkers and curveballs thrown by left handed pitchers can be attributed to Zunino’s success against the pitch. Out of every pitch Zunino sees for the first pitch of the at-bat, he performs best against the sinker and the curveball. His career SLG against first pitch sinkers is 1.077, and against first pitch curveballs is 2.000.

For the first pitch of the at-bat, left handed pitchers are avoiding what Zunino hits best, making it harder for him to get a hit. This is especially significant for Zunino, because he swings at the first pitch 37% of the time.

Two Strikes Against LHP

With two strikes, Zunino is still seeing the curveball a lot less than when he was with the Mariners. He is also seeing the fourseam and changeup less.

Data from Brooks Baseball

Zunino’s best SLG with two strikes comes against the changeup, at .333. So, it makes sense that pitchers are throwing it less when Zunino has two strikes; however, his SLG against the curveball is .152, which is not a significant threat at all. So why throw the curveball less against him in two strike counts?

It seems as if pitchers are opting to throw harder/faster pitches against Zunino with two strikes. While I am not sure why pitchers wouldn’t throw a breaking ball to him, it might just be that they have a better go-to put away pitch for a two strike count.

In contrast, Zunino is seeing the sinker more frequently in two strike situations. His SLG against the sinker when he is down two strikes is .155, so he is not as much as a threat against sinkers later in the at bat.

Against left handed pitchers, it seems like since joining the Rays, pitchers are slightly switching up the pitch mix to Zunino to capitalize on his weakness. This may be a contributing factor for Zunino’s struggles against left handed pitchers.

Against Right Handed Pitchers

Now, let’s take a look at how he is being pitched against right handed pitchers.

First Pitch Against RHP

When facing right handed pitchers, Zunino is seeing less sinkers, cutters, and changeups.

Data from Brooks Baseball

Zunino is pretty consistent in terms of career SLG against all first pitches faced. His SLG against first pitch changeups is the highest, at 2.000, though the sample size is very small (32 pitches). Against other pitches, his SLG ranges from .600-.673, with the exception of the sinker. His SLG against the sinker is the lowest, at .464.

If his SLG is the worst against the sinker, why are righties throwing it less against him for the first pitch? It may have to do with the arsenals of pitchers he is facing. When Zunino switched teams, he was exposed to a number of new pitchers, each with a different arsenal.

While there was a minor change in pitch mix for Zunino’s first pitch after he joined the Rays, it should have been to his advantage. He is still seeing more pitches that he hits well.

Two Strikes Against RHP

With two strikes, Zunino is seeing the slider more, and seeing every other pitch at the same frequency or less.

Data from Brooks Baseball

It turns out that Zunino hits best against the curveball and slider, compared to other pitches, when down two strikes. His SLG against two strike sliders is .332.

So why did the use of the slider increase?

Zunino swings and misses against the slider the most out of all pitches in a two strike count, with a whiff percentage of 28%. I think this also goes back to arsenal and put away pitches. If a pitcher has a great slider, they might want to see if they could get Zunino to chase. This data is for all counts with two strikes, so if pitchers have some leeway, they are more likely to throw breaking pitches out of the zone.

When down two strikes, Zunino is seeing more pitches that he can hit well, but also pitches where he is most likely to swing and miss.

Overall, the changes in pitch mix may be a contributing factor to Zunino’s struggles. It is concerning; however, because he is being thrown some pitches that he has good career numbers against, and he is being thrown those pitches more frequently, the results should be better overall.

This is particularly concerning against right handed pitchers because Zunino has better career numbers and accordingly should see the ball better against them. So, if they are throwing Zunino pitches he can hit more frequently, he should be able to capitalize. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the story so far.

The changes in Zunino’s pitch mix since joining the Rays have been minimal. He is still seeing pitches he once performed well against, but has not been able to repeat his previous success thus far.

How is he hitting the ball?

The harder you hit the ball, the more likely you are to get a hit. A ball is considered hard hit when the exit velocity is greater than 95 mph (league average hard hit percentage is about 35%).

Let’s look at the hard hit trend for Zunino against both right and left handed pitchers.

Data from Baseball Savant

Zunino’s highest hard hit percentage came in 2017, his best offensive year. To see just how important hard hit percentage is, let’s compare it to Zunino’s career SLG. If we put the two graphs next to each other, we see a really strong correlation between his SLG and hard hit percentage.

Data from Baseball Savant

In years that Zunino’s SLG was high, his hard hit percentage was also high. The same goes for years that he had offensive struggles. When he wasn’t hitting the ball hard frequently, his SLG decreased.

During his time with the Rays so far (2019-2020), Zunino did not hit the ball hard as frequently as in previous years, and his SLG suffered as a result. While there are other factors that impacted the downward trend in Zunino’s SLG, I think the correlation between hard hit balls and SLG is a reasonable observation.

Is there any hope for Zunino at the plate this season?

Zunino’s stats are trending downward, and based on his at-bats in 2020, it does not look like any significant improvements have been made, but that was a small sample size! The key to success for Zunino this season may be finding a way to start hitting the ball hard more consistently and that might just take time.

Projection systems don’t seem optimistic. ZiPS projects his slash line as .192/.258/.390; Steamer is nearly identical at .197/.269/.385.

Hitting has never been the strongest part of Zunino’s game. He’s never seen the ball that well, with a high strikeout rate and low walk rate year to year. Zunino is not just going to turn into an amazing hitter overnight.

We have seem those glimmers of Zunino’s offensive potential — he was one of the bright spots of the ALCS. Hopefully by the end of this season, we’ll see Zunino’s swing changes pay off, and we’ll be writing about how great he did at the plate during what might be his last year in a Rays uniform.