Poor Mariners fans. With the exception of King Felix, it feels like every top prospect they’ve had in the last 15 years has underwhelmed. That’s certainly a hyperbolic statement, but if feels like it should be true. Dustin Ackley was supposed to win batting titles. Danny Hultzen was going to one day take the reigns from Hernandez once he was past his prime. Justin Smoak is an All-Star now, but he sure wasn’t in Seattle. The list goes on.
But of all those players, perhaps none has teased Seattle quite like catcher Mike Zunino. It’s not difficult to understand why. Zunino was the third overall pick, a Golden Spikes Award winner, and a guy who plays arguably the most valuable position on the diamond. He was polished, and by catching standards, an extremely fast mover: he made it to the major leagues in his first full pro season.
Making it to the big leagues and staying there are two very different things, however. Zunino has learned that the hard way, getting shuttled back and forth from triple-A Tacoma several times since his debut. And yet, every time he gets the call there’s a rush of excitement. That rush gets dulled with each passing trip, but it’s still there, even today.
By this point in time, Zunino has had enough major league at-bats that we have a solid understanding of who he is as a player. He’s undeniably talented — his power is some of the best in the game for his position — but he simply does not make enough contact. He has just about every tool you look for, except for the most crucial one.
Every once in a while, though, he’ll put together a great couple of weeks that will get that hype train rolling all over again. It’s basically an annual tradition — one we just celebrated a couple of weeks ago as Zunino hit .325/.369/.662 between the time he was called up on May 23 until June 17. That run got Mariners fans and writers excited all over again that maybe this was finally the time when Zunino figured it all out.
But guess what? He didn't. In that 22 game stretch, Zunino’s batting line was great, yes, but it was also fluky. He still only walked six percent of the time, with a 40.5 percent strikeout rate. Remember Javier Baez’s disastrous MLB debut in 2014? 6.6 percent walk rate, 41.5 percent strikeout rate. The only difference between that flailing version of Baez and Zunino was the fact that Zunino ran a BABIP of .486.
Not surprisingly, that inflated batting line was not sustainable. From June 18 on, his line is .179/.273/.513. That’s actually good enough for an above-average wRC+ of 107, but weird things happen in small sample sizes. The point is, Zunino still hasn’t learned how to hit for enough contact or draw enough walks to supplement the times when balls aren’t dropping in for him at crazy rates. Once again, those signs of progress were fool’s gold.
Zunino is still young at 26, and catchers typically take longer to develop than just about anyone else. So while I am being critical of him, I would not feel comfortable calling him a lost cause. Rather, I think it’s well past time we temper our expectations for what type of player he’s going to be. Certainly, some Mariners have already learned this lesson. But if you root for the M’s and are still a believer in Zunino’s star power, well, I’ll be nice and just call you overly optimistic.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.