There’s no way to ignore Mike Zunino’s offensive struggles.
The catcher has a .181 batting average in 2015. In 224 games in a Mariners uniform, the 24-year-old’s average is .199 (147-for-738) — below the line established by former light-hitting Mariner Mario Mendoza.
After a spring training in which Zunino had seven home runs, 14 RBIs and batted .352 in 21 games, there was reason for optimism. He’d spent the offseason working on going the other way. He was able to recognize off-speed pitches. It appeared he was finally making progress.
The success didn’t translate. Of Zunino’s 139 plate regular season plate appearances, 51 have ended in strikeouts. He’s drawn seven walks.
In other words, he swings at a lot of pitches off the plate. And he doesn’t often make solid contact when he swings at strikes.
Yet a closer look at his batting stats — undeniably ugly at first glance — show that he’s better than the major-league average offensive player for his position.
It’s not crazy to say it.
Since he was rushed to the major leagues in June 2013, Zunino started Wednesday with a 2.1 offensive WAR (wins above replacement). He followed by going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the Mariners’ 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
Yet, the offense for which he’s so often criticized has not compromised his value, and he’s better than a big-league average catcher.
Pitchers on Seattle’s staff often commend Zunino’s ability for pitch framing and calling games. Catching Felix Hernandez’s array of darting pitches is no easy feat. In 2014, Zunino earned praise from manager Lloyd McClendon for his ability to block Hernandez’s change-ups and sinkers, which often end up in the dirt.
Almost a year later, Zunino is no offensive force. But his bat that so often swings and misses isn’t hurting the lineup — at least in comparison to his major-league counterparts. In 40 games this season before Wednesday, his oWAR was 0.2. His dWAR was 0.7. His overall was WAR 0.6, ninth among AL catchers.
“We know he’s not a polished .300 hitter, but he’s not a .150 hitter either,” McClendon said. “I think he has tremendous potential and he continues to learn on a daily basis. It was very, very tough for him for a two-week stretch, not to hit and not to take it out to the field.”
Oakland’s Stephen Vogt (.319/.415/.607 slash line), Toronto’s Russell Martin (.273/.355/.500), Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (.291/.301/.438) and Baltimore’s Caleb Joseph (.267/.358/.431) are the elite offensive catchers in the AL at the season’s quarter pole.
But Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, belted his sixth home run Monday in the 4-1 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field. That’s tied for fourth-most among major-league catchers and tied for third among AL backstops.
Every so often, he’ll bust out with a two-homer game, as he did May 12 in the Mariners 11-4 win over the San Diego Padres at Safeco Field. It’s those moments that provide hope he’s learning the league. As does the . 757 OPS he’s posted in 19 games this month after finishing April with a .129 batting average.
“He’s going to hit. To what extent, I don’t know,” McClendon said recently. “But I don’t think he’s going to be a .170 hitter in his career. He’ll be OK.”
Zunino is still an all-or-nothing proposition. He has more extra-base hits this season (12) than singles (11). But he’s on pace to hit about 21 homers — one less than he did in 2014, when he set the club record for home runs by a catcher.
Remember: The University of Florida product was rushed to the majors. He played 96 games (419 plate appearances) in the minor leagues when the Mariners recalled him from Triple-A Tacoma. At the time, Zunino was batting .227 in his first season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
When the Mariners traded reliever Yoervis Medina to the Chicago Cubs last week in exchange for catcher Welington Castillo, it was an offensive upgrade over Jesus Sucre, who went 1-for-15 in six games with Seattle before getting optioned to Tacoma. Following the addition of Castillo, there was some thought Zunino’s playing time might decrease while he continued to labor offensively.
Since the deal, Castillo, 28, has made three starts at catcher, one at designated hitter. He has two hits in 15 at bats with two RBIs after an 0-for-5 in Tuesday’s wild 7-6, 10-inning win over the Rays.
“His playing time will be predicated on Zunino’s performance,” McClendon said after the trade. “I mean, we’re not fooling anybody here. Mike Zunino is our everyday catcher.”
Added general manager Jack Zduriencik:
“We hate to give up Medina. He’s a guy you always think could become pretty good. But given the state of catching, we thought it was time to make a move to shore up that position.”
Zunino isn’t the ideal catcher. But his raw power and plus-defense means he’s more than serviceable.