How to Pitch to Mike Zunino
One of the bigger stories in the minor leagues in August was the promotion of Mariners 2012 first round draft pick Mike Zunino from the Northwest League to the Southern League. While it’s not unusual for a player of Zunino’s talents to be promoted out of short season A-ball during his first season, it is unusual to see a position player, especially a catcher, skip two levels of A-ball to face more experienced competition in Double A.
When he was promoted, a conversation took place internally here at Bullpen Banter regarding the Mariners’ aggressive promotion of Zunino. It caught everyone off guard but most of the writers agreed that if anyone could handle such an aggressive promotion it would be him. He handled the Southern League alright, posting a .333/.386/.588 line in fifteen games. Then, in the eight games of the Southern League playoffs, Zunino was even more impressive, putting up a .379/.471/.828 line. Six of his eleven hits in the playoffs went for extra bases, including three home runs. While twenty three total games is a small sample size, Zunino did manage to prove himself against competition that was more seasoned in the professional ranks than he was.
I’m going to do something a little different with this piece. For one, I’m going to forgo my usual scouting report of the tools Zunino possess. I feel there has been plenty written already about Zunino in regards to his swing and even his catching ability. In fact, Bullpen Banter’s own Conor Dowley published a scouting piece on Zunino earlier this summer. I’m going to pretend that I am an Advanced Scout for this article. My chief concern is how my team, a fictional team, is going to get Mike Zunino out in the next series we play against him and not have something like the video below happen to one of our pitchers.
How to Pitch to Mike Zunino
I had some reports relayed to me regarding Mike Zunino’s play in the Northwest league. While he dominated competition to the tune of a .373/.474/.736 line, Zunino displayed a weakness to chase pitches out of the zone. With the amp up in competition, I expected to see similar observations. During the two games I scouted on September 8th and 9th in Chattanooga, I did not see a hitter prone to chasing pitches. In fact, I saw a hitter who showed advanced discipline to lay off these pitches. While I would still try to see if he’d chase a breaking ball in the dirt during a favorable two strike count, I wouldn’t recommend that as a basis for retiring Zunino frequently.
At the plate, Zunino has a good idea of the strike zone. Early in the count, do not expect him to swing at any pitch he can’t put a good swing on. Also, do not expect him to take a pitch that he can hit, even with a 3-0 count. If it’s a pitch he thinks he can hit, he’s going to try to drive the ball, regardless of count. Like most hitters, with two strikes, he’ll expand his strike zone a bit to protect against good pitches. Yimi Garcia, a Dodgers prospect, was able to induce a weak pop up on a breaking ball away that Zunino lunged at, protecting the zone.
Zunino struggled with the plus velocity that the Chattanooga Lookouts pitch staff threw at him. Dodgers prospects Onelki Garcia and Jose Dominguez were able to dominate Zunino with plus velocity up in the zone. In fact, Dominguez was able to blow a 97 MPH Fastball right down the middle of the plate. Other than that pitch in the middle of the plate, both Dominguez and Onelki Garcia had command of their fastballs and put those pitches in places Zunino couldn’t hit them. Onelki Garcia was able to retire Zunino on three explosive fastballs in quick secession. Dodgers prospect Steve Ames was also able to strike out Zunino combining 89-91 MPH heat with excellent command.
While I will recommend for pitchers throwing 93 MPH or up to throw Zunino up in the zone and away, I do not recommend, under any circumstances, and even at higher velocity, to throw Zunino middle-in. While the video I linked above of his Homerun was on an 87 MPH middle-in fastball on a favorable 3-1 count, it is extremely likely he’d put that swing on a 97 MPH middle-in fastball as well. Like most right handed power hitters, Zunino is a dangerous middle-in hitter and will likely drive a poorly commanded fastball a very long way.
If you’re going to throw Zunino a breaking ball early in the count, it better be for a strike. Zunino will not swing at breaking balls that skirt the strike zone until two strikes, when he goes into protection mode. While the video embedded below only shows the swings he took during the Chattanooga portion of the series, Zunino took a whole bunch of pitches, collecting three walks in eleven plate appearances. Only two of the eleven plate appearances resulted in Zunino seeing three pitches or less. One of those at bats was the aforementioned three pitch strikeout of Zunino by Onelki Garcia. The other at bat resulted in a first pitch lined single by Zunino on an Andres Santiago get-over fastball, which, as mentioned, is a dangerous pitch to throw him.
While Zunino is a dangerous hitter, good pitching, specifically the ability to command high fastballs up and away, can get Zunino out. If you’re going to throw fastballs inside to Zunino, be sure to get those pitches in enough that Zunino cannot drive the ball down the left field line. Expand the zone a bit in favorable counts when Zunino is protecting but don’t expect Zunino to flail at a slider down and away. He is just as likely to take the pitch as he is to chase the pitch. The pitcher has to put that breaking ball in a place where it starts out as a strike and hope to fool him with late break. In conclusion, respect his ability and don’t take retiring him for granted because he’s capable of winning the ballgame for his team with one swing of the bat.