How Close Is Seattle Mariners' Mike Zunino to Reaching His Ceiling?

Nathaniel Reeves@@njr3701Correspondent IJune 6, 2014

We've seen Mike Zunino's strengths and weaknesses over nearly 100 major league games, but how much better can he get?
We've seen Mike Zunino's strengths and weaknesses over nearly 100 major league games, but how much better can he get?Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

When the Seattle Mariners selected Mike Zunino with the third overall pick of the 2012 MLB draft, they hoped he could reach the major leagues and contribute quickly.

Nobody could have predicted just how fast Zunino would rise. Zunino ripped through all levels of the minors and reached Seattle on June 12, 2013, just over a year after being drafted.

Zunino has already helped stabilize a Mariners catching situation that has been an absolute nightmare for the better part of a decade. As Zunino is just 23 years old, he clearly is not done developing yet and is only going to get better with more experience.

While Zunino’s ceiling might not be as high as we once thought, he is still poised to be a very valuable piece moving forward and might not be all that far off from becoming one of the better catchers in the league. If the Mariners want to continue contending this year and in the near future, they need Zunino to be a consistent force at the plate and in the field.

With nearly 100 games in the major leagues, Zunino has shown flashes of the skills that made him such a highly touted prospect as well as weaknesses that he needs to work on. Zunino had modest success after being called up last year and has posted a .228/.285/.420 line in 2014 so far, good for a wRC+ of 93.

Just two years removed from being drafted, Zunino has already displayed strong skills at the plate and in the field to help the Mariners.
Just two years removed from being drafted, Zunino has already displayed strong skills at the plate and in the field to help the Mariners.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
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That average and OBP is low, but Zunino’s power has always been his most appealing skill at the plate. He posted an ISO of .264 in the minors, including 11 home runs in 52 games at the Triple-A level.

Zunino’s raw strength is impressive enough to suggest that somewhere around 25-30 home runs per season over the next few years is quite possible. His power numbers are up across the board from a year ago with seven home runs this season, including the longest shot of his career April 14 against the Texas Rangers.

Even some of Zunino’s foul balls this season have been an impressive display of strength.

Zunino also already brings great value in other aspects of the game. He has blossomed into a brilliant defensive catcher, easily the best the Mariners have had since Dan Wilson 10 years ago.

Compared to what Seattle had with Miguel Olivo and Jesus Montero, Zunino looks like the best defensive catcher on the planet. Actual numbers show that he isn’t that far off, as FanGraphs ranks Zunino third in defensive value among catchers, behind Alex Avila and Yadier Molina.

By all accounts, Zunino is also an excellent pitch-framer, a skill that is being viewed as more and more important over time. Data on pitch-framing isn’t complete at this point, but Statscorner.com has Zunino comfortably in the top five among regular catchers in terms of getting pitches outside the zone called for strikes.

All that has helped Zunino accumulate 0.9 WAR (which doesn’t take into account his strong pitch-framing), tying him for 15th among catchers. That may not seem all that impressive, but considering Zunino was not even a professional player at this time two years ago and where the Mariners are coming from, it’s made a huge difference for the team.

One thing has been holding back Zunino from gaining leaguewide recognition as a young star: plate discipline. It was apparent Zunino would struggle with plate discipline after he posted a 28.8 percent strikeout rate at Triple-A before being called up.

As you would expect from someone who flew through the minors so quickly, Zunino has struggled with breaking pitches. Zunino talked with Greg Johns of MLB.com about having time in the offseason to work on mechanical adjustments after going through a whirlwind few months rising to the major leagues.

I just want to simplify everything. I want to stand up tall. I want to see the ball a little better. I wasn't striding as much, just so I could get my foot down early and try to recognize pitches. Last year, when you're going up there and trying to tinker with stuff in the middle of the season, you don't necessarily have the time to fix everything.

So far, the results haven’t been there. Zunino is striking out in 29.6 percent of his plate appearances and swinging at over 41 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone.

Zunino will likely always be running a relatively high strikeout rate. For that reason, he is going to be limited in what he can provide in average and OBP, but his numbers should improve at least slightly as he gets more time under his belt.

Zunino has struggled at all levels with breaking pitches and will need to improve on his plate discipline to realize his full potential.
Zunino has struggled at all levels with breaking pitches and will need to improve on his plate discipline to realize his full potential.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Before a hamate bone injury derailed the last two months of his 2013 season, Zunino posted a .242 average and .315 OBP. He should be able to reach those numbers again soon and get even a little better when he enters his third or fourth season in the league.

If Zunino can get his average to the .250-.260 range with an OBP around .330 in his best years, he will bring fantastic value to the Mariners. The Oliver five-year projections have Zunino posting around 25 home runs per season and between 3.0-3.4 WAR a year from 2015 to 2018.

Those are already great numbers for a catcher and seem quite attainable for Zunino, but they cap his average out at .234 and OBP at .307. If he can bump those up just slightly while maintaining an ISO around .200, Zunino will develop into an All-Star-caliber player.

By 2015, Zunino should be among the seven or eight best catchers in the majors. If he continues developing in the following years, Zunino has a high enough ceiling to be a force in the middle of the Mariners lineup, despite somewhat tempered expectations due to his strikeout problems.

The Mariners saw Zunino develop quickly and are reaping the rewards in 2014. But he isn’t done developing yet and should be a special player for years to come.