Mike Zunino, First-Pitch Killer

An easy way to think about productivity is Efficiency x Frequency. If you’re really efficient at doing something, but you don’t do it very often, you won’t be very productive. Look at the career of Carlos Quentin. When he’s played, he’s always hit, but rarely is he healthy enough to play, so he hasn’t actually produced much. By the same measure, being frequently inefficient won’t get you very far, either. True production comes from maximizing your opportunities while remaining efficient.

A few weeks back, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Carlos Gomez and his unprecedented first-pitch swing rate. Gomez is swinging at the first pitch in over half of his plate appearances. That’s one of the highest rates in recent history. Not only that, but he’s doing some pretty serious damage on those pitches, to the tune of a 1.046 OPS.

Where there’s a leaderboard, there’s someone in second place. In this case, that guy’s first-pitch swing rate is still quite a bit lower than Gomez’s because, as we’ve covered, Gomez is in relatively uncharted territory. But still, there exists a guy who has the second-highest first-pitch swing rate in baseball. There has to. And that guy happens to be doing even more damage on those pitches than Gomez. That guy happens to be doing more damage on first pitches than just about anybody, really. That guy happens to be Mike Zunino.

Gomez leads the MLB, swinging at the first pitch 56% of the time. Zunino is second, at 45%. Like Gomez, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Zunino swings at a lot of first pitches, because Zunino swings at a lot of all pitches. Zunino has the fifth-highest swing rate in baseball, right up there with notorious free-swingers like Pablo Sandoval and Chris Johnson.

What’s more surprising is what Zunino is doing with these pitches. As previously mentioned, Gomez currently owns a 1.046 OPS when he puts a first pitch in play. He’s slugging .657 on those. Zunino’s OPS is 1.221, and he’s slugging .811. Those aren’t the highest marks in baseball, but they’re close. Chris Davis has a 1.281 OPS on the first pitch. Miguel Cabrera is at 1.278. Not bad company, considering those are two of the premier hitters in baseball and Zunino is a 23-year-old catcher with a career 85 wRC+. Difference is, Zunino is swinging at quite a few more first pitches than either of those two, therefore maximizing his opportunities for production, as we talked about before.

Mike Zunino is swinging at the first pitch more than anyone in baseball not named Carlos Gomez, and he’s hitting them like Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. That’s weird. It gets even weirder when you look into how he’s doing it.

Here’s a plot of all the first pitches Mike Zunino has seen this season:

chart

Nothing too extraordinary about that. A little skewed towards down-and-away, but then again, down-and-away is the best location to pitch. Across all counts, about 48% of the pitches Mike Zunino sees are inside the strike zone, which is right about league average. On the first pitch, that bumps up to 53%, which makes sense given pitchers are usually trying to throw first-pitch strikes. In other words, there isn’t much unusual about the way Zunino is pitched, on the first pitch or in any other count.

As one of the more aggressive hitters in baseball, it’s no surprise that Zunino chases a lot of pitches. He owns the fifth-highest rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, and it’s no different on the first pitch. He also swings at a lot of pitches within the zone. 71% to be exact. That’s in the top-15. Here’s the weird part: On the first pitch, despite not being pitched any differently, Zunino is only swinging at 49% of pitches within the zone. That’s crazy low. To put that into context, Matt Carpenter has the lowest Z-Swing% in the majors right now, at 48%.

zunino

Zunino has amassed 272 plate appearances this year. In 127 of them, he was started off with a pitch outside of the strike zone, swinging at 55 of them. In his other 145 plate appearances, he was started off with a pitch inside the strike zone, and he swung at just 71 of those.

Given this information, it might be easy to deduce that Zunino is not a strong first-pitch hitter. His chase rate, already one of the highest in the league, stays the same. His rate of swinging at strikes plummets to the point that he’s swinging at almost as many pitches out of the zone as he is within the zone. Yet he’s still finding success on the first pitch like few other players in baseball.

To visualize this approach, you’re seeing Zunino take pitches like these:

zunztake

While swinging at pitches like these:

zunoswing1

zunoswing2

And hitting triples on pitches like these:

zuntriple

I’m not really sure what to make of all this. There’s being a “bad-ball hitter,” and there’s this. Given the results, Mike Zunino appears to be maximizing his opportunities for production by swinging at a lot of first pitches and doing a lot of damage. Given the process, Mike Zunino appears to be doing himself no favors, swinging at first pitches outside of the zone like Pablo Sandoval and inside the zone like Matt Carpenter. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach. Then again, it’s hard to argue with results. And to be fair, Zunino is doing a lot of his damage on the few pitches within the zone at which he does swing. So that’s good. It’s just that you’d think he’d be swinging at more, given who he is and the success he’s having.

Mike Zunino has gotten to where he is in life by being an aggressive hitter — and he’s doing that still, just in a really weird way. In that sense, Mike Zunino is an anomaly. Then again, what is baseball if not just a series of constant anomalies.




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August is an associate reporter for MLB.com, covering the Cleveland Indians. He previously covered the Indians, Browns and Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal and ohio.com. He tweets often about the Indians, assorted nerdy baseball things and also other stuff, too. He'd like it if you followed him on Twitter @AugustF_MLB, but you don't have to.


4 Responses to “Mike Zunino, First-Pitch Killer”

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  1. Ben says:

    Interesting article. One possible explanation is that Zunino is sitting on a particular pitch 0-0 and flailing away if he guesses right, almost regardless of pitch location. Another perhaps more likely explanation is random fluctuations without any underlying skillset due the Zunino’s small sample size of first pitch balls in play (~40 PA).

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  2. Ricky says:

    Totally agree. He’s guessing on the first pitch and when he guesses right, he does damage. His problem is swing and miss, when he connects he has serious power and ability to backspin the ball.

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  3. bookbook says:

    Zunino is too savvy not to figure this out. I’ve believed for awhile now that he’s going to put it all together just in time to have a 140 OPS+ walk year (which ought to but probably won’t make him the MVP with the defense he provides) and make a king’s ransom in free agency.

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  4. maqman says:

    With that OPS I don’t care if he bats blindfolded for the first pitch. Given pitchers predispositions to go for first pitch strikes it’s a good time to sit on something but given his low strike swing rate he would seem to not be doing it enough, he should probably swing more often at first pitches.

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