By Chris Cwik
The Seattle Mariners can't hit. By nearly every measure, both traditional and advanced, the M's rate as one of the worst offensive teams in the game. The club has scored just 401 runs this season, good for second to last in the American League. On top of that, the team's .296 wOBA and 88 wRC+, two advanced stats that measure a team's offense, rank 28th and 25th in MLB respectively.
Despite those issues, the club is in the playoff hunt, thanks to the team's pitching staff. The Mariners rank first with a 3.07 ERA, and ninth with a 3.65 FIP. While the pitching staff deserves a lot of credit for keeping the club in contention, Seattle is also carrying a secret weapon: Mike Zunino, who has emerged as the M's unsung hero due to his abilities behind the plate.
Though Zunino has been in the league for less than a full season, he's already regarded as one of the best pitch framers. For him, the realization that he could play a role in whether a pitch was called a ball or a strike came early.
"It was intriguing to me to learn at a younger age to catch the ball well and make it look presentable," Zunino explained.
Though he realized the benefits of framing pitches early, Zunino credits University of Florida coaches Kevin O'Sullivan and Brad Weitzel for working with him on his craft, and teaching him to "present every pitch to the umpire" and "make it look good for him."
Similar instruction continued after the Mariners selected Zunino with the third pick in the 2012 draft. Within the organization, Zunino credits Trent Jewett, Mike Rojas, John Stearns and Scott Steinman for helping him further develop his ability behind the plate. "Working with those guys, you get little bits and pieces from everybody and try to implement that into your receiving," he said.
The results have shown in the majors. During his rookie season, Zunino ranked eighth in the league with 79 extra strikes, according to Baseball Prospectus' framing metric. He's moved up slightly during his sophomore year, stealing 89 extra strikes thus far. Zunino, however, doesn't like to think of it as stealing strikes.
"I don't think it's framing to steal every single pitch," the 23-year-old explained. "It's just to give the umpire a good, consistent look at how you're going to catch a ball throughout the game."
The key to doing that is "knowing your pitcher and what their certain pitches do," Zunino says. "Once you call a certain pitch, anticipating what that pitch is going to do and where it's going to be." This can vary based on the type of pitcher Zunino catches daily. For guys like Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who prefer to pitch with movement low in the zone, Zunino has to "work from the ground up." Things change when Chris Young, who is notorious for working high in the zone, takes the mound. "With a guy like Chris Young, you're going to try to cap off a lot of pitches," the Florida native said. "Try to catch the top of the baseball and make everything look lower than it is."
Zunino explained that a big key behind getting a call is staying quiet behind the plate. Once he sets up for a pitch, his body stays incredibly still. The only thing that moves during the receiving process is his glove, which was highlighted by Baseball Prospectus in May.
The actual receiving of the ball plays a major role in whether he can get a pitch called a strike. "To me, it's just catching a ball clean and holding it up there," he explained. "Catching and staying under the baseball and holding it out for a brief second." In all the examples provided by Baseball Prospectus, Zunino is able to quickly pull the ball to the right location once he catches it. He does this instantaneously in some cases, and it's tough to tell how much he actually moves his mitt after catching the ball.
Putting a proper value on pitch framing is where things become difficult. There's no denying a catcher who can steal extra strikes is a good thing, but how much of an impact can it have on a player's value? There are some who believe it's worth multiple wins each season. In March, Baseball Prospectus took on the issue of pitch framing value, and concluded that in 2013 Jonathan Lucroy was worth about 2.2 WARP without his framing, and 5.8 WARP if you include his fantastic ability behind the plate. That's the difference between being Ian Desmond or Giancarlo Stanton in 2014.
That's a big jump in value, which explains why there's some skepticism over the true value of pitch framing. The focus on pitch framing is relatively new, and it hasn't been explored enough just yet. While it might play a significant role in the value of certain catchers, at what point does it make sense to devote a ton of money to an elite defensive catcher when those players have been available for peanuts in past seasons? Guys like Paul Bako and Henry Blanco, both of whom were considered strong defensive catchers, could be cheaply signed during the offseason to fill backup roles. It's unclear whether the new focus on pitch framing will lead to better compensation for those types of catchers, or if teams will continue to be able to find all-glove, no-bat options behind the plate on the cheap.
The difference between those types of players and Zunino is that there's a lot of potential in his bat, which he admits is a "work in progress" at this point; through 317 plate appearances, Zunino is batting .202/.252/.404. While those are less than optimal numbers, the Florida native has at least provided some hope for future success with his power. His 14 homers is third best among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this year.
Considering his age, and how quickly he was promoted, struggles should have been expected. The 23-year-old played in just 96 minor-league games before he was promoted to the majors. It would be unreasonable to expect Zunino to be a finished product at this point in his career.
On top of that, catchers can take a couple of years to fully develop. Some of the best backstops in the game right now needed some time before they were finished products. Neither Jonathan Lucroy or Yadier Molina hit well in their first few seasons in the majors. It wasn't until Lucroy's third year that he posted a wRC+ over 100, and it took Molina six seasons before he did the same. Devin Mesoraco, who was considered a prospect for quite some time, didn't fully break out until his age-26 season.
That's not to say Zunino will turn into the next Lucroy or Molina. It's more of a reminder that it takes young catchers time to develop, and that Zunino is still incredibly raw. Though his numbers at the plate don't look strong now, he'll have many years to perfect his hitting approach.
Part of the reason the team can afford to be patient with Zunino is his defensive skills. Zunino is young, relatively cheap and has immense upside. While he'll eventually need to show growth at the plate, he's already providing value behind it. There's plenty of incentive for the team to just leave him behind the plate until they believe he's a finished product.
If the Mariners do make a second half push for the playoffs, the focus will surely be on the team's strong pitching staff. Though he'll likely be lost in the shuffle, Zunino's contributions shouldn't be overlooked. Despite his inexperience, the 23-year-old has already emerged as one of the best pitch framers in the league. Given his ability to change the game in any at-bat, Zunino is already playing a bigger role in the M's success than anyone realizes.
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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.