Meet the slugger redefining the Mendoza Line

Zunino could notch most productive sub-.200 hitting season ever

August 14th, 2021

Baseball fans have used the “Mendoza Line” as shortand for offensive futility for over four decades now, but there’s one slugger single-handedly trying to change the perception of a .200 batting average.

Rays catcher Mike Zunino is batting .209, with this week (featuring three straight games with a homer, including Friday) representing the first time since July 4 that his average snuck above the Mendoza Line. He is also, per FanGraphs, the second-most valuable contributor (by WAR) to a club that has surged back into first place in the American League East, one year after he hit .147 but helped power the Rays to the World Series. Zunino appeared in his first All-Star Game last month (and launched an impressive opposite-field homer, as you might recall).

Zunino is out to prove that a sub-.200 hitter can hack it in today’s game, and so far he’s doing a convincing job. In fact, Zunino could soon lay claim to the Modern Era’s second-most valuable sub-Mendoza season by any AL/NL player, trailing only … himself. Back in 2014, Zunino hit .199 but finished as a fairly robust 4-win player, per FanGraphs. Zunino has already accrued 3 fWAR in ‘21, slotting this season in second on the all-time list if his average lands below .200. Zunino, the Rays and the club’s fans will all be rooting for him to get a hit every time up from here until October. But for the rest of us, his season becomes way more interesting if he falls a little under his current pace.

How does Zunino counterbalance his overall value against all those empty trips to the plate? In 2014, it was overwhelmingly through his defense. Per FanGraphs, Zunino was worth -8 runs against average on offense (.199/.254/.404, with 22 home runs but a still below-average 87 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and 33.2% strikeout rate), but he put up 28 runs above average on defense. The then-Mariner was MLB’s third-best defensive backstop overall and the game’s fifth-best pitch framer, per FanGraphs’ measurements. Seattle finished only a game back of the second AL Wild Card spot with Zunino as its primary catcher.

Zunino entered Saturday ranked, once again, among MLB’s top 10 defensive catchers this year, saving roughly 10 runs above average. Per Statcast’s version of catcher framing (online as of 2015), Zunino is top 10 there, too. But check out Zunino’s offensive value, per FanGraphs: 10 runs above average. This, despite a sky-high 38% strikeout rate (among MLB’s five highest), a roughly .300 on-base percentage and, yes, that .209 batting average. In fact, Zunino entered Saturday with an adjusted OPS+ of 138, meaning that, .209 average and all, he’s a 38% better hitter than the average big leaguer. Zunino could, far and away, go down as the best sub-.200 hitter in big league history.

The lowest batting average posted by any hitter that finished with a 125 OPS+ or higher (min. 300 plate appearances) was .210 by Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew in 1968. Joey Gallo entered Saturday sporting a .211 average and 128 OPS+, making him a name to watch in this bizarre chase for history, too.

How can someone struggling to hit .200 be such an above-average offensive player? For starters, a high-strikeout slugger like Zunino sticks out less now. The league-wide strikeout rate has increased three points since 2014, meaning Zunino’s ‘21 K rate was a little closer to league average (a 163 adjusted K%+) entering Saturday than it was in ‘14 (168 K%+) when he punched out at a lower rate (33.2%).

And while Zunino makes as little contact as anyone in baseball, almost no one maximizes the contact they do make more than him. Entering Saturday, Zunino was slugging a scorching .963 on balls he put in play (including homers), which ranked only behind Shohei Ohtani (1.004), the AL MVP Award frontrunner. Per Statcast’s contact leaderboard, Zunino is tied with Ohtani for the highest average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives (100.8 mph). No one has barreled a higher rate of their balls in play.

Highest barrel-per-batted ball rate, 2021
Min. 100 batted balls
1) Mike Zunino (TB): 26.3%
2) Shohei Ohtani (LAA): 24.9%
3) Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD): 22.1%
4) Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL): 20.3%
5) Kyle Schwarber (BOS): 18.9%
Barrels: Balls hit with most optimal exit velo+launch angle combos, typically for XBH’s

How’s that for leaderboard company? Zunino whiffs about 40% of the times the bat leaves his shoulder. But when bat meets ball, it tends to go very, very far. His 24 homers account for more than 40% of his total hits (50), putting him on pace to be just the fourth player with that kind of distribution.

AL/NL players with40% of single-year hits as HRs, since 1901
Min. 50 total hits
Mark McGwire -- 5 times (1995, 1998-2001)
Barry Bonds -- 1 time (2001)
Joey Gallo -- 1 time (2017)

Mike Zunino (2021) -- 24 HR / 50 H (48%)

Two things are true about Zunino: He’ll never hit for average (his career-best is .251 in 2017, and he’s never come within 35 points of that since) and yet he remains a top-flight catcher. He’s a starting backstop for a World Series contender, he’s an All-Star and, also, he’s not suddenly going to start stringing singles together. 

If you’re going to “fail” as a hitter (as the Mendoza Line playfully hints at) fail spectacularly. And if Zunino does ultimately hit under .200, why not shoot for the greatest sub-.200 season ever? It's a bizarre "chase" to keep track of from now until October.