It’s well-documented we’re living in the “three true outcomes” age of MLB. With home runs emerging as the new currency, baseball has largely outgrown its humble “small-ball” beginnings, abandoning contact in pursuit of raw power.
It’s made the game less watchable (though batting averages and contact rates have made a noticeable jump since MLB began its crackdown on illegal foreign substances), but in an analytics-driven sport fueled by technological advances, it could be hard to put that particular genie back in the bottle. Football and basketball have undergone similar transformations with the NBA embracing its new perimeter identity (gone are the days of Shaquille O’Neal’s low-post heroics), much the way the NFL has evolved into a passing league prone to high-scoring shootouts (a far cry from the ground-and-pound era of the 1970s, when “three yards and a cloud of dust” was as creative as offenses got).
Which is to say, Mike Zunino—the living embodiment of MLB’s prevailing feast-or-famine aesthetic—is tailor-made for the way baseball is played in 2021. A late-bloomer of sorts, the first-time All-Star has enjoyed a breakout year for the first-place Rays, blasting 26 homers (one better than his previous career-high of 25 set in 2017) with a slugging percentage (.567) comparable to Bryce Harper (.574).
But what might be most remarkable about the 30-year-old catcher is how committed he is to his all-or-nothing approach. Zunino, who extended his home-run streak to a club-record five games Tuesday in a win over Baltimore, owns a miserable .215 batting average (actually a few ticks higher than his lifetime mark of .202) for the year with an astronomical 37.3 strikeout percentage. Further illustrating Zunino’s infatuation with the long ball, the former Mariners first-round pick has contributed just 53 hits TOTAL this season, meaning nearly half his hits (49.1 percent) have gone for home runs. To recap, that’s 26 homers, nine doubles and a mere 18 singles for Zunino in 279 trips to the plate. Only a handful of players—Joey Gallo, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire among them—have ever finished a season with more home runs than singles, and Zunino is on track to do exactly that.
Zunino became an internet meme early in his career when the minds at Cespedes Family Barbecue repeatedly posed the question, “Is Mike Zunino good?” A few years ago, the answer probably would have been no, but in today’s home-run-obsessed climate, he’s just what the Rays need.