In taking on this adventure of covering the Padres from top to bottom, I have had the pleasure of speaking to several key players and personnel.
Among them is Brad Zunica, who I have kept in contact with some regularity since we first spoke in January of 2016.
Brad is a left-handed hitting first baseman from Florida, who at the age of 21, is just starting to really find his power stroke in Fort Wayne. In his last 10 games, he is 13-35 (.371) with five homers and 11 RBI. The hot month of June brought his overall numbers to .262/.382/.552 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI in 183 at bats. He has also totaled a .934 OPS while playing a solid first base, defensively.
Brad is an intense competitor. He takes his job very seriously and upon first talking to him, I congratulated him on his recent tear. I asked him how it fells to be swinging the bat all right and his response was, “It feels good. Feels a lot better than not swingin’ it well.” I laughed as I expected nothing more from him. Our conversation turned away from the subject as it was clear he was not going to indulge me with specifics.
I asked Brad about his power numbers and the fact he has put up the same number (14) of home runs he did last year, in about half the amount of time. It is obvious he is starting to come into his own, but I was curious what he thought about his production so far this season. I asked specifically if he made any mechanical adjustments from last year. “More so I adjusted my approach at the plate. Last year I got off track fairly easily. This year I have been more consistent in getting my pitch and putting my swing on it.” Zunica has unbelievable raw power and his home runs are majestically long and far. He is not a pull-happy batter by any stretch of the imagination and has a great ability to inside out a ball to left field that carries over the fence.
He attributes his hitting coach, Doug Banks, for much of his success, as he has been working with Zunica daily on his swing and approach at the plate. Louie Ortiz, the hitting coordinator, has also influenced Brad this season. The Padres have surrounded these youngsters with multiple outlets to gain knowledge. Different coaches bond with different players. With that, it takes a group effort to really get results from these young men.
Brad is currently 17-52 (.352) with four homers off of left-handed pitchers. That certainly amazed me, as traditionally big, left-handed hitters struggle with southpaws. We spoke about it and I asked him if his approach was different when a left-handed pitcher is facing him. “Normally I hit well off of lefties as it is. When I face a left-handed pitchers, I just think of staying the other way. That allows me to stay on the ball longer and see the slider or whatever they are throwing me.” Interesting that he has the mindset of going the other way often when facing left-handed pitchers. He has the power to pull if they come inside, but the fact he allows the ball to travel a bit surely gives the big man an advantage.
We then began to speak about Eric Lauer. Zunica faced him in the spring and was pretty amazed by his stuff. Being that Brad likes to hit left-handed pitchers, this intrigued me. I asked him what was it about Lauer that made him so difficult to hit. He responded, “I don’t know what it is. I could not pick the ball up off of him. It came out and it was on me. I literally could not pull the trigger.” Very cool stuff coming from Brad on facing the young lefty pitcher. Just another reason why you understand how special Lauer is. His progression through the system should be pretty fast.
The topic of the conversation turned towards strikeouts. He has amassed 78 in 183 at bats this season, and that has to improve if he wants to jump to the next level. I asked Brad about the K’s and if it bothers him at all. “For me, the strikeouts are going to happen. The K numbers are going to be there. I can’t just eliminate them completely. As long as my power numbers are up and I’m walking and driving guys in, then that is what I need to do to be successful. Then it’s not a big deal.” He is right, although I am sure the club would like him to be a little more aggressive early in counts in an attempt to cut the strikeout numbers and increase his batting average.
With two strikes, Zunica will choke up on the bat and give himself a better chance. He has the correct mindset to be very successful, he has just struggled to find that consistency. Being able to repeat your mechanics with your swing is a difficult thing. Especially if you are 6′ 6″ and 250 lbs.
In speaking to Brad, we discussed the locker room and the influence of young talent within the organization.
Players like Fernando Tatis Jr, Hudson Potts, Reinaldo Ilarraza, Reggie Lawson, and Mason Thompson provide teenage talent to the squad, and their enthusiasm is certainly a part of the TinCaps’ clubhouse. Brad spoke to me about these young players and also talked candidly about the feelings he has about the clubhouse. “Its a great time and we have a great group of guys. We are young obviously, but we all get along. There is always music playing and everyone is having a good time. It gets a little out of hand sometimes, we are a little bit of a party team. It’s fun though.” I get a sense he enjoys the interactions with these young players, but at the same time he is definitely focused on the task at hand. Getting his work in and being prepared is always number one for Zunica.
We spoke specifically about a couple of the younger teammates he has on the TinCaps. I wanted to know his thoughts about Fernando Tatis, Jorge Ona, and Hudson Potts. Each are brand new to the system, and I was curious about his impression of each young ballplayer. Zunica described Tatis as “one of the hardest workers on the team.” He also assures me that he is the real deal. “He is a great kid (Tatis). He is always happy and picking everybody up. He doesn’t take failing in this game personal. When he has a bad game, he is always looking to help someone else out.” Excellent praise about the young infielder, coming from an elder player who obviously respects the way he plays the game.
The conversation turned towards young third baseman, Hudson Potts. Zunica admires this young man very much and he tells me that he’s “Another great kid. He is one that sticks out because he is always happy and energetic. You wouldn’t know if he went 0-4 with four K’s, or 4-4 with four homers. He is the same guy every day.” Extremely valuable insight here from Zunica as he gives you a little bit about Potts as a man. This is the type of stuff you do not see on an analytical stat page, and why the old school method will always have some merit in the game of baseball.
The last player we spoke about specifically was Jorge Ona. The Cuban outfielder is not a teenager, but this is his first year in pro ball. He has international experience, but the rigors of a minor league season have to be difficult for this young man. “He is another great guy. The language barrier is a little tough sometimes, but he always goes out of his way to communicate with us that don’t speak Spanish. He sticks to his approach and seems to really know what he is doing in the box.” The team at Fort Wayne has some excellent young prospects who should be able to develop in time. It is exciting to hear a little bit about them.
In closing, we spoke about some goals that Brad has for the next 12 months or so. “I want to give 100 percent everyday and get better each and every day. I want to have a role or impact on these younger guys. Someone that they can look up to or come to if they need anything.” He has embraced his role as clubhouse leader and you can be sure he is helping the TinCaps’ coaching staff with development of these young men both in the game of baseball and out of it. Brad Zunica has a great head on his shoulders and his production in the game of baseball is progressing. Keep a watchful eye on this young man.