There is an unintentional theme going on with our “Getting to Know You” pieces, and that is the 2014 MLB draft.
You cannot truly judge a MLB draft in rounds 1-10 until at least 3 years down the road. That especially holds true for the Cubs 2014 draft as they went overslot on 3 pitchers, 2 of which we have already highlighted in Justin Steele and Dylan Cease.
That said, I’d say it’s safe for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to begin giving bro-hugs and high-fives for some of the underslot talent scouting that took place and how the draft picks have performed thus far at the minor league level. I already touched on the seemingly steal of 14th round pick and my personal favorite Chesny young here, now it’s time to touch on a 3rd round underslot who also is in my top 2-3 favorite underrated Cubs prospects in Mark Zagunis.
Mark Zagunis grew up in New Jersey where he attended Holy Cross High School. As a high schooler, he played catcher on the baseball team and was the schools starting quarterback.
He was not selected at all out of high school in the MLB draft and went on to enroll at Virginia Tech to play baseball. MLB teams who didn’t take a late round flyer on Zagunis out of high school would soon realize that error as Zagunis(Zags) would be named to the All-ACC second team as a Freshman and be awarded a spot as a Freshman All American.
With the cat out-of-the bag, Zagunis would put together another couple strong seasons with the Hokies, concluding with his junior season in which he would hit .330 and be named to the Al-ACC second team once more along with a runner-up finish for the Johnny Bench Award given to the nations top catcher.
The Cubs would draft him in the 3rd round after selecting Kyle Schwarber in the first round 4th overall and Jake Stinnett 2nd round. Zagunis would sign for about $100,000.00 under slot value to provide more flexibility for the Cubs to sign their overslots coming up in rounds 4-6 who would become Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease.
Make no mistake, however, Zagunis was not a throw away pick to save money. When the pick took place I remember talking to a friend of mine and saying that he could be a “poor man’s Craig Biggio”. Now, I know that is ridiculously unfair high praise, however what he has shown early on may support that comparison.(College Catcher who has a really nice feel for positions up the middle of the field)
Since arriving in the Cubs minor league system, Zagunis has played a little catcher but the Cubs have moved him around quite a bit. The Cubs have given Zagunis time at all three outfield spots including 2 games at CF in the highly-competitive AZL this past fall. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they give him some looks in the infield as well as he progresses. Chesny Young and Ian Happ both have a lock at 2nd base in the system right now, however if it is deemed that Happ will be better suited in a corner OF spot then Zagunis may get a look at 2nd base. So far this season he has been solely patrolling LF for the AA-Affiliate TN Smokies.
As I indicated in my piece on Chesny Young, what I look for most early on for college hitters at the lower-levels is their variance between their batting average and their on-base percentage. To me, this will always be the stat that indicates a likelihood of success as hitters move up the system. An advanced hitter can rake in the lower-levels but as he continues to progress against stiffer competition the ability to consistently get on base through whatever means(walks, hits, etc) becomes all the more important.
That is what Zagunis does. He is an On-base machine. That is not an overstatement. Since seeing his first extended time in the Cubs minor league system in 2014 at low-A Boise, Zagunis has posted a career OBP of .420.
Last year I had the pleasure of seeing him a couple of times down in Myrtle Beach with the Pelicans. What stood out most to me was his balance at the plate. That balance allows him to adjust once he recognizes the pitch and either lay off of something out-of-the zone or use his nice, level swing and drive it somewhere to get on base. Below are some pictures that better depict what I am talking about.
As the pitch is about to enter the zone, Zagunis begins his swing and you can see that he has firmly placed his front foot square on the ground almost at the same spot where his foot was at the beginning of his stance, prior to the pitch being delivered.
Finally, the pitch was a ball. Because Zagunis maintained a balanced approach from start to finish, he was able to begin his swing and adjust accordingly when recognizing the movement and location of the pitch. This is an underrated quality of quite a few minor leaguers in the Cubs system.
In 512 plate appearances last season in Myrtle Beach, Zagunis his .271 but posted a .406 OBP. The variance I look for between a players batting average and OBP early on in the minors is between .60-.80 points. To me, that says that this player will be productive in some capacity so long as his bat supports even a .250-.270 average at the major league level.
Zagunis posted a difference of nearly .140 points. That screams a guy who can be at the top of the batting order on a playoff roster. Get him on and get him in. That’s the moniker, right? Well, Zagunis knows how to get on base.
He struck out just under 17% of the time in Myrtle beach, but posted a bases-on-balls percentage of 15.6%. Again, that kind of recognition and ability to “accept your walk” is one of the harder skillsets to teach. If you don’t believe me, just ask Byron Buxton. The kid has all the talent in the world and will no doubt put it together at some point. However, he never walked at a rate above 10% in the higher levels of the minor leagues and thus, in the Major Leagues he has become an easy out. He struggles with pitch recognition and an ability to lay off of pitches outside the zone.
There is no doubt he will get there, but this point just goes to show how difficult it is to teach pitch recognition and having a solid approach at the plate. A top 2 prospect in all of baseball over the last 3 seasons has had consistent issues at the higher levels of the minor leagues and in the bigs because he simply cannot accept his walk and struggles with pitch recognition.
After a solid 2015 performance the Cubs decided to push Zagunis against some stiffer competition in the Arizona Fall League.(A league frequented by soon-to-be major leaguers).
While he only hit .234, Zagunis posted an absolutely ridiculous 28.8% walk rate over the 16 games and 66 plate appearances. That was more-than-enough to lead a team that included Jeimer Candelario and Wilson Contreras in On-base percentage with a .455.
In fact, in a league that included the likes of top 100 hitting prospects Lewis Brinson(13 overall in top 100) of the Rangers system and Gary Sanchez(55 overall in top 100 of the Yankees system) along with top pitching prospects Alex Reyes of the Cardinals and Sean Manaea of the Athletics, Zagunis finished the fall second overall in OBP. That’s not an accident.
So far in 2016 Zagunis is doing more of the same. He struggled to start off the season(as did a lot of guys in TN-must be the water). Through his first 59 official at-bats Zagunis managed only 11 hits, good for a .186 average. However, this is why that constant, consistent approach is so key. He also WALKED 11 times, giving him a OBP of .372.
Now as the weather has begun to heat up, so has Zagunis. He has hit safely in 7 of his last 10 games and has raised his batting average up to .293. On the year his line is a very stellar .293/.408/.407 with a OPS of .815. He is still walking at a rate of 15% while striking out around 18% of the time. He will never really be a Home Run guy, but he does have 2 on the season after hitting 8 last year.
His power stats will really be an extension of his ability to find the gaps and get extra-base hits. After hitting 24 doubles last season he has already hit 8 thus far in AA pacing him to end up somewhere around 30 on the season.
At 23 years and 3 months, Zagunis is a little over 1 year below the average age of players at the AA level. Theo Epstein has discussed how he believes the most difficult jump for a minor league player is the jump from high-A to AA and right now the Cubs have quite a few players in AA who are performing against older competition.
5 years since his hire, Theo Epstein’s approach for scouting and drafting has continued to center around one key skillset for hitters; an ability to control the zone with your approach.
Mark Zagunis is yet another example of the Cubs playing chess while other front office’s are playing checkers.