It was early August and Padre prospect Brad Zunica was in the midst of his best season as a professional.
The big first baseman had already slugged 18 homers on the year and was a solid presence in the middle of the TinCaps’ lineup. In his third at bat of an August 8th game against the Great Lakes Loons, he was hit on the foot by a 96 mph fastball. Immediate reaction from the team and Brad was not positive. “They thought it was fractured at first. 96 on the foot doesn’t feel too good. It turned out to be a real bad bone bruise.” Thankfully for the first baseman, the foot was not broken, but he did miss nearly one month.
Going down with the foot injury was a battle for Zunica. He was really feeling confident as a hitter and he described that month as a rough time. Watching your teammates compete on a daily basis while you are disabled can be tough on any young player. The mostly stoic Zunica conveyed how frustrated he was with the injury. “It sucked at the time and it was not the best timing for me.”
Zunica returned on September 3rd with a 3-4 game against the West Michigan Whitecaps. His addition prior to the TinCaps playoff run was nice for the young squad. For a team that lost Fernando Tatis Jr. to promotion, having Zunica back on the field was a big deal in the clubhouse. Once he returned, he felt good physically, but had to overcome other issues. “There was a little bit of a mental block there that I had to get over.” As a professional hitter you do not want to have happy feet in the box. Zunica needed to stay within his lane in the batters box without having that fear of being plunked again. He also needed to know that his foot was better and he could swing pain-free without adjusting his prized swing.
We spoke about the TinCaps’ playoff run and what that was like. “It was awesome. It was my first taste of playoff baseball. It was a real cool experience and we celebrated a couple of times. We fell short, but it gives everyone a little extra motivation during the winter to get better.” Brad is 22. He just turned 22 and I always like to give him a hard time, calling him a father figure in Fort Wayne. He has been there for two years and his personality can be calming to a TinCap player that is in their teens. The young man is more like a big brother than a father figure.
I asked Brad about his thoughts on being the elder statesman in the locker room. We laughed about the question, as he sighed and said “I’m old”. He knew what I was getting at because it’s true- the younger players do look up to him. “We had a good group. The younger guys did bounce questions off some of us older guys. Hopefully we had the answers for them with the experience that we have had. I try to go out of my way to help people as much as possible. If they ever needed anything, I tried to be there. My Spanish isn’t the best, but there are ways around that.” It took a little coaxing to get this from Brad, but he is a great influence on these young men both on and off the field.
The topic of conversation turned towards Michel Baez and Adrian Morejon as we spoke about the Latin influence in the game. Both young men came to Fort Wayne in the second half of the season and helped stabilize the rotation. “Those two were huge for us in the second half. They are pretty dominant, whether they are on or not. Their stuff plays at the highest levels. They are both quiet and laid back. Both go about their business and are there when they are called upon. No moment is too big for either one of them.”
“Baseball brings people together in different ways. It’s a universal game, so the language barrier gets pushed aside in the locker room and on the field. “
We talked a little bit about the Futures Game and his impression of the whole experience. Brad was at the exhibition in 2016, but was injured at the time and could not participate in game action. He had a more positive experience this year while starting at first in the big game on Saturday night. “It was awesome and an honor to be included in that game. It was fun. Just getting a taste of what it would be like to play at that level.” Brad played well, going 1-2 on the night.
The roster the Padres accumulated for the Padres On Deck games were very impressive. With nearly 90 prospects in attendance, there was a lot to take in for each player. We talked about his impression of the depth on the team and if anyone in particular really stood out to him. “There was definitely a lot of new faces running around that complex. We have a great group of guys. There is a lot of talent in the system, that is for sure. I hadn’t seen much of Tirso Ornleas and had always heard that he could really hit. Seeing him hit in person was impressive. He can really hit a baseball. He has a great approach for being as young as he is. He is a pretty good guy too.” I enjoy hearing this information from the ball players themselves. Ornelas is definitely someone to keep an eye on. He is already gaining the respect of older ball players within the organization.
“That was huge for a lot of guys to get that experience (Futures Game). Going forward, there is a lot of talent in the system so it will be fun… and interesting.”
In talking mechanics and such with Brad, we spoke about a change of approach he implemented this past season. He concentrated a lot more on getting his pitches to hit. At 6′ 6″, he has a big strike zone. There is no way to hide that. But if he focuses on giving himself a better chance each and every at bat, the results will happen. They did in 2017, where Brad recorded an impressive 142 wRC+ and a .864 OPS. Both those numbers outrank most of the highest tiered prospects in the Padres’ organization. Zunica is presently flying under the radar and is poised for a huge 2018 season in the hitter-friendly California League.
The mental side of the game is daunting. Most average fans have no idea how difficult it is to stay focused each and every day. It is a grind and we spoke about that. “The mental side is a big part. It is tough. That is one area where I feel I grew a lot this year. I realized that everyone is going to have their slumps and it will all even out in the end. That was a key to my success this year. That and my pitch selection. I focused on being a tougher out this year. I wasn’t really worried about getting to two strikes. I gained confidence in myself as a hitter.” He learned not to be overly aggressive and has focused on getting his foot down earlier in his stride. By starting his stride earlier, he has given himself more time to pick up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. Zunica has cut down his leg kick in an effort to stay balanced as well. The game of baseball is about adjustments and the young slugger is well aware of that. He has made the proper tweaks to his swing to gain results. The numbers do not lie.
In delving into his numbers deeper, I realized that his fly ball rate went up from 34.2 % in 2016 to 54 % in 2018. In this day and age of launch angle and advanced stats, I was curious if he made conscious adjustments to get the ball in the air more. “I didn’t think about it. It is more of a by-product of being on time now (with his swing) and me being able to take a full 100 percent swing on my pitch.” He has truly committed to being better with his approach, and you have to commend him for that. Yes, Zunica has light-tower power, but his swing is capable of so much more.
I have always really enjoyed his left-handed swing. He utilizes the whole field well and can easily drive the ball out to left. Not only that, but Zunica has the ability to hit left-handed pitching well. That is something that he has always done fairly well. In 2017, he was 24-80 (.300) batting against southpaws. Amazing. Most power-hitting, left-handed hitters are toast against left-handed pitchers. He has told me numerous times that he just stays back against them and doesn’t try to do too much. But the oddity of his ability to rake against them still intrigues me. We spoke a little more about the topic, and this is what he told me; “When I face a lefty, I just slow everything down. I’m almost trying to make contact against them instead of trying to drive the ball. It’s how I approach them and I’m not going to change it.” If he can continue to display this ability, the Padres will find it very useful.
Brad Zunica just turned 22. The game of baseball is slowing down for him presently. With a productive year in Lake Elsinore in 2018, he could be knocking on the door of major league service time sooner rather than later. His growth in the game of baseball is impressive, as is his approach to it. He still has some developing to do in the game and there is no given on his future, but you can be sure that Brad Zunica will put in the proper effort to get the best out of his abilities. If Brad Zunica was stock, the time to buy is now, before the price goes sky high.