A year ago, he was in the midst of a monster spring and preparing for what many hoped would be his breakout season at the big league level. Instead, Mike Zunino endured a soul-crushing season of failure.
PEORIA, Ariz. — On the backfields of the Mariners’ spring training complex, he operates with a high level of anonymity for a player who already wears a mask over his face half the game. His jersey doesn’t have his last name on the back. Instead of the No. 3 he wore in the big leagues, he’s wearing No. 2 now. There is no public address announcer to boom: “Now batting, the catcher, Mike Zunino” when he walks to the plate.
This is his world now. This is his immediate future.
A year ago, he was in the midst of a monster spring and preparing for what many hoped would be his breakout season at the big league level.
Instead, he endured through a soul-crushing season of failure — the worst of not just his professional career, but his baseball-playing life.
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“Just an awful season,” he said.
In a few weeks, he’ll head to Tacoma to open the season with the Rainiers as their starting catcher. It’s a place he was destined for before the baseballs were unpacked for spring training. New Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto signed Chris Iannetta and traded for Steve Clevenger in the offseason so Zunino could spend the year trying to find a swing and an approach that will lead to success at the big leagues.
And while Class AAA is far from the baseball boonies, that 35-plus miles from Cheney Stadium to Safeco Field can feel like a pretty far distance at times.
If there’s frustration, he isn’t showing it. If he feels wronged, he isn’t voicing it.
“I just wanted to get back to enjoying the game and being myself and how I play,” he said. “That’s been my focus.”
Baseball wasn’t fun for most of last season. The brilliant spring training performance never carried over into the regular season where established big league pitchers buzzed fastballs in on his hands and left him flailing on sliders away. In his first eight games, he registered just three hits in 26 at-bats and struck out 13 times. The struggles continued. For every hit, there were 10-11 frustrating at-bats ending in outs, usually strikeouts.
As a result, Zunino tried everything and anything coaches, players and scouts suggested. The son of a former minor leaguer and current Major League scout, Zunino always accepted instruction. It’s how he was raised. He believed in those that were trying to help him even if it worked to his own detriment.
“I felt like I was making changes from day two of the season,” he said.
Call them tweaks or minor changes, they didn’t feel that way to Zunino. Particularly when there were multiple aspects that were addressed.
From series to series, even game to game, Zunino might look different at the plate. His stance would be open, then closed, his feet would be spread wide, other times they were closer and he stood tall, his hand and bat placement were just as varied.
“There were a lot of voices that wanted me to tweak a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I let all those in.”
With all those changes, there was no consistency at the plate. Everything he was working on entered his mind as he was trying to decipher whether a 97-mph fastball was a hittable pitch or when to lay off a darting slider or diving splitfinger.
“It would be four o’clock in the cage before a game and I’m trying to figure something out during BP and then take that in to face the best pitchers in the world,” he said. “It’s a tough situation to be in. It’s never a comfortable feeling. I was trying to tweak so much. I was so worried about the mechanics that I was losing track of the ball and not trusting my eyes.”
Zunino lost all recollection of the hitter he was in college or in his brief minor league stint. It started even before last season. He became an amalgamation of suggestions, put together on someone else’s feelings and observations – all with good intentions.
“From spring training to the end of the year, there were so many changes made,” he said. “It was impossible to remember what was feeling good and what was feeling bad.”
The Mariners didn’t help his cause when the struggles continued. After making a smart trade to acquire catcher Welington Castillo to take some pressure off Zunino on May 19, general manager Jack Zduriencik panicked at this team’s offensive struggles and dealt Castillo to the Diamondbacks two weeks later in five-player deal that landed Mark Trumbo.
With no other viable help in the organization, Zunino remained the Mariners’ primary catcher, no matter how much his batting average sank or how many times he struck out.
“Obviously, in the middle of the year, to revamp a swing is pretty hard,” Zunino said. “If it wasn’t a good day at the plate that day, it was usually something else we were switching the next day.”
Zunino searched for solace in his defense and his primary responsibilities.
“As a catcher, you have 12 guys to worry about,” he said. “To get that frustrated and that low is tough because those guys are looking at you every half inning for some help. I tried to keep as even-keeled as I could.”
By August, Zunino was a mess. On the day Zduriencik was fired in Chicago, Zunino was optioned to Class AAA Tacoma. He would never return. His final numbers for 2015: In 112 games, he hit .174 (61 for 350) with 11 doubles, 11 homers, 28 RBI and 132 strikeouts.
Instead of bringing Zunino back in September, the Mariners sent him to Peoria to start over with his swing and approach.
“They wanted the best future in mind for me,” he said. “Obviously, I want to go up and compete. Those are the guys that I played with for the majority of the year. … They were looking at the long-term in my career. I can’t be upset for them caring about that.”
But it was a conversation with new manager Scott Servais that implemented the biggest change for Zunino.
“He said you need to be yourself,” Zunino said. “If something doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, just say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not liking it.’ Him saying that and giving me the confidence to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t who I am as a hitter.’ It works for me just to tell somebody no is sort of a big weight lifted off your shoulders. Then it really allows you to be yourself.”
So who is Zunino as a hitter?
“For me, from right center over to left, it’s easy,” he said. ” There’s not much max effort when I swing when I’m feeling good.”
Zunino’s changes to his stance and swing are based out of comfort and simplicity. He worked with Kyle Seager in the offseason.
“To me, it was getting back to athletic position and being balanced,” he said. “When you get back to that, then you can worry about the upper body. I’ve always been somewhat of a high-hand hitter, so I need to try to get my hands up near my shoulder. It’s just the ease and effort of my swing. When I could be balanced and get my body in good position, that lets everything work easy. I’m doing stuff that feels natural that I’ve done all my life instead of tweaking and doing stuff I’ve never done before.”
It hasn’t led to immediate success this spring. But the changes that the Mariners want Zunino to make aren’t overnight fixes. This is about building consistency. It’s why he’s in Tacoma where the nightly results won’t force him to make reactionary changes.
“To me, it’s back to where I’m going,” he said. “It’s a fresh start. I’ve obviously tried a lot of things that didn’t work. It’s one of those things where I can come in here and just try to be true to myself and do what got me here originally and just stick to that plan.”