PEORIA, Ariz. – Admittedly, they’ve become a little cliché. Each spring training, there are countless stories of players arriving to camp in the best shape of their lives or hitters coming in with swing or batting stance changes that will hopefully fix what went wrong the season before.
There’s a reason for the preponderance of these stories — they do have some viability. These types of changes — physical or technical — can lead to real results in the season.
It’s why Mike Zunino decided to make some tweaks to his stance/swing this offseason. The young catching prospect wants to go from potential-filled prospect to productive hitter at the plate.
“To me, I just want to simplify everything,” Zunino said. “I want to stand up tall. I want to see the ball a little bit better. I wasn’t striding as much. And I want to get my foot down a little quicker to recognize pitches.”
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The changes are far from drastic. In fact, they might go unnoticed if a person wasn’t looking for them.
Now Zunino stands a little more upright with his feet about shoulder width apart and his front foot open. Last season, his feet were wider and the front foot was slightly open at times. There is a definite stride into the swing this season. Last season, it wasn’t consistently there.
So what are these changes supposed to do?
“It helps me stay behind the baseball,” he said. “You don’t want to get all the way on your front side. I was getting a little wide (stance) last year and drifting to my front side wouldn’t allow me to hit the ball to right field.”
Zunino decided on these changes during the offseason. He used the off time to analyze his abbreviated first season in the big leagues where he hit .214 (37 for 173) with five homers and 14 runs batted in in 52 games. He thought about how he felt, what pitchers were doing to get him out and what he could do to adjust. He looked at video and even went back to some old college tapes.
Pitchers were attacking him with breaking pitches and he’d stopped hitting the ball to right field as much as he’d done in the past.
“Last year was just a rushed batting approach for me,” he said. “I didn’t stay within myself and I tried to do too much.”
Really, last year everything was a rush for Zunino, getting called up June 12 with less than two full years (96 games) of minor-league experience. Any issues he experienced could have been expected because of the expedited process. Still, Zunino wouldn’t use it as an excuse. He knows he was a better hitter than what people saw from him.
“Obviously, you want to get up there and show you can hit early,” Zunino said. “But it’s one of those things where you get a little bit anxious and you aren’t trusting yourself to go to right field, you start attacking the ball instead of letting it come to you. I think that’s the biggest thing with hitting breaking balls.”
These changes should help him do that.
While Zunino made some changes on his own, hitting coach Howard Johnson and manager Lloyd McClendon — a former hitting coach — were tweaking some of those changes, trying to get him to keep his hands back during the “launch position” when his swing initiated.
“We are just trying to get him in a strong launch position where it’s consistent and explosive so he can drive the ball to all fields,” McClendon said. “He wasn’t getting to that strong launch position and at times he’d be susceptible to breaking balls. I think when he makes this adjustment, he should be well-rounded.”
Zunino is comfortable with Johnson after working with him in Class AAA Tacoma last season.
“It’s constant communication,” Zunino said. “He wants to work with you where you are comfortable. Obviously, every one is comfortable in different ways. He does a good job of communicating the basics through anybody’s stance.”
Zunino knew he needed to make adjustments last season. And he tried to do that, but it was difficult. As a rookie catcher, much of his attention was focused on developing relationships with his pitchers and catching at the big league level — a priority for him and any manager. McClendon understood the difficulty, but expects more.
“You have to separate both sides, but you can’t be an automatic out,” McClendon said.
Zunino said he believes these changes will ensure he’s anything but an automatic out.
“Obviously you want to contribute as much as you can at the plate,” he said. “I’m looking forward to doing that this year.”
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.