The defensive standout, who hit .199 in 2014, wants to drive the ball to right-center more, where his true power comes.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The mention of a .199 batting average makes Mike Zunino wince with discomfort.
That’s something that doesn’t happen often. Ask anybody with the Mariners, and they’ll tell you there isn’t a tougher player in the clubhouse.
A year ago, Zunino led the team in hit by pitches with 17, wearing a variety of them on his shoulder, back and thigh without so much as a whimper or a rub of the struck area. And those bruises and bumps pale in comparison to the number of pitches he blocked in the dirt last season. Whether it was the array of Felix Hernandez’s two-strike changeups in the dirt or Yoervis Medina’s wandering fastball, Zunino forced his body in front of them, pain be damned.
Still, the mention of a batting average that starts with the number 1 stings worse than any baseball could. Hitting below the Mendoza line for a season? The previous time that happened to Zunino was, well, never.
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“I don’t remember that ever happening,” he said.
But when the season was over, Zunino had 87 hits in 438 at-bats to put him at .199. He also struck out a team-high 158 times with just 17 walks and an on-base percentage of only .254.
The numbers weren’t all negative. Zunino hit 22 home runs, a Mariners record for a catcher. It also was the second-most for American League catchers behind the Yankees’ Brian McCann, who hit 23.
The homers were nice, but Zunino believes he’s a better hitter than he showed and wants to prove it this season.
“Obviously, you want more from yourself, and you demand more from yourself,” he said. “There was a big learning curve.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon has mentioned it often. But Zunino’s lack of minor-league experience put him in this position. The organization rushed him to the big leagues in 2013 and knew it. When Jesus Montero faltered and Miguel Olivo played like, well, Miguel Olivo, they decided to fast-track their catcher of the future.
Zunino, who was selected with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft, was called up after only 96 minor-league games and 418 plate appearances, and almost half of those games came at the lowest levels of the minor leagues. His maturity and advanced defensive skills earned him the big-league starting job before spring training in 2014 with all of 52 big-league games on his résumé.
Zunino knew there would be struggles on offense. He’d experienced them with Class AAA Tacoma and in those American League games in 2013. But that didn’t make them tolerable for him.
“It was a big thing for me to sit back this offseason and know that I can play at that level while at the same time knowing I still need to slow the game down,” he said. “I need to limit those things when stuff starts to snowball. That part was difficult. It was a learning experience.”
Zunino learned that there are few free at-bats at the big-league level. Pitchers have a game plan and can execute it.
“At this level, there are very few mistakes,” he said. “That’s what separates big-league pitching from other levels — they are consistent, and they know what they’re doing, and their stuff is great.”
Zunino learned quickly how pitchers were trying to get him out. The catcher in him saw the patterns, which later became the universal scouting report on him.
“You know,” he said. “You don’t play the game stupid. You know how guys are attacking you. When it’s numerous at-bats in a row, you get frustrated. You know how guys are attacking you, and you end up trying to cover pitches you shouldn’t even want to hit, whether it’s a breaking ball down and away or a fastball in on your hands. You try to do too much.”
So how would he call pitches to get himself out?
“You show hard in and you expand away,” he said. “Once you know guys are getting you out going away, you start trying to cover those pitches and start leaking out to get them, then pitchers come right back with hard inside. It’s a give and take.”
And from that, Zunino learned he can’t think like a catcher when he’s at the plate. He has to think like a hitter and put together an at-bat.
“That’s where I allow myself to get so frustrated,” he said. “I was thinking from that standpoint instead of trusting myself as a hitter. I need to take a step back and approach it as an at-bat instead of thinking, ‘this guy is going to attack me this way and I need to cover this part of the plate or look for that pitch.’ ”
There is a level of respect in Zunino’s voice when he speaks of the difficulties of being a big-league hitter and the constant adjustments that are necessary for success.
“It was a very humbling experience,” he said.
Humbling, and motivating.
Zunino came to spring training focused on reworking his approach. He wants to drive the ball to right-center more, where his true power comes. It will force him to let the ball travel a tick longer, and he’ll see it better. If he’s looking for a pitch and gets that pitch, it still needs to be one he can hit well. He can’t give in to the pitcher.
“When you see a pitch you are looking for early in the count, it doesn’t mean you have to swing at it if it’s not a good pitch,” he said. “I was over-aggressive at times. I would see that pitch, and I’d want to jump at that pitch even if it wasn’t a strike. That’s the biggest thing. I want to step back and simplify. Pick one side to cover, pick one approach.”
There are signs of improvement.
“He’s getting better,” McClendon said. “His BP is getting better. The ultimate test is going to be when things speed up in game situations. Does he have the ability to trust it? It takes time.”
McClendon trusts Zunino to never let any struggles at the plate to leak into his biggest asset to the Mariners — his performance behind the plate.
“I was very proud of him from a defensive standpoint,” McClendon said. “He always separated his offense. And he understood what was most important from him and that was to run that staff, control that running game and block (pitches). We have some tough guys to catch, and he did a tremendous job last year.”
Zunino vows to stay that way. He wants to be a better hitter. He knows it would be a huge lift to the Mariners’ offense and playoff hopes. But defense and handling the staff take precedent.
“There are 12 or 13 guys that are relying on me to call the right pitch and to know every scouting report,” he said “It would be extremely selfish of me to take that behind the plate. I owe it to those guys, and I owe it to the team to be on my top of my game that way.”