Zunino is the only catcher in Major League Baseball with 20-plus doubles and 20-plus homers

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The setting of goals was simple when it came to the process of building Mike Zunino into a capable big league hitter.

There were no lofty expectations despite obvious talent and freakish strength. They were elementary: have competitive at-bats, understand what pitches he could hit well and increase the on-base percentage.

The strikeouts? Cutting down on them would be ideal, but he was always going to be a hitter that strikes out a fair amount, which has become more acceptable in baseball.

But it was often said that if Zunino were able to hit .225 for a season, he would by proxy hit 25-plus homers. The thinking being that to make the amount of in-play contact required to hit .225 then at least 25 balls would fly over the wall because of his raw power.

Zunino entered Wednesday, hitting .237 with a .315 on-base percentage, .492 slugging percentage, 21 doubles, 21 homers and 53 RBI in 105 games played. He’s not quite to 25 homers yet. But it’s not impossible to think he won’t get there despite missing a month of the season.

A year ago at this time, Zunino was sliding back into a funk at the plate after a hot start when he was called up in July. He ended up hitting .188 with a .621 on-base plus slugging percentage in September and finishing with a .207 average and .787 OPS in 55 games for 2016.

But he believes he’s a different hitter now with a new stance and approach.

“Even last year when I came up and was swinging it well at first, it’s still a night and day difference,” he said. “I know what I want to do. I feel more athletic in the box. And I’m grasping what I want to do against certain guys and it sets up my timing. That’s the biggest thing. I’ve found something that I believe in and trust and now it’s just tweaking it to certain pitchers and pitches.”

While there was outcry from some fans that felt the team should dump Zunino as soon as possible because of the hitting issues, general manager Jerry Dipoto and his staff remained steadfast in the believe that Zunino could be fixed and turned into a hitter commensurate with his already outstanding defensive play behind the plate. Dipoto preached patience.

That patience was tested when Zunino hit .167 with a .486 OPS, no homers and 30 strikeouts in the first 24 games of the season. Seattle sent him to Class AAA Tacoma for a reset. It was there he modified his stance and the implementation of a daily set of drills — dubbed the Zunino rules — seemed to address a lot of problems.

Since getting called up on May 22, Zunino is now hitting .257 (66 for 257) with a .333 on-base percentage, a .564 slugging percentage, 16 doubles, 21 home runs and 51 RBI over 81 games played. He hit his first homer on May 23 and his 21st on Sept. 2 — a span of 79 games played and 250 at-bats. He’s the only catcher in Major League baseball with 20-plus doubles and 20-plus homers this season.

“I’ve really just put a focus on at-bats, quality at-bats,” he said. “And what I’ve done with the changes, it’s allowed me to keep my bat in the strike zone a little longer and drive balls to that side of the field. I’m not trying for homers, just good contact.”

While the 2017 season isn’t over, Zunino believes 2018 and beyond can be better.

“I know what I want to do with my swing and how I’m supposed to feel and how to get back there when things go wrong,” he said. “I’ve had that feeling going into an offseason.”

 

Also

*** Infielder Shawn O’Malley was outrighted to Class AAA Tacoma after clearing waivers. O’Malley was designated for assignment on Sept. 4 to make room on the 40- man roster for Gordon Beckham

Because of service time and not being on a 40-man roster, O’Malley is eligible to become a minor league free agent for next season.

*** James Paxton (strained pectoral) and Felix Hernandez (shoulder bursitis) played catch early Wednesday afternoon. Both pitchers will throw a simulated game on Friday, each getting about two innings and 35 pitches. If they come out of that, they will be re-inserted into the starting rotation on the upcoming road trip to the Rangers and Astros.

*** Tony Zych (strained flexor bundle) underwent another MRI on his elbow, revealing the strain in his forearm. There was no significant damage, just a minor strain. The plan is for him to continue rehabbing and playing catch into the weekend and throw a bullpen sometime this weekend.

*** When outfielder Jacob Hannemann appears in a game for the Mariners, he will be the 61st player used by the Mariners this season. It’s the second most in franchise history to the 2014 Texas Rangers.