Much has been made of the work going into his offense, but Zunino has also wanted to fix some fundamental flaws in his defense.
Mike Zunino has spent the better part of the past three years trying to find an approach at the plate that will yield results commensurate with his talent.
It’s been a frustrating grind with many speed bumps and setbacks, but he has found success this season. Though his offense is far from a finished product, Zunino has given the Mariners confidence that the extended struggles of 2015 and late 2016 won’t return.
But during that process, Zunino’s defense, which always was considered from above-average to elite in terms of framing, blocking and throwing, has experienced some minor regression. Zunino wasn’t pleased with it.
“It was pretty much throughout the first half,” he said. “I felt like the last two weeks before the break were better and closer to where I want to be blocking and receiving. Coming out of the break, I felt pretty good. I’ve been working on my throwing and cutting down my footwork. I think the last few weeks I’ve been a lot more consistent with where I want to be.”
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Manager Scott Servais, a former catcher, has spent some one-on-one time with Zunino before games trying fix some nagging habits that were hampering his fundamentals. It started with the first series out of the All-Star break in Houston.
“We just wanted to clean up some things and get back to the basics,” Servais said. “There are a couple of things he can tighten up. It happens to everybody. It’s just a refresher.”
So much emphasis has been placed on Zunino’s hitting, but the defensive work can’t be overlooked.
“The bat is doing OK, so let’s not get away from the really important stuff behind the plate,” Servais said. “With his receiving, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the metrics and trying to make a few adjustments. And it’s probably not been his best year blocking balls. It’s the ball that ricochets off you because you aren’t down early enough or soft enough to control it. And that’s what he needs to get better at.”
Zunino hasn’t been pleased, either.
“Sometimes I would get too conscious of how I was receiving the pitch or how I would frame it, and I would get into a position that wasn’t athletic and I wasn’t able to block,” he said. “It’s a constant reminder of getting to that spot. I’ve made some changes with that. The last few weeks have been better.”
The biggest issues have come when catching James Paxton and Felix Hernandez. Hernandez’s sinking changeup is in the dirt 70 percent of the time, and Paxton’s velocity and explosive stuff cause issues.
“With Pax, everything he throws is hard,” Zunino said. “And when you call for a breaking ball you have to anticipate having to block it every time. With the cutter that’s 89-90 (mph) and it’s diving in on the back foot of a hitter, so it limits your room. You just have anticipate it every time.”
And yet Zunino still expects to block almost every pitch and is furious when he doesn’t.
“There’s a lot of timing and mechanics to get your body in the right position and be square to the baseball,” he said. “And I need to get more consistent.”
The work has paid off. Servais noted that he felt Zunino “has been in a much better position” in recent games, specifically Monday night’s game against the Red Sox in which Paxton’s stuff was particularly nasty.
*** Center fielder Jarrod Dyson feels better after hyperextending his right-big toe Saturday night while crashing into the wall.
“The swelling has gone down, so he’s definitely moving in the right direction,” Servais said. “Hopefully he will available (Wednesday) and with the off day on Thursday, this weekend we are facing some right-handed pitching and we feel pretty confident he’ll be OK for that. It’s a major improvement today.”
The Mariners have been fortunate in that the Red Sox are starting three left-handed pitchers in the series, meaning Dyson wouldn’t have started in the outfield. But with the Mets are starting three right-handed starting pitchers this weekend, Dyson’s presence in center field and on the bases is needed.
“We need him out there, especially when the right-handed pitching comes around,” Servais said.
*** The Mariners will stay in rotation even with the off day Thursday, meaning Ariel Miranda will start Friday in the series opener vs. the Mets, Yovani Gallardo will go Saturday, and Paxton will close out the homestand Sunday and try to earn his sixth win this month.