Zunino has been working extensively for the past four days with Edgar Martinez and Scott Brosius to shorten his swing more. Will it lead to results?
CLEVELAND — Mike Zunino can’t hide from his cringe-worthy numbers. They are there for him and all those in attendance to see on the video board of every stadium each time he steps into the batter’s box — .172 batting average (11-for-64), .243 on-base percentage, .234 slugging percentage, four doubles, no homers, two RBI and 25 strikeouts.
“The numbers are what they are,” Zunino said. “And they aren’t where I want them to be.”
On Sunday with a day off from the lineup, he spent an extensive amount of time in the cage working with hitting coach Edgar Martinez and assistant coach Scott Brosius trying to simplify some aspects of his swing in hopes of finding more consistent contact. It was the fourth day in a row that he spent extra time focusing on cleaning up the movements of his lower body on his swing.
“I was doing some stuff with my lower half and with my load that I want to shorten up,” Zunino said. “As you get into the season and more consecutive games played, you want to stay short to the ball.”
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He knows he’s scuffling.
“It’s been inconsistent for the most part,” he said. “I just want to become consistent. Usually when you can shorten those motions and movements, it becomes more consistent.”
It’s been a never ending process for Zunino, trying to find a swing and an approach that would lead to consistent contact, better pitch recognition, fewer swings and misses and strikeouts. In past years where he seemed lost in understanding what he wanted to do, this is a matter of executing.
“He’s getting a lot of pitches to hit and he’d be the first to say that he’s just missing them,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s fouling them back or he’s swinging and missing at them. These are very hittable pitches.”
Zunino couldn’t argue with Servais’ assessment. He can rattle off the fastballs he looked for, got and failed to put the barrel of the bat on. He shakes his head at the missed opportunities.
“That’s the toughest part is when you hunt one pitch and you get it and you foul it straight back or you miss it,” he said. “When you are going good, you don’t miss them. When you aren’t feeling great, you are just missing them and that leads to feeling really not good at the plate. I’m seeing the ball and recognizing the pitches that I want to attack. I’m just not driving them.”
Per Fangraphs Z-Swing percentage, Zunino is swinging at 67.1 percent of the pitches in the strikezone, which is just above average. However his Z-Contact percentage — the number of pitches on which contact is made on pitches inside the zone per swing — is just 76.4 percent. The average for that measure is about 87 percent. His swinging strike percentage — the number of pitches he swings and misses — is at 15.8 percent well above the average of 9.5 percent.
“We are talking fractions of an inch that I’m just missing on some of these pitches,” he said. “If you can make those happen, get a couple of balls that you can drive, the confidence goes up and the other stuff falls into place.”
The lower half tweaks are an effort to shorten his swing which would presumably lead to more contact.
“It’s not at a point where he’s trying to do too much damage with them, it’s just shorten some stuff up, get the ball in play,” Servais said. “He’s so strong, if he just barrels it, he’s going have good results.”
Always positive, Zunino feels like he’s still ahead of where he was two seasons ago when he was drowning in a sea of swing changes and suggestions.
“It’s a much different feeling,” he said. “That was early and I was young. I’ve gone through some really bad stretches in my career. I know the adjustments that need to be made. I feel like my at-bats are more competitive day in and day out. It’s just small adjustments where I need to get back to driving the ball and not missing my pitch. I don’t feel like I’m searching as much as I am just trying to clean stuff up.”
And yet, the lack of production is alarming. The Mariners’ offense production from the catching position was the second worst in the American League with a .160 batting average and .483 on-base plus slugging percentage.
While Zunino brings so much to the game from a defensive standpoint, there is a point where that gets overshadowed by outs and stranded runners.
“I do think there comes a point, and Mike knows this as well, where you need production,” Servais said. “We haven’t had much production out of the catching spot offensively. Mike continues to do a great job behind the plate, working with Mel (Stottlemyre) and our pitchers to get them through stuff. But at some point, you have to see some results.”
When is that point? Servais wouldn’t elaborate. But it’s hard to see a point of major change reached without a serious change to the roster. Zunino’s back-up Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz had a nice game on Sunday, hitting the ball hard in his at-bats. But at age 38, the Mariners can’t make him the primary catcher. It would lead to diminishing returns quickly from fatigue.
“I don’t know if that’s the best thing to do,” Servais said. “I like Chooch in the spot that he’s in. You play him twice a week. That’s the pace he’s on right now. There may be a spot where you run him out there a couple days in a row, just to give Z a breather as much as anything.”
Besides Zunino and Ruiz, Tuffy Gosewisch is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Like most career back-ups, Gosewisch is a defense first catcher with minimal offensive potential — a career .199 hitter with a .522 OPS in 126 big league games. Beyond Gosewisch, there is only Steven Baron in Tacoma.
If the Mariners were looking to make a significant change, they would have find a catcher outside of the organization. With viable and productive catchers at a premium, the asking price would be high.
“Right now, we are being patient with it,” Servais said. “You have to let it ride out a little bit. And I give him credit, he’s trying to make changes.”
But if those changes don’t find some result soons, the ride for Zunino could carry him back to Tacoma again.