Mariners manager Scott Servais discussed the hot start of Mike Zunino, who has hit six homers in his last five games and is batting over .400 for Class AAA Tacoma.
CLEVELAND — Part of the new structure of player development and philosophy in the Mariners’ organization is for a member of the major-league coaching staff to check in weekly with the manager and coaches for a respective minor-league affiliate. It’s a way to go beyond the daily reports they receive.
Mariners manager Scott Servais handles the correspondence with Class AAA Tacoma, because that group of players is most likely to affect his team’s success. So he regularly keeps in contact with Rainiers manager Pat Listach and his staff.
One obvious subject of discussion has been the offensive success of Rainiers catcher Mike Zunino. Back in the minors for a developmental season, Zunino is tearing up Pacific Coast League pitching. He’s hitting .447 (17 for 38) with hits in each of his first nine games. But it’s the power numbers that have Mariners fans buzzing. Zunino has three doubles and six homers for a 1.000 slugging percentage. Those six homers have come in the last five games, including two Monday.
“He’s having a good week,” Servais said with a smile.
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There is a cautious optimism for Zunino. This is just a week into a long season, and the new regime — led by general manager Jerry Dipoto and Servais — is trying to maintain perspective.
“Good for him, really,” Servais said. “That’s what he needs. He needs to get some confidence back and feel good about himself. I’ve talked to a few people who have seen him … the last couple of days. The big thing that both of those people said to me is that he’s having fun. And I think that says a lot. As much as he’s struggled here the last couple of years, it has to be fun and enjoyable going to the park and hanging out with your teammates. And it’s nice to get some results.”
The game wasn’t fun for Zunino last season, and there were few positive results. After an outstanding spring training that fueled expectations, Zunino fell apart in the first few weeks of the season and could not recover. He hit .174 with 11 doubles, 11 homers an 38 RBI in 112 games. But it wasn’t just the lack of hits. The swings and misses were a problem. He struck out 132 times and produced a .230 on-base percentage. The Mariners sent him down to Tacoma in August and then to instructional league to work on his swing.
In the offseason, Dipoto brought in free agent Chris Iannetta to be the everyday catcher and traded for Steve Clevenger to serve as the backup. The plan was for Zunino to start in Tacoma and stay there for much of the season to work on his swing, his approach and his ability to control the strike zone. One week of positive results isn’t going to change that plan. This regime pledges not to be reactionary in their decision-making. Servais pointed to Dipoto, director of player development Andy McKay and assistant director of player development Mike Micucci as the decision makers for Zunino’s progression. They won’t rush him.
“Those are the guys that will let us know where he’s at and when he’s getting close,” Servais said. “It needs to be a process for him. And if he does take a 0 for 10, how does he respond to that?”
Servais has been in the same role as McKay and has been a roving coordinator with other organizations. He understands the need to look past numbers and recent results in those roles. It’s the ultra-tough determination of deciding if a player is not just ready for the big leagues but can contribute.
“I did that job in the past, and there were plenty of players over time that I would get a call from the general manager, who would say, ‘What do you got?’ I’d say, ‘Eh, I know what the numbers look like, but he’s may be not quite ready yet to where you’re at,’ ” he said. “So you have to trust the people that are seeing him every day. That’s what we are here to do. I’ve done that job. They have to have a feel for where we are at as a big-league club and where the player is at in Triple A. I’d love for all of our guys to (hit well) in Triple A. I really want us to have multiple options if we have an injury or somebody is struggling here. But you have to take it into context where it’s at and trust the people that are seeing him every day.”
The Mariners have had plenty of guys that have feasted on PCL pitching, putting up monster numbers that never translated to big-league success. Names such as Jeff Clement, Wlad Balentien, Bryan LaHair, Nick Franklin and most recently Jesus Montero are easily rattled off.
So what will the Mariners look for beyond numbers?
“We’ve talked about it a lot in their ability to control the strike zone — strikeouts to walks,” Servais said. “How consistent are they hitting the ball hard? Power numbers are great, but they can get inflated in the PCL. We all know that. It’s the quality of at-bats, talking to the manager, talking to the hitting coach, number of rovers going into see him.”