It’s still a work in progress, but catcher Mike Zunino has stopped chasing hits and started enjoying himself — and hitting with authority. Here’s how he and the Mariners organization did it.
TACOMA — Mike Zunino is hitting, and he’s happy, and if you want to figure out the chicken-and-egg of that equation, it might be more complicated than you think.
Zunino had so much to remake, to undo, to get past, to get him to the point he is now: raking with authority and confidence in Class AAA. And he’s having a blast doing it, as has been readily apparent to those with him on the Tacoma Rainiers.
“I see him relaxed. I see him smiling. I see him having fun playing the game, said Scott Brosius, the former Yankee now serving as Tacoma’s hitting coach. “That’s been important. He’s been in one heck of a grind the last couple of years.”
Mike Zunino file
Name: Mike Accorsi Zunino
Height: 6 feet 2
High school: Mariner (Cape Coral, Florida)
Drafted: No. 3 overall by Mariners in 2012.
MLB Debut: June 12, 2013
Baseball-reference.com & MLB.com
Such a grind that a new Mariners’ regime wisely decided that Zunino, undeniably (and damagingly) rushed to the big leagues in 2013, needed the relative pressure-free environment of the minor leagues to start the recuperative process.
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So here’s another chicken-and-egg scenario to ponder: to put Zunino back together at age 25 after the demoralization of his major-league career (a .193 average in three steadily declining seasons, with a strikeout every 2.83 at-bats), the Mariners knew they had to clean up his mechanics. But more important, they had to clean up his mind.
It all remains a work in progress, as even Zunino stresses. It’s dangerous to get too giddy about a hot month, even one as torrid as Zunino’s. His pinch-hit single on Tuesday at Cheney Stadium raised Zunino’s average to .413 (26 for 63). He has hit seven homers, driven in 22 runs, and struck out just 10 times, with five walks.
Yeah, it’s early. Yeah, it’s the Pacific Coast League, and a couple of those homers were admittedly aided by the light air of Albuquerque (a couple others would have been out of any ballpark in the world, manager Pat Listach said). And yeah, teams have yet to hone in on the areas of vulnerability that every major-league team exploited to annihilate Zunino.
But “it’s trending upwards,” a smiling Zunino said in the Rainiers’ dugout Monday.
Zunino mentioned a few tweaks he’s made to his batting approach. He affirmed what I noticed, that his stance is wider and slightly more open. More esoterically, he spoke of cleaning up his upper body load, keeping his front shoulder square to avoid flying off the ball.
But he also spoke, even more enthusiastically, of a revamped mindset.
“It’s more a sense of calm playing,’’ he said. “It’s very relaxed. I can have fun and joke around. It doesn’t seem like I’m on edge all the time.”
The phrase Zunino used, over and over, is that he’s “not chasing base hits.” It’s about the process, not the results. If he lines out, that’s a victory, not a defeat.
“I’m trying to twist the viewpoint of it,’’ he said, “and not trying to chase a batting average or chase home runs or chase all these results I can’t control. It’s really helped the results sort of come to me.”
And if he singles to right field, as Zunino did recently in a game against El Paso, well, that’s something to be celebrated just as much as the tape-measure homers he hit.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve done that?’’ an enthused Zunino told Brosius when he came back to the dugout.
Andy McKay, the Mariners’ new director of player development and a specialist in mental training, told Zunino that the average player sees 16 pitches in a typical four at-bat game. He challenged Zunino to see how many of those 16, he could stick to his desired mental approach.
Meanwhile, the Mariners have made a concerted effort to make sure Zunino is not bombarded with a million suggestions from well-meaning people.
“Every single guy as a hitter has to find themselves and find something they believe in, and not have something pushed on him,’’ Brosius said. “He’s had a lot of voices in his head the last couple of years. That’s what we talked about. I wanted him to be in charge of his surge.’’
Brosius has tried to use the same lingo as Mariners’ hitting coach Edgar Martinez. More important, he has tried to let Zunino come to his own epiphanies about cause and effect.
“Scott’s awesome,’’ Zunino said. “He’ll let you go three, four games. By the time he sees something, you mention it to him, and he goes, ‘perfect.’ He wants to let you feel it, instead of overwhelming you with stuff.”
Zunino believes he’s recognizing pitches better, laying off the bad ones or the ones he can’t drive. He’s starting to work on beating the infield shifts by going the other way.
“I don’t want to take the power away,’’ Listach said. But if they’re going to pound him away all day, he’s got to be able to hit the ball the other way and not try to pull it.”
Now comes part two of the Zunino remake, the harder part. Working deeper into counts. When a pitcher is attacking him particularly tough, leaving the marginal pitches alone and trusting himself with two strikes. Listach has been impressed with his growing command of his strike zone, noting that Zunino is not waving at nasty sliders, or at balls in the dirt or over his head.
“A couple years ago, when I was with Houston and he was here, we would just throw it anywhere and he’d swing,’’ Listach said. “We tried not to throw it in his sweet spot, and we had success against him. The mistakes we did make against him, he’d make us pay. He’s laying off those pitches now and having good at-bats.’’
And the hits are dropping, just in the nick of time. Because even if Zunino is no longer chasing base hits, they’re sure nice to have.
“He needs to see those numbers on the board, those .300s and .400s,’’ Listach said.
Zunino, meanwhile, is taking the long view and not fretting about when he’s going to get called up. Both Listach and Brosius rave about his defensive work and his positive attitude. The idea is for Zunino to have sustained success and get him to the point where, as Brosius puts it, “the next time he goes up, we don’t want to see him again. He’s up there to stay.”
Says Zunino, “I’m trying to take this time to become a better ballplayer, and not dwell on what happened before … Come out, enjoy playing baseball. Enjoy competing, having at-bats, winning. Everything else, I can’t control. “
So, to answer the question, which came first, the hitting or the happiness?
The answer is yes.
|Mike Zunino has experienced quite a turnaround in his first months in Tacoma:|