Is This The Year That Seattle Mariners Catcher Mike Zunino Finally Lives Up To The Hype?

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Mike Zunino came to camp last year a broken player, and a project, temporarily eased out of the maelstrom as the Mariners began the process of fixing him.

One year, and much (they hope) progress later, Zunino is back where he used to be, re-installed as the Mariners’ regular catcher. What has been adjusted along the way – along with Zunino’s swing and his approach – are the expectations attached to him.

Oh, the Mariners still have high hopes for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, who is, after all, just 25. But when you have put up a .195 average through your first 350 major-league games, with a strikeout every 2.78 at-bats, well, it’s clear that the ascension is going to be bumpy.

No one has any complaints about Zunino’s defense, pitch-framing or game-calling, all of which are exemplary. But his stature will be determined by the steps he continues to take at the plate, after rebuilding his mechanics, and more important, his confidence, last year at Tacoma.

Sure, it was humbling for a guy stamped for stardom, “but it was exactly what I needed at the time,” Zunino said. “You never want to take a step backwards, but sometimes that can let you take two steps forward. It really felt that way. Being able to go down to Triple-A, be able to have some success and being called back up, you feel that sense that you earned your way back up. It definitely instilled a lot of confidence.”

In Tacoma, Zunino was able to distance himself from the tumult of the myriad voices offering advice, and reduce it to one – Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius. It helped that Brosius’ advice resonated (as well as his silence). It helped even more that Zunino got off to a torrid start in the Pacific Coast League and wound up hitting .286 with a .898 OPS.

Freed from the pressure of producing in the major leagues, Zunino slowly reconstructed his strike zone, figuring out which pitches to “hunt,” in his lingo, and especially which ones to lay off (cough, outside breaking ball, cough). He stopped beating himself up over every messy at-bat. With Brosius’ guidance, he developed a plan of action and then set about internalizing it.

“That was the only guy I had to go and talk hitting with,” he said. “For the most part there, he let me sort of figure it out. Whatever felt comfortable. If I had questions, he always seemed to have the answer right away. It was nice because once you do that, and figure it out yourself, that’s when you know you can trust yourself and you don’t have to listen to all the voices to fix something.”

Zunino is thrilled that Brosius will be with the Mariners this year as an assistant coach. They have already revived some of last year’s drills, and Brosius figures to be a sounding board, along with hitting coach Edgar Martinez, whenever Zunino gets into a rut.

“He saw last year the good and bad, so he knows the little adjustments, and we can talk about my swing and use the same terminology,” Zunino said.

And yes, there will no doubt be good and bad at the plate for Zunino, because there are no miracle cures. Last year, he started in a blaze after getting called up to the Mariners in July, homering twice in his first game. The memory still brings a smile.

“You get to two strikes in your first at-bat and you’re like, oh, man,” he recalled. “Then you get the hanging slider and you just barrel it up. It was nice. It sort of freed everything else up. I talked to (manager Scott Servais) that night after that game, and I felt the same way as him: My favorite at-bat was the walk I took in eighth or ninth. It showed more than the hits and the home runs; that’s sort of the hitter I’ve been, just taking walks and hitting my pitches.”

After 26 games, Zunino was hitting .280 with a .396 on-base percentage and .707 slugging percentage. But he faded at the end of the year, hitting .146 in his final 29 games, with 43 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances. Overall, Zunino hit just .207, and his strikeout rate of 33.9 percent was actually a bit higher than his previous three years.

More encouragingly, his walk rate soared (more than doubling to 10.9 percent, 21 in 192 plate appearances for a satisfactory .318 OBP). His power production was also solid, with 12 homers and a .470 slugging percentage.

No doubt, pitchers adjusted to Zunino’s adjustments. But Zunino believes he simply got tired at the end of a long, grueling year. His training this offseason was designed to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

“At the end, it was just me trying to do too much,” he said. “I tried to make some changes because my body wasn’t feeling like I wanted to. You know what? That’s something I learned, too, to just continue to trust what got you there the whole year. There’s going to be much less adjusting this year in mechanics and stuff. Even if the body’s not feeling good, you have to go out and trust what got you there.”

The Mariners believe that Zunino will be further aided by the addition of veteran Carlos Ruiz, who not only gives Zunino more breathing room when it comes to playing time, but has a wealth of knowledge to convey. The process has already started, in fact.

“You can’t beat it,” Zunino said. “We talk every day. When you see the staffs he’s worked with, catching four no-hitters, a perfect game, he knows what he’s doing. It’s just trying to pick his brain as much as you can and just try to get that knowledge from him.”

Zunino is relentlessly upbeat, but that doesn’t mean his struggles haven’t taken a mental toll. It’s a tribute to him that he’s always been able to separate his offensive struggles from his defensive responsibilities, which never waned.

“Mike always has a smile on his face, but he’s human,” Servais said. “We’ve all seen him have a rough game and take it to heart. He takes it as hard as anybody. But he always is positive and I think our pitchers feed off that, too.”

Servais senses more comfort and confidence in Zunino this year, but he has yet to chase a bad pitch or hit a prolonged slump. Rebuilt, refreshed, recalibrated, Zunino continues down what he and the Mariners hope is a much less bumpy road.

By Larry Stone