PEORIA, Ariz. – Mike Zunino finds himself in an unfamiliar situation this spring. He is in camp but not as the Mariners’ No. 1 catcher. His mindset remains the same as it has been in previous springs – that these are his pitchers, that this is his staff – but he knows there are two other catchers here and that the plan for him is different.
After two years of massive struggles at the plate, general manager Jerry Dipoto has declared this “the year of Mike Zunino” with the intent of doing what is right for the player, taking a step back and letting him get the work in the minor leagues that was missed when necessity and his glove rushed him to the big leagues.
It’s a tough step to take for any player who was “the guy,” but the process has been helped along with trust on both sides.
“I’ve had some great conversations with them and they have put a lot of trust in me,” Zunino said. “That’s a great thing. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get better and take the next step in my career. I ultimately just want to help this team win and I’m willing to do that, I’m willing to listen to the great coaching staff we have and just sort of see what happens.
“The biggest breath of fresh air was when they hired Servais and he came in and he called me maybe a week and a half after he got hired and he said, ‘Hey, look, we know what you went through. We know what happened. I just want you to come in and be yourself. Come in, play hard and be yourself and be that player you want to be.’ That was a weight lifted off my shoulders just because there were many situations where it felt like I wasn’t doing that and you lose who you are as a player and as a person and what you want to help the team do. For him saying that I was able to come in and just be myself, it’s a big weight lifted off your shoulders because there’s nothing more you can do besides being yourself and just working on your craft.”
Zunino is prepared to do so in Tacoma.
“Oh yeah, that’s a realistic fact that could happen,” he acknowledged. “If it does, that’s what it is and you have to take it for that. There’s no hard feelings about that. I know I can go down there and work on it and get better and it’s just something that I am to a point now where I know what got me here and that was helping the team win anyway I can and that’s sort of the mentality I want to carry over to this part and let everything else just happen.”
After two nightmarish years at the plate, Zunino realizes that this is an opportunity to take the time to get things right. For real, not just for show. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting on a braver, more confident face night after night seeing an average of under .200 on the board. While there were indications that he did let some of his frustrations out behind the scenes, Zunino never let his frustration show in a postgame media setting. He was all about team, all about his pitchers. That’s how it has to be if you are the catcher. It could not have been easy.
“I learned a lot of what not to do,” he said of the experience of trying to keep it together at the big-league level as his batting average continued to plummet. “But mostly I learned I had to trust myself. I tried to listen and please too many people and what they were trying to say and implement everything. I got away from what really got me there.”
There were suggestions coming Zunino’s way from multiple directions and to a young player, those suggestions often seem to be more than just a suggestion. Zunino wanted to please his coaches, and more importantly, help his team.
“I’d be in the cage at 4 o’clock trying to work on something and then hit BP and try to put it on some of the best pitchers in the game. It just wasn’t doing myself a favor,” he said.
Zunino was eventually sent to Triple-A Tacoma, where he put up better numbers. The original plan was to bring him back in September, but acting general manager Jeff Kingston had other thoughts. He believed it would be more beneficial for Zunino to end on a guaranteed positive note at the plate and decided to keep him in Tacoma, where he could get at-bats every day and work on things away from the pressures of the big leagues. Zunino would put in extra work in Arizona following the end of the Rainiers’ season with hitting coach Edgar Martinez monitoring his program from Seattle.
The work didn’t stop there. While Zunino participated in the Mariners hitting summit in Arizona in January, it turns out there was a much smaller hitting summit – or perhaps a tutorial – earlier in the offseason in North Carolina as Kyle Seager invited Zunino to his house to work on hitting for 10 days.
“He’s very good with the mechanical side of it,” Zunino said of Seager. “It’s something he knows, he can see. He just sort of shared with me a bunch of stuff. He’s always willing to share stuff, but he knows through the middle of the season it’s tough to make big adjustments. He was very good at saying little things then he could explain them more in depth in this time. It was nice to sort of learn that terminology, what he uses, what he’s trying to accomplish and then just go there and try to find out how that could work for me.”
A typical day for the two in North Carolina would be to get up, eat breakfast and then hit the cages for a few hours, sometimes with Seager’s brothers, Justin and Corey. Late afternoons were all about relaxing. They might go fishing or have a barbecue with their families. It was good baseball time, away from baseball.
“Mike and Kyle time, a little bro-mance time!” Zunino said with a laugh. “It was just nice to do that, very low key, just us. Just so we could sort of think about what I needed to do and what I needed to clean up.”
Servais has talked about the importance of the “circle,” or the people of influence that players have around them. Seager is in that Zunino circle and what he was teaching meshed with what the Mariners wanted Zunino to focus on.
“It was very similar. It was just explaining it in just a different way,” Zunino said. “It was nice that I could come back here in the hitting seminar in January and talk with Edgar and talk with the other guys and sort of explain what I was working on and how they really, really were connected. It’s been nice to continue that on now.”
Zunino feels the routines and approach are getting him back closer to where he was when he was first drafted. As a guy who was perhaps too coachable or too open to suggestion in the past, he appreciates the new voices that are available to him from the organization and the approach they are taking in getting him to where he wants to be.
“I think it’s huge,” he said. “I think the biggest thing with the staff that they brought in is, they are willing to work on you with what works for you. Sharing what your voice is and what your beliefs are with hitting and then those hitting coaches can relay that message back to you. They are the eyes that see you at that at-bat, but that’s something that I want them to know, what I’m thinking, so they can ask me questions and I can answer it in the way that I am thinking and feeling at that time.”
For now, Zunino feels he is on a good path.
“It’s a lot closer to where I was before. It’s more balanced, more patient, and it’s just something I got away from trying to tweak too much,” he said. “So this is something I have, that I believe, and something I can stick with and trust throughout the season.”
Throughout the season, wherever that may be. The most important thing for Zunino is that he has a fresh start.
“I just have to be myself and have fun,” he said. “For me, there’s some pretty bad stuff that happened. I just have to go out there and enjoy the game that I love. To play and compete, that’s all I can do and I think everything else will take care of itself.”