Blowers: Mariners’ Mike Zunino has confidence to thank for turnaround
When Mike Zunino steps in the plate these days for the Mariners, one thing is clear: he is a vastly improved hitter.
His two full seasons of sub-.200 averages – and the plethora of uncomfortable swings that came with them – are now a distant memory for the 25-year-old catcher. Thanks to changes and improvements he worked on in the offseason and with Triple-A Tacoma for much of this year, he enters Wednesday hitting .273 with a .394 on-base percentage, .688 slugging, nine home runs, five doubles and 21 RBIs in 27 games with Seattle. He’s significantly cut down on his strikeouts while improving his walk rate, too, as he has 11 free passes to 22 Ks this season, compared to 38 walks and 290 strikeouts combined over 243 games in 2014 and 2015.
Mike Blowers of ROOT Sports told “Bob, Groz and Tom” that while all of the hard work Zunino has put into improving his offensive approach has certainly been vital, it wouldn’t have meant much had he not quickly gained confidence on the field.
“He obviously has put in a lot of work, but the other thing that comes with that is you have to have some success, and I thought it was important for Mike to have success early,” said Blowers, alluding to Zunino’s first game back with the Mariners in which he smacked two home runs. “Not necessarily hit home runs, but have quality at-bats, command the strike zone and hit the ball hard. Fortunately, he was able to do that, and, of course, he hit a couple of home runs right away. In your own mind, you gain confidence from that and you have a real belief that what you’re working on and the things you’re doing are correct and right and then you continue down that path.”
That path has included a better grasp of what are strikes, but also which pitches he can put productive swings on.
“I think the most important thing for me watching Mike is his command of the strike zone,” Blowers said. “I think I’ve seen him take maybe two, possibly three swings where it looked to me maybe he was guessing a little bit and chasing a pitch. Last year we saw that all the time, and it’s rare now. Even with two strikes, he’ll take pitches that are borderline, and I think that he has an understanding that on those pitches, especially away from him, if it’s at the knees and it’s splitting the outside corner, you’re probably not doing a lot with that pitch anyway, so he just takes it. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes it’s called a strike and he’ll go back to the dugout, and I don’t think it phases him in the least because it was a quality at-bat.”
Quality at-bats are something Mariners fans are seeing with regularity out of Zunino, like on Monday night when he worked a count full from 1-2 then drove a Michael Pineda offering for a three-run home run that erased a two-run deficit for the Mariners. There was a lot to that plate appearance to like from Zunino, especially the fact that he went with a pitch the other way to put Seattle ahead, but it was the approach in the batter’s box that stuck out the most to Blowers.
“I thought the ball he crushed in Anaheim to right-center was a more impressive home run,” Blowers said, “but I thought his at-bat was impressive (Monday) night because it’s so different at the major-league level. … I was more impressed with him after that second strike was called and his ability to get to the 3-2 count as much as him hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and that’s the biggest difference.”