Despite struggles, Mariners’ Mike Zunino continues to progress

Sep 30, 2016, 9:13 AM | Updated: 11:04 am

If you wince every time Mike Zunino strikes out, you’re not alone. He does, too. Thirty-one strikeouts in his last 21 games is not the Mike Zunino we saw come back from Triple-A shortly after the All-Star break. Despite his struggles, there is no panic on the Mariners’ side or from Zunino on this recent development. It’s part of the process.

“He’s done a lot of good things this year,” manager Scott Servais said before Thursday’s game. “Gone through the whole gamut, which he needed to. He needed to go through all those things and it will help him.”

Servais admits that Zunino has been in a struggle of late, a struggle that is easy to diagnose. He’s missed good pitches to hit – which is the biggest concern – and as a result, he’s expanded his strike zone. His mechanics and timing have been slightly off. The pressure of the Mariners’ playoff push could be a factor as well.

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“All these guys want to do well,” Zunino said. “They want to contribute, they want to help the team. It’s not about themselves right now; it’s the team. It can add a little pressure and when it’s not going well, you want to try even harder, which always isn’t good either.”

Perhaps the big home run Zunino hit in the seventh inning of the Mariners’ 3-2 win over Oakland Thursday night will help take some of that pressure off. It was a two-strike home run after Zunino had taken two sliders and then got his fastball to drive deep into the visiting bullpen on a night when the ball was not flying. We shall see in the next few games, but his progress during what general manager Jerry Dipoto has dubbed the “Year of Mike Zunino” will still be considered a success. Turning him into a better hitter is an ongoing process and a good foundation has been set.

A year ago, Zunino was in his second year of being completely lost at the plate. We saw him constantly change things in an effort to come out of his slumps. The advice was coming from every corner of the clubhouse with multiple voices in his ear, from players to coaches to organizational people. Servais believed that needed to change. Shortly after he was hired, Servais talked about the importance of a player’s “circle,” those he listened to and took advice from. He felt Zunino’s was too big and in trying to please everyone or at least try what they were suggesting, he was getting himself in trouble.

“There’s a lot of factors pulling you in different directions,” Zunino said Thursday afternoon, pointing out that it was all well-meaning and that everyone wanted to see him succeed.

Rather than just eliminate everyone or a certain number of those who wanted to help, Zunino took a different approach in dealing with the myriad of information around him.

“What I did this offseason was to educate myself about certain parts of the game so I had a belief and an understanding of the game, of certain things,” he said. “So then it made it easier to … say, ‘Thanks but no thanks. I am going to trust in what I am doing.’”

The good college hitter had so much more to learn about hitting. He saw teammates around him who were hitting encyclopedias, and rather than just taking information from them, he wanted to understand it. The more he understood hitting and his hitting, the more he could work his way through his struggles himself, the way he saw some others in the clubhouse do.

“I think the biggest thing was I wanted to learn about good positions hitters got, why they got there and what made them successful so when it comes to trying to make mechanical changes, I could try to apply that in an educated way rather than just trying stuff,” he said. “I really wanted to put a lot of studying in that. It’s still a learning curve, but there is more of an understanding than before.”

Kyle Seager immediately comes to mind when you talk about the importance of hitting position, and it’s no coincidence that some of the first offseason work Zunino did last year was with Seager. Zuniono took a trip to North Carolina to spend 10 days with him.

“Obviously it works a little different about him, but I wanted to know that because I needed to learn about it,” Zunino said. “If he uses that a lot to fix what is going on right away, I just want to know it so when the situation comes again I can have an idea of what position I need to get into rather than just try stuff.”

The work has been ongoing. In the struggles and strikeouts, there has been learning with Zunino seeing and understanding things he has not in the past.

“For the last month, the results may not have been there, but I am learning how guys are throwing to me,” he said. “I am learning that in certain counts, guys aren’t going to give into me. Now with the mechanical side of it comes the approach side of it and knowing in certain situations, guys are not going to give in, they might not pitch to me, and then just adapting an approach to that and becoming more patient and knowing that if I take a a walk, I take a walk. That is something I want to build on now that I have an understanding of it and can apply it more.”

In talking with Zunino about hitting now, you see and hear a focus that was not there before. He seems to have a much better idea of who he is and who he can be as a hitter. For a super high-energy guy, there is much more of a calmness with him that comes with his new understanding of hitting and understanding that he is a work in progress.

“It’s a process,” he said. “I have tried not to stray results-wise away from it because I have made so many strides positive this year that now it is about continuing to get better at all of them. Winning is the most important thing, and if I can walk away from a game learning something and then being able to try to adjust my game and make adjustments from that, that is what that process is all about.”

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