Mike Zunino pushes the reset button and has a big day
SURPRISE, Ariz. – What Mike Zunino did last year in his first full year in the big leagues was remarkable. There was no soft landing for the 23 year old.
Here’s your staff, go get ’em. Learn and catch a staff with a Cy Young winner, pitchers from seven different countries, veterans, rookies, a guy who sees imaginary arrows, and everywhere you look, nasty, nasty stuff. Figure out how to get them through bad days and perhaps reel them in a notch on days where they are feeling too good. Be ready to talk about it after the game.
He handled the staff beautifully. He handled himself beautifully. He stayed positive. He motivated. He brought energy that never quit. I don’t think we ever saw him show that he himself had a bad day, and there were plenty of those at the plate. If the pitcher had a good day, never mind what he did, right?
His pitchers will always come first, but make no mistake, Mike Zunino has been a major contributor to every offense he has ever been a part of before he reached the major leagues. With a full season under his belt and more familiarity with the majority of his pitching staff he has been able to devote more time this spring to his work at the plate.
The early returns have been good. With the focus being put on using more of the field and improving his two-strike approach, Zunino got off to a hot start hitting .429 in his first six games with just one strikeout.
No sooner than I typed those words in my March 17 post did Zunino start whiffing. Over the next two games he struck out four times. He was given a day off and then Friday against the Rangers he was the DH.
His focus Friday was on nothing but hitting. Jesus Sucre could worry about the pitchers for a day. Zunino did his work in the batting cage that morning and then traveled to Surprise for the game. In his second at-bat he hit a 2-2 fastball over the wall in left center. Much of what he worked on that morning in the cage came into play in that at-bat.
“It was nice to be able to just focus on that and think about what I wanted to do and accomplish in that at bat,” he said after the game.
In his third at-bat he jumped on a first pitch fastball that stayed just fair over the left field wall. Not a bad turnaround and far better than the four strikeouts he had in his previous two games.
Interestingly enough, when I brought up the strikeouts and the fact that they came after a long stretch without them he laughed and nodded. Sure, it would be great to never strike out again, but strikeouts are going to come, and recognizing where he is with his swing or approach is the important thing in that situation.
“It was a perfect time for it to happen,” he said. “You have a couple of good at-bats, a couple of good games in a row, and then you have those humbling games where, ‘OK, I have to get back to where I was.’ I think that is sort of a learning experience this spring that I know I can sit there and push the pause button and go back to what was working and get back on that page.”
It is a page he didn’t have a year ago. A year ago the focus was learning the pitching staff and helping them through games. Now there is more time to focus on his hitting. He feels better equipped to handle two strike situations in particular.
“I feel like I am night-and-day better there,” he said. “I feel like I know what I want to accomplish with two strikes. I feel like I have the base, and I can trust myself now instead of feeling like I’m going up there hoping to get a pitch to hit.”
That’s what it looked like at times last year. This spring it has looked different. In addition to the mechanical changes it just looks like things have slowed down at the plate for Zunino. Having a plan and understanding that plan can do that. Having success with that plan, even if it is in games that don’t count, may prove to go a long way once the season starts. It is good to have a base, something to go back to.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Zunino said. “Is this feeling I am having now and I had in the early spring is something I am going to try to hold on whether it is video, whether it is mechanics, I mean it’s something I can go back to where I feel comfortable.”
Zunino will always feel comfortable behind the plate. We won’t know for sure until the season begins and the stakes are raised as the games have meaning, but this spring it would appear he is taking a big step toward feeling comfortable at the plate.