Big numbers aren't a big motivator for Mariners' prospect Mike Zunino

Staff writerApril 13, 2013 

Mike Zunino absorbs baseball information like a sponge. His curiosity is a trait that already has endeared him to coaches and executives in the Mariners’ organization.

But ask Zunino about a personal statistic — say, how many runs batted in he has — and the sparkle in his eyes dims.

“I can’t tell you,” Zunino said Friday afternoon in the third base dugout at Cheney Stadium, 90 minutes before the Tacoma Rainiers faced Salt Lake in their home opener. “Honestly, I’ve got no idea.”

No idea? Really? What about when he steps to the plate and sees his crazy RBI total on the scoreboard?

“That’s the last thing I’m looking at because I’m concentrating on the situation,” Zunino said. “Is there a base runner to advance? What is the pitcher throwing? There’s so much to focus on in the batter’s box that stats don’t matter.”

Maybe they don’t matter to Zunino, but for those of us lured to the diamond in a more relaxed perspective, stats serve as a link to the past and a glimpse of the future.

The stats Zunino compiled during the first week of the Pacific Coast League season can only be called remarkable. His 17 RBI going into Friday led all minor leaguers. His four homers led the PCL. His eight extra-base hits and 1.038 slugging percentage ranked second in the league, and his 27 total bases ranked third.

Zunino did all this in six games, sitting out twice to keep his catcher’s body fresh.

If the prospect keeps up his torrid pace and appears in 120 Rainiers games this season (it won’t happen because he’ll likely be promoted to the Mariners before the weather turns pleasant, but work with me anyway), he’ll finish with 80 home runs and 340 RBI.

Then again, Zunino, despite an aversion to stats, knows enough about them to realize his first-week numbers are unsustainable.

“I had a conversation last year in Double-A with Rich Poythress,” said Zunino, referring to the first baseman who now is a teammate in Tacoma, “and he told me something that stuck with me. He said: ‘You’ll have months when you hit .200 and it’ll seem like you don’t know how to fix what’s wrong, and you’ll have months when you hit .400 and every pitch you see looks as big as a beach ball. The key to success as a hitter is what you do between the tough months and the good months.’ ”

While Zunino’s right-handed bat has vaulted the third overall selection of the 2012 draft onto the national radar screen, he takes more pride — and devotes more interest, truth be told — in his responsibilities behind the plate. It’s a job that requires him to be a confidante of pitchers, cajoling them, soothing them, pushing them, challenging them.

“Working through a jam with a pitcher is more satisfying to me than going 5-for-5,” Zunino said. “If the pitcher and I are on the same page, I don’t care if I end up 0-for-5.”

Zunino’s 0-for-5 nights have been rare. Last summer, after the Mariners chose him out of the University of Florida, he combined to hit .360 over 44 games with the low-A Everett AquaSox and Double-A Jackson Generals.

Spring training found Zunino resembling what he is — a 22-year kid who needs some Triple-A seasoning — but the chance to mingle with big leaguers was invaluable. He consistently sought advice from Mariners manager Eric Wedge and third-base coach Jeff Datz, both former catchers.

Zunino’s ability to feel at home in a clubhouse he had little chance of occupying after the roster cuts can be attributed to his upbringing. His father, Greg, an outfielder at the University of California and an ex-Yankees minor leaguer, stayed in baseball as a longtime Cincinnati Reds scout. His mother, Paola, was a catcher for the Italian national softball team.

Greg Zunino can recall when his son was signed up for a T-ball squad in first grade. After the tykes were introduced to the essential intricacies — how to hold the bat, for instance — and the players practiced swinging at a stationary ball placed upon a tee, Mike Zunino posed a question.

“Coach, when are we going to take infield?”

Zunino reflects on those memories with a smile.

“Defense was always first for me,” he said. “I was a shortstop in high school. I loved it. Same with catching. You’re involved in a game inside the game back there, involved with every pitch. It’s the best.”

Mike Zunino almost certainly will be called up by the Mariners in a few months, so catch him while you can at Cheney Stadium. Just don’t expect him to pad his gaudy stats for the sake of padding his gaudy stats.

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. His thoughts and energy are all about squatting behind the plate, where he’s captain of the game inside the game.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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