Always good-natured, it wasn’t surprising that Mike Zunino took the whimsical approach to a reporter’s question Wednesday afternoon.
Mike, do you remember your last home run?
Given Zunino’s recent power outage — after an 0-for-2 night Tuesday in Seattle’s 6-4 loss to the Angels, he has gone 73 at-bats without a long ball, which is the longest drought of his career — it might be easy to forget when it last happened.
Except the 26-year-old Florida native was quick to redirect the inquiry.
“In-season or in spring?” he said with a smile on his face.
Being a burly, power-hitting catcher relied upon to drive in runs, Zunino knows he is under constant scrutiny when he comes up empty.
It is May, and Zunino is searching for his first home run of the season.
He was hitting .167 going into the game Wednesday. His on-base percentage was .247. And his slugging percentage was an abysmal .227.
Yet, after announcing Sunday that he was going to sprinkle more of backup catcher Carlos Ruiz into the starting lineup, Mariners manager Scott Servais softened his stance on that notion Wednesday.
“We are going to stick with Mike right now,” Servais said. “I do like the adjustments he is making. Again, it is a results-driven league, and eventually you have to do a little bit more that what we are doing. I certainly believe he’s got it in him.”
It is fair to ask this about Zunino: Has he fallen back into being the same undisciplined, swing-and-miss hitter he was earlier in his career?
That was addressed early in 2016 when Zunino started in Triple-A Tacoma, and worked extensively with then-Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius, who has since been promoted to the big club as an assistant coach.
Instead of focusing on Zunino’s swing mechanics, Brosius went to work on the catcher’s in-bat approach.
In 79 games with the Rainiers, Zunino hit .286 with 17 home runs and 57 RBIs in 280 at-bats. As important was his on-base clip: .381.
Zunino was promoted to Seattle on June 30, and had a career-best .318 on-base percentage in 55 games. He hit another 12 home runs.
Which brings us to Zunino’s current season-starting slump: What exactly is behind it?
The simple answer is that he is getting pitches in the strike zone — and missing them frequently.
“It is encouraging when you’re on pitches and you just miss them,” Zunino said. “But it’s also the frustrating part.”
In recent days, under the watchful eye of Brosius and Seattle hitting coach Edgar Martinez, Zunino has made a couple of mechanical tweaks.
“It should essentially shorten his bat path to the ball,” Brosius said. “The real encouraging sign is that his swings have been better.”
His hard-hit percentage has never been better (35.9 percent) than this season, so when he does make good contact, the ball exits quickly.
Also encouraging is Zunino’s chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone — a career-low 25 percent.
“Nobody takes good swings at bad pitches,” Brosius said. “But now, he is staying within the strike zone. Now it is a matter of delivering the bat, and getting the barrel to the ball, and to start squaring some of these pitches up.”
For the record, Zunino’s last regular-season home run came Sept. 29 — a solo shot off Oakland reliever Liam Hendriks in a 3-2 Seattle win.
“Looking at film, it is missing pitches by a fraction of an inch,” Zunino said. “We are trying to making the adjustment to be on time and getting ready (to swing) a little bit earlier.”