Time to check back with Mariners catcher Mike Zunino regarding his spring goal to revamp his swing in hopes of boosting his overall productivity.
His words prior to the start of camp:
“I just need to totally commit to going to right-center. That’s been my strength for a while, and I keep my bat in the zone for a longer time.
“I think it’s just a matter of getting that (swing) path to right-center and stay balanced, that’s going to be key to changing things.”
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“I’m feeling better at the plate,” he said. “If my path and my direction can stay to the pitch and (keep my) focus up the middle and trust my hands to hit where the ball is pitched, I think that’s going to be the key.”
Early returns are encouraging.
Zunino is batting .345 through 11 games, at 10-for-29, with three homers and seven RBIs.
(Yes, it’s a small sample size, and everyone acknowledges these are spring numbers — so hold the screeching — but his approach simply looks better. And Zunino’s batting average for last spring was .239 over 46 at-bats.)
“Obviously, in the big scheme of things,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “spring doesn’t count. But it’s nice to have those positive results. It kind of solidifies his conviction into what he’s trying to do. It helps.
“Positive results breed confidence.”
Zunino’s power is not an issue. He set a club record for catchers last season by hitting 22 homers. He also had 20 doubles, which left him with a solid .404 slugging percentage.
“The one thing we’ve tried to stress to him,” McClendon said, “is when you can stretch the field from foul line to foul line, you become a better and more dangerous hitter.”
It’s impossible not to look at Zunino’s power numbers and wonder how they might jump if he hikes his .254 on-base percentage into an acceptable range.
His OBP a year ago was the second-lowest in the majors among players with at least 450 plate appearances. Just getting it to .300 — still below the major league average of .314 — could do wonders.
“Without a doubt,” McClendon said. “If we can cut down those strikeouts, then his on-base percentage is going to go up. His walks are going to go up. He’s going to be a more all-round player for us. A more productive player. “
About those strikeouts …
Zunino led the Mariners a year ago with 158 whiffs. That, too, has been a point of emphasis this spring, and he shows encouraging signs: Much of his success has come in two-strike counts.
“I think I’m night-and-day better (with two strikes),” he said. “I know what I want to accomplish with two strikes. I have the base, and I can trust myself now instead of just going up there and hoping to get a pitch to hit.
“I sort of know what I want to do with two strikes. I’ve had two strikes a little more than I wanted to (have) this spring. I feel like it’s all of the time. But I guess this is the time to work on it.”
McClendon contends he overworked Zunino a year ago, which Zunino tacitly acknowledges by saying he believes fatigue contributed to some adverse hitting habits.
“When you don’t feel 100 percent,” he said, “when you start to feel a little fatigued, you try to generate too much — and that was pulling me off my swing.”
That fatigue prompted Zunino to structure his off-season conditioning regimen to increase durability. That should help, since McClendon is promising a similar workload of roughly 130 games.
“But I’d like to spread it out a little bit more,” McClendon said. “There were times (last season) when he was night-daying. That’s kind of tough, but we didn’t have a choice. We have that choice now.”
BACKUP AT SECOND
Say the Mariners want to rest Robinson Cano or give him a partial day off by having him serve as the designated hitter. Who plays second base — Utilityman Willie Bloomquist or long-time second baseman Rickie Weeks?
“That’s a good question,” McClendon parried. “I have that option. I don’t have the answer. I could use either one. Obviously, it would depend on who’s pitching and how they match up against that guy.”
Weeks hasn’t played second base this spring but spent his 11 previous major league seasons playing no other position. McClendon said he’d have no hesitation in putting him back at second.
“It’s like riding a bike,” McClendon said. “You get back on and pedal.”
Bloomquist has made three spring starts at second base, but Monday marked his first game action at shortstop. It effectively serves as the final test in his recovery from surgery Aug. 9 on his right knee.
“It is an important step,” McClendon said. “I think his legs are under him a little bit more now. He’s feeling a lot better.”
STARTING AT SECOND
One impact of Chris Taylor’s broken right wrist is the Mariners summoned infielder Tyler Smith from minor league camp to make his second start in four days.
Smith started Monday at second base against the Angels in Tempe; he started at shortstop last Friday against the Rangers in Surprise, Arizona. Smith spent most of last season at High-A High Desert.
Wondering why Smith got the call over Ketel Marte, who ranks No. 3 on the TNT Top 10 and is expected to start this season at Triple-A Tacoma? (Marte was optioned to Tacoma prior to last Friday’s game.)
Simple: Marte is on the 40-man roster. If he gets hurt, he goes on the major league disabled list and draws a major league salary while accumulating service time.
Smith isn’t on the roster. He would be placed on the minor league DL while drawing a minor league salary. That also is why Jack Reinheimer and Leury Bonilla gained recent call-ups.