PEORIA, Ariz. — The right way to add punch to his offensive production, Mariners catcher Mike Zunino contends, is, well, the right way.
“I think I just need to totally commit to going to right-center,” Zunino said. That’s been my strength for a while, and I keep my bat in the zone for a longer time.”
This isn’t exactly a revelation.
Zunino said much the same thing on numerous occasions last season when he set a club record for homers by a catcher with 22 despite finishing below the Mendoza Line with a .199 average.
But an off-season of introspection reinforced the point before Zunino arrived for spring workouts currently under way at the organization’s renovated complex in the Northwest Phoenix suburbs.
“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.
“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.”
That work started before Zunino arrived for spring training.
He spends the winter near in Gainesville near the Florida campus, where he was the consensus college player of the year in 2012 prior to his selection by the Mariners with the third overall selection in that year’s draft.
“You go and check out your tapes,” Zunino said. “You see your highlights and where you had success. You’re able to take a step back from being in the rush of the season.
“You’re able to see how guys attacked you, and you go back to those times and (evaluate) what you were doing or thinking. It was nice to take some time off and totally clean the slate out.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon preached patience last year through Zunino’s offensive struggles. This year, the message remains the same.
“Mike Zunino is going to be an All-Star catcher in the very near future,” McClendon insisted. “We’re dealing with a young man who came to the big leagues after (364) minor-league at-bats. Is he going to struggle a little bit? Yeah. Are there going to be growing pains?
“Absolutely. Are there going to be times when you wonder if he’s ever going to get a hit again? Yeah. He also had more home runs than any catcher in the American League. He’s doing a few things right.”
True enough, but Zunino struck out 157 times in 435 at-bats, and his .254 on-base percentage was the second-worst in baseball among players with at least 400 plate appearances.
(Only Baltimore second baseman Jonathan Schoop was worse at .244.)
Part of Zunino’s struggles a year ago likely stemmed from his emphasis on the defensive aspects of his catching responsibilities. Simply put, he had to learn his pitching staff.
His defensive numbers were solid.
Zunino’s catchers’ ERA was the second-best in baseball among those who caught at least 800 innings. His range factor and fielding percentage ranked fourth among American League catchers.
“This is a tough staff to catch,” McClendon said. “We have guys with all sorts of movement. Felix (Hernandez), (James) Paxton over the top, Kuma (Hisashi Iwakuma) with that split. It’s hard.
“Ask the pitchers. They like throwing to this kid because they know he’s going to block the pitches he needs to block.”
Former teammate Chris Young once said, “I continue to be just blown away with Mike when I remember that he’s a rookie back there. He’s doing a great job.”
Now, though, it’s time for Zunino to get the bat working.
“It definitely makes it a little more comfortable,” he said, “coming into spring training and knowing the (pitchers). Last year, I was learning six or seven guys.
“This year, we have one new starter and, maybe, one new bullpen arm. Not too much.
“I’ve just got to get into the batting cage and start with the basics. I’ve been feeling really good. I’ve been talking to HoJo (hitting coach Howard Johnson) and with Lloyd just to get on the same page.”
And do things the right way.