No one has questioned Mike Zunino’s skill behind the plate or his propensity for delivering an intermittent moon shot. Zunino hit 22 home runs last season, including a 431-foot bomb April 14 at Texas, a 430-foot blast June 20 at Kansas City, and seven other wallops that, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, exceeded 400 feet.
But when Zunino didn’t hit a home run, he was one of the most frequent outs in the major leagues. In 438 at-bats, Zunino slashed .199/.254/.404 with a .658 OPS. Not only did Zunino produce the only sub-.200 batting average by a Mariners catcher with at least 400 ABs, he did so by a significant margin, breaking the previous low of .224 by Miguel Olivo (2011).
Had Zunino not been hit by pitch 17 times, tying Dave Valle’s 1993 franchise record, he barely would have reached base at all.
Spring training stats almost never translate to the regular season, but Zunino’s current numbers are worth noting. Friday, he went 2-for-3 with two home runs in a 4-4 tie with the Texas Rangers. Saturday, in a 12-10 loss to the Chicago Cubs, he went 1-for-3 with a double, a walk and two runs scored, lifting his Cactus League average to .346.
Zunino has spent much of spring training focused on keeping his bat in the zone longer, and it’s working.
“That’s the goal and then the pitch is going to dictate where you hit it,” Zunino said. “If my path and direction can stay to the pitcher and focus up the middle and I just trust my hands to hit where the ball is pitched, I think that’s going to be the key.”
“The one thing we’ve tried to stress with him,” said manager Lloyd McClendon, “is when you stretch the field from foul line to foul line, you become a better and more dangerous hitter. It’s a work in progress, but he’s getting better.”
Zunino told mariners.com that he’s feeling more comfortable in many situations, including his two-strike approach.
“I feel like I’m night-and-day better there,” Zunino said. “I know what I want to accomplish with two strikes. I feel like I have the base and can trust myself now instead of feeling like I’m going up there just hoping I get a pitch to hit. I know what I want to do with two strikes.
“I’ve had two strikes a little more than I want this spring. I feel like it’s all the time. But I guess this is the time to work on it.”
Kenji Johjima (2006-09) holds the two highest single-season batting marks by a Mariners catcher. He hit .291 in 2006 and .287 in 2007.
Mariners 8, Rangers 0
Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz both slugged three-run homers and James Paxton threw 3.1 shutout innings in his Cactus League debut as the Mariners shellacked the Texas Rangers Sunday at Peoria Stadium. Paxton allowed five hits, all singles, as Seattle improved to 9-8-2.
The Mariners rallied with two outs in the first inning with back-to-back singles by Robinson Cano and Cruz in front of a Seager three-run home run to left-center. Cano was also in the middle of the next rally, following Seth Smith’s one out walk with a single to left, before a Cruz three-run shot off the center-field wall high above the yellow line.
Cruz has hit a home run in each of his last two games and now has three home runs during spring training. In Cactus League play, he is hitting .407 (11×27) with five runs, three home runs and seven RBIs.
The Mariners resume Cactus League play Monday at 1:05 p.m. against the L.A. Angels, also Seattle’s opponent on Opening Day April 6. RHP Erasmo Ramirez will oppose RHP Matt Shoemaker . . . LHP J.A. Happ follows Tuesday against the San Diego Padres in Peoria. He’ll contest RHP Andrew Cashner . . . RHP Tiajuan Walker, bidding to become the club’s No. 5 starter, gets the nod Wednesday against the White Sox.
Felix Hernandez suffered a rare meltdown Saturday as he allowed six runs on six hits against the Cubs. But the King brushed off the uncharacteristically poor outing, saying it was “just part of the process” of getting ready for Opening Day.