Sports

What’s gone wrong for Mariners’ Mike Zunino this season? And is it time to move on?

Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) in the first inning during a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) in the first inning during a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) AP

Mike Zunino sees all the same stats that you do.

He knows he’s struck out 133 times this season, and that among players with at least 300 plate appearances only the Cubs’ Ian Happ has a higher strikeout-per-at-bat ratio. A week into September, Zunino’s carrying a .188 batting average.

It eats him more than you.

“The numbers are the numbers at this point,” Zunino said.

Some players unleash their frustrations on stray helmets, buckets or other destroyable objects within their grasp. Some find a corner to sulk. One pitcher took it out on his own face earlier this year.

“Mike is certainly one of our toughest guys – physically and mentally,” Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He knows he’s struggling. It’s hard. Some of these players wear it and they’ll wear it differently. Some of them will yell and scream and throw bats and helmets and bust everything up, and other guys just kind of internalize.

“Mike starts internalizing ... and then he’ll bust a few bats,” Servais laughed. “These players know, and it’s hard on them.”

But at what point does a team cut loose and move on? When does the direction change?

In Servais’ eyes, no matter the noise from the outside, the Mariners are a long way from reaching that point with their 27-year-old former first-round catcher.

“I don’t get why people say we’d walk away from him,” Servais said. “It’s never going to happen.”

Maybe that’s just lip service, but Servais’ case seemed convincing.

“Because we’ve seen it happen for him,” said Servais, a former MLB catcher, himself.

“The state of catching in today’s game, he brings so much to the table with what he does behind the plate – the game-calling, the throwing arm is good and he has the physical attributes you look for out of a guy back there. Offensively, it’s frustrating for him and frustrating to watch, and really just the lack of contact. When he hits it, it’s usually hit hard because he’s that strong.

“It should all click and come together. I’ve often said catchers figure it out later and that’s the most frustrating part – because we thought he was on the verge of taking that next step.”

Zunino hasn’t this year. He did last season.

And that’s why the Mariners maintain their hope. That’s why Zunino does, too.

“You look at it and it’s like, ‘Look, it’s in there,’” Zunino said. “I saw it last year and I got to a point in my career when I had to make some changes and I did and it worked. You put up the numbers I was able to toward the back half of the year and the at-bats, and the quality of them, you understand that you’re in the right direction.

“So for me, it’s one of those things – just trust in that and get back to it.”

For as poor as he was at the plate to start 2017, he finished with production only matched by MVP-type hitters. From May 29 until the end of the season (a 95-game stretch) Zunino slashed .281/.361/.589 with 24 home runs. That’s a .950 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

The only players to do what Zunino did hit after May 29 last season were Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto. All of those players were All-Stars this season, except for Stanton (and he was last year’s National League MVP).

Zunino’s OPS this year is .641. What happened?

He pointed out that it was barely a year ago that he overhauled his swing in Triple-A Tacoma. And each time it seemed like he was on the verge of taking steps forward this year he then took two steps backward.

Let’s rewind a few months.

Zunino continued his swing work into the offseason and tore up the Cactus League in spring training. Some wondered if he was preparing for an MVP-caliber season, especially considering all that he does behind the plate.

Servais said the Mariners, like he believes every team in the majors, ask their catchers to place defense ahead of offense, meaning much of Zunino’s day is spent scouring scouting reports and developing a game plan. He’s universally appreciated by the Mariners’ rotation for how he calls a game.

But just as he hit his stride entering the season, offensively, Zunino then strained his oblique the day before Opening Day during an on-field workout at Safeco Field.

How bad was that? At the time, Servais said the No. 1 player they could least afford to lose was Zunino.

“On my radar, the No. 1 most important (player) was him,” Servais had said. “Just because the value he brings to our pitching staff and where he was at offensively. I don’t think this is going to detract from what he’s able to do this season for us, but you hate to see him kind of get behind the eight ball.”

That was wishful thinking.

You can’t pin all of Zunino’s struggles on that injury. But it certainly was part of the problem.

“I couldn’t really do all the drills I wanted to at the intensity I wanted to because of whether it’s how your body feels or just mental blocks,” Zunino said. “You talk about an oblique and how much torque and stuff you want to do with your swing – you don’t want to push it and feel like you’re going to miss another 6-8 weeks.

“So that was another thing, like, ‘OK, I’ll just not do those and try to patch this up together.’ And the next thing you know it’s a month or two later and you’re like, ‘God …’”

Two months after returning off the disabled list, Zunino was batting .185 through 63 games (though he had hit 12 home runs).

So he and Mike Micucci, the instructor who sat Zunino down in Rainiers manager Pat Listach’s Tacoma office to go over the swing adjustments, met again at Safeco Field in early July to figure out what has wrong. Both went as far as to say there was a eureka moment. They thought Zunino had got too narrow in his stance.

(Side note: Micucci has since been reportedy told he won’t be back with the Mariners organization in 2019.)

Then another setback. Zunino went to the disabled list the next day with a bone bruise in his ankle.

“Injuries are part of the game and it’s part of our job to make some adjustments,” Zunino said. “It’s hard, though. Just unfortunate that my adjustments took me a little further away from what I was doing than I would have liked.”

And he’s certainly not the only one on the Mariners to regress this season. Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon are just two in that same boat.

“I’m sure there are quite a few guys in here who wished their year had gone a little bit different,” Zunino said. “But you just want to end it on the right note, knowing that going into the offseason you are in a good spot. Hopefully you have some good at-bats and that’s enough to carry a team to a wild-card race and farther. And I think sometimes it’s about taking the foot off the gas and evaluating and going, ‘OK, let’s get back to it and fix the quality of the at-bat and let everything else work itself.’”

Zunino was back in his workout clothes taking batting practice on Tuesday, well before team stretching and workouts. He was hitting pitch after pitch to right-center field from hitting coach Edgar Martinez and talking with the Mariners’ legend, as well as third-base coach Scott Brosius.

No, those season numbers aren’t going to change much over the final 22 games. But he said he knows at least what direction he needs to go. He’s seen the end destination before.

“No doubt, no doubt.” Zunino said. “I’m watching the film, bringing up video from the past couple months and from last year and offseason video and, I mean, there are a lot of things. I had stretches where I went through all of that. Like in Texas – I got back to where I wanted to be and then I got out of my approach when I got to Houston. I felt derailed a little bit, but now I’m getting back to that and trusting it.

“That’s the thing – I was so process-driven last year knowing it was a new swing and it’s really only about a year ago doing this new move. I’ve had to patchwork it a little bit with injuries, but it’s like, (shoot), I need to get back to that approach. I have to get back to what’s working and try to have a good 3-4 weeks and hopefully that helps the team.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill

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