Seattle Mariners

Mariners’ Mike Zunino spends day off trying to rediscover his swing ... with help from old friend

Seattle Mariners' Mike Zunino starts rounding the bases after hitting a solo home run on a pitch from Kansas City Royals' Ian Kennedy during a baseball game, Friday, June 29, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
Seattle Mariners' Mike Zunino starts rounding the bases after hitting a solo home run on a pitch from Kansas City Royals' Ian Kennedy during a baseball game, Friday, June 29, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

This time last year, Mike Zunino was coming off of the most productive month of his career – so much so that you could have renamed it Junino 2017.

But June 2018 was far from Junino levels. Check out the difference:

June 2017 Zunino: 24 games, .304/.371/.722, 10 HRs, 31 RBI, 32 strikeouts

June 2018 Zunino: 22 games, .167/.228/.375, 4 HRs, 11 RBI, 34 strikeouts

The Seattle Mariners gave him Wednesday off with Chris Herrmann catching for right-hander Mike Leake, as has been standard for them. But Zunino spent the early part of his day hitting and working on his swing with minor league catching coordinator Mike Micucci.

That’s a good sign for the Mariners. Micucci often roams between Double-A and Triple-A, but he helped reinvent Zunino’s swing last season in Tacoma, when he was sent down because of a rough start to the big-league season.

“He’s just trying to find his stroke,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster this year, so just trying to find some consistency. Just when he starts to feel like he’s found it, he reverts back again.”

Zunino’s problem, Servais said, is swinging at far too many pitches outside of the strike zone. He has swung at 36.1 percent of pitches that would be balls, which is up from 30.1 percent last season and 29.6 the year before, according to Fangraphs. He’s actually making more contact on pitches in the strike zone than he did last year, but that over-aggressiveness has cost him too often.

You got to hit strikes,” Servais said. “Got to hit strikes. And his head is moving a lot chasing some pitches. Just trying to get him back in a comfort zone.”

Zunino’s home run numbers have been among the best in the big leagues. His 12 home runs trails only the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (14) for most homers by a catcher in the major leagues this season. And the 454-foot home run he launched almost out of the park and into the third deck was the farthest-hit home run since MLB’s Statcast began tracking in 2015.

And everything he’s done defensively, controlling the run game, pitch framing and game planning with the pitching staff has proved he’s among the best in at least the American League in that regard. Zunino has a 3.66 catcher ERA, which means that’s the Mariners’ ERA when Zunino is catching the game, and it’s the fourth-best mark in the American League.

For comparison, Mariners pitchers had a 4.76 ERA in the 23 games David Freitas caught in and 4.38 in the 10 Mike Marjama caught. Herrmann had a 1.95 catcher’s ERA, but he had only started four games entering Wednesday.

“Every one of our pitchers says the same thing – we all talk about how much we love Z back there,” said Marco Gonzales after his most recent start. “Herm, too. Both of those guys work really hard at scouting hitters and getting to know us personally. But Z is as prepared as anybody.”

That’s why Servais continues to say Zunino is their everyday catcher and that won’t change.

“You hear him run the pitcher’s meetings and things like that pregame-wise,” Servais said. “He’s very confident and pitchers appreciate that, and he’s being able to make adjustments in the game, understanding what pitchers have and don’t have. Oftentimes I trust him, ‘What do you think? Does this guy have another inning left in him?’ Those types of things. He’s getting to that point where he’ll give you good feedback and sometimes I go with it, and sometimes I don’t. But I’m asking him and I think that’s helped.”

And he’s expecting at some point Zunino’s bat will come back around to where it was in the second half of last season, too, when he proved he was maybe the Mariners’ most valuable player.

“It’s coming along – it’s one of those where it’s taken longer than I’d like,” Zunino said. “But it’s starting to feel better. Hopefully it’s a good sign of things to come.”

300 steals

Dee Gordon took off for third base in the seventh inning of the Mariners’ 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night, gathering his 300th career stolen base.

He’s now one of three active players with that many, joining Jose Reyes and Rajai Davis and Gordon pushed his season total to 22 steals, which is best in the American League.

“Skip talks to me about it all the time,” Gordon said of getting the 300th steal.

Oh, yes he did.

“I have been giving him a hard time,” Servais said with a wry smile. “Sometimes you can poke the bear a little bit.”

Gordon received a standing ovation from the Safeco Field crowd after he stood up safely at third base.

“That was awesome, man,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty cool. But we’re just trying to win ball games.”

Gordon led the majors with 60 steals with the Miami Marlins last season before the Mariners acquired him in an offseason trade. He also led the majors in steals in 2015 (58) and 2014 (64).

On tap

Left-hander Marco Gonzales (8-5, 3.77 ERA) starts for the Mariners in their 7:10 p.m. series finale on Thursday at Safeco Field, and he’ll be opposed by Angels right-hander Jamie Barria (5-4, 3.40 ERA), who is taking the place of injured right-hander Tyler Skaggs, who headed to the disabled list on Wednesday.

The game will broadcast on Root Sports and 710-AM radio.

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