It was great to see Mike Zunino hit a 2-run walk-off home run last night to beat the Minnesota Twins, 6-5.
And I guess at this point in Mike Z’s career, one can only think of the Grateful Dead’s line from their iconic song, Truckin’: “Sometimes the light is shinin’ on me, Other times I can barley see, Lately it occurs what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Indeed, Zunino’s career with the Seattle Mariners has been a strange trip. Right now, his batting average for the 2017 season is .229, the highest he’s held in his 5 years with the Mariners. And it has to be frustrating to him since being drafted 3rd overall by the Mariners in 2012.
Defensively, Zunino is one of the best in the major leagues. He calls the games really well and has that innate quality to settle pitchers down when needed.
But for far too long, he was a black hole in the Mariner line-up. Striking out at a pace that bordered on the ridiculous, missing pitches that he should have crushed and pretty much not having a clue what to do once he got to the plate.
Zunino was sent down earlier this year to get his swing right. No one can deny his strength. After all, in 2013, he did hit 22 home runs while hitting a paltry .199 for the year. But working with Scott Brosius when he was sent down, as well as with Mariner great Edgar Martinez, they got Zunino to apply a set of rules that he can focus on.
The result? His last 8 games has been nothing short of amazing. Average: .444, On base %: .485, Slugging %: .900. No one can expect him to keep that pace and we’ve seen surges from Zunino before. And it would be hard to expect a career .214 hitter to suddenly become a .400 hitter for the rest of the year.
However, one can see when Zunino comes to the plate, he has a plan, something he didn’t have before. The testament to that was a conversation that manager Scott Servias had with him after Tuesday’s nights game when he struck out 3 times. Servias had asked him about those at bats. Instead of giving the skipper a deer in the headlights look and a “I don’t know,” Zunino knew exactly what was going on. He told Servias that “I got a little quick, I gotta slow my leg kick down, my timing is going to be fine, I’m going to be OK.” I don’t think last year you would have heard that from Mike Zunino.
And the next night, that proved true with Mike going 2-3 with 2 home runs and 3 RBI’s, a walk and zero strike outs.
Oh sure, there have been some slight mechanical changes. He is standing up a little straighter at the plate and his head his more turned to the pitcher to allow better tracking on the ball. And when you have only .4 seconds to decide on whether or not to take a swing, every advantage helps.
But for the longest time, Zunino didn’t have a clue what to do at the plate and could no longer rely on his natural abilities. The pitchers at the major league level are the best in the world and will figure out your weakness and unmercifully expose it on a constant basis. After all, it’s their job to do so.
And these pitchers will make adjustments to Zunino and then the real test comes: Will Zunino still trust his process? Will he stick to the plan and continue to only look for pitches he can attack?
If Zunino can lift his average this year to around .235 to .240, one would have to qualify his season as successful. I don’t care how many home runs he gets. If this process works, he’ll hit 18-22 by default. What I care about is productive at bats: Moving the runner over, getting in the runner from third base and keeping innings alive.
If there is a message I could relay to Mike, it would be this: All Seattle Mariner fans are pulling to you Mike. And we hope that we continue to see you in a Mariner uniform for the rest of your career.