June 19th, 2017 was the day I started believing that Mike Zunino’s improvement was irrevocable. Granted, he had been on a streak, but I’d seen plenty of those before. Zunino was hot, there was no doubt, but he’d been struggling for so long I wanted to do him a favor and not believe in him or at least ignore his improvement because I wanted him to succeed. I know that sounds contradictory, or even oxymoronic, but it’s a baseball thing to say, at least for a fan. When guys who’ve struggled at the plate heat up it’s best to not jinx the whole thing by making a big deal about it; it’s best to not change anything and let the good times ride out, even if it’s without you.
Fan martyrdom is a feckless and meaningless sacrifice when judged outside of the eye of the beholder, but necessary to the emotional content of the game. I’ve always judged Zunino in emotional terms because his progression has been defined by a myriad of struggles which, in my opinion, mirror the disarray and hardships of daily life. I root for Zunino like I root for myself, and curse his failures like my own. I’m not a super fan, I just search for metaphors where I can.
With all that said, 2015 was a shit year for Zunino, and it had everything to do with the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The college sensation—recipient of the Southeastern Player, Gold Spikes, Dick Howser, and Johnny Bench Awards—was rushed to the Big Leagues after a total of 81 Minor League appearances. Only 50 of those appearances were at the AAA level where in Tacoma his numbers indicated issues at the plate, namely strikeouts. His preparation was expedited without proper consideration taken for his long-term development. The shoddy construction of the scaffolding Zunino was forced to climb, namely at the order of former GM Jack Zduriencik would inevitably fail and threaten to collapse on the talented young prospect.
His debut in a Mariners’ uniform came on June 12th 2013. He hit a single on his second at-bat. On June 14th, he hit his first home run. June 28th, his first walk-off hit. Just as he was rushed into Major League Baseball, Zunino clustered his milestones in quick succession. He was speeding up his performance in a game that demands patience and punishes those that ignore its mechanics. As the season progressed, Zunino’s production became inconsistent. Sporadic home runs were encircled by hoards OF angry strikeouts. His handful of walks stood by and helplessly watched.
2014 was a disappointing year for the franchise and for Mike. The Mariners ended the season one game back from a postseason berth and Zunino was .40 batting average points back from a respectable offensive showing. In 476 plate appearances, he had 87 hits, 17 walks, and an anthill of strikeouts, totaling 158. He ended the season with a batting average of .199 and an on-base percentage of .254.
In 2015, his offensive woes increased and culminated in one of the worst at-bats I’d ever seen. On August 27th the Mariners were trailing the Chicago White Sox 4-2 heading into the 9th. Zunino approached the plate with the bases loaded and one out. I remember muttering, “Oh, shit,” to myself; you could see it in his face—fear. After he waited on a pitch in the dirt he flailed at three consecutive pitches placed in the same spot—low and outside—and struck out. It was embarrassing and sad. You could see he was defeated. Every swing was unfocused and conducted with desperation. He was chasing ghosts. He’d given up and I was mad at him for it; I’d defended him, silently cheered for him, and forked over all of my bargaining chips to the baseball gods to will Zunino into a better batter. My payments were gobbled without action and Mike was optioned to AAA Tacoma.
He ended the season with the fifth worst offensive performance from a catcher appearing in over 100 games in MLB history. The shoddy scaffolding he used to climb to the Majors had finally collapsed, and he was buried deep in the rubble of another disappointing season.
Lucky for Zunino, 2016 signaled a regime change with the introduction of General Manager Jerry Dipoto and head coach Scott Servais. From afar, Dipoto saw what former Mariners GM Jack Z did to Zunino and publicly declared his commitment to Mike. However, he’d send down the young catcher to begin the 2016 season in the Minor Leagues to properly develop. The hope was that they could undo the damage Zunino’s rush to the Majors has done to him by propping up his defensive talents to then salvage the third overall draft pick’s hidden offensive abilities. In other words, work on his confidence first and then his swing.
Zunino put his nose to the grindstone and aimed to improve his game on both sides of the plate. He’d always been fantastic defensively but strove to improve his defensive performance, especially his game-calling prowess and put-out accuracy. He invested time with the pitchers and built a sturdier rapport with them.
Mike’s work ethic and engagement with his teammates in Tacoma brought many of the younger guys, especially those yet to receive a call-up to the Majors, to look up to him. The residual effects of chasing his goal to return to professional baseball sharpened his skills as a leader. He carried that confidence into the cages where he worked with hitting coach Scott Brosius, who refocused his approach and simplified his swing. The results were immediate in 2016, where he hit .286—averaging a hit per game—and pushed his on-base percentage up to .376. The latter was largely due to Zunino’s increased walk rate—he was laying off the pitches he previously couldn’t help but hack at. Zunino was drawing walks and jaws were dropping when he did so.
Meanwhile at Safeco, Chris Iannetta, The Mariners everyday catcher during Zunino’s absence, had slipped in form and by July the M’s needed a change. Iannetta’s back up, Steve Clevenger sustained a hand injury and was put on the disabled list. As a result, Zunino was called up to add stability behind the plate.
On July 2nd, in his first at-bat back in a Mariners jersey, Zunino clubbed a 2-run home run. He’d go deep again later in the game and finished his day with a walk in the 8th inning. Coaches, journalists and fans alike commented that the walk was Zunino’s most impressive at-bat of the evening. Being that Mike had a history of hitting far more home runs than taking walks you can understand why. The walk signaled to everyone an improvement in his plate discipline.
For the remainder of 2016, Zunino was still somewhat inconsistent. However, in his 192 plate appearances he drew 21 walks, the same amount he gathered in 2015 with 386 PA. As a result, his on-base percentage leaped from .230 in 2015 to .318. What had changed was his new-found ability to hold off on pitches arriving low and outside; a quadrant where league pitchers had been punishing him for three years. Although not perfect, it became obvious that Mike was maturing as a ballplayer and learning some self-disciple in the process. He finished the season with a .207/.310/.470., but he showed significant improvement and a positive trend that went beyond his numbers. His offensive performance appeared like it could only improve.
That’s why the beginning of 2017 was so disappointing. Just when it looked like Zunino was over the hump, he came crashing down. In the first 24 games of the regular season he batted .167 (12-for-72), with a measly on-base percentage of .236. He managed only two RBI, no home runs, six walks and 30 strikeouts. What had happened to the new and improved Mike Zunino? No one had an answer, but when the Mariners announced, yet again, that they had optioned Zunino to AAA Tacoma Servais said,
“With where he’s at in his career, we thought, let’s take the foot off the gas here a little bit. Let’s get him down to Tacoma and get him right. And as soon as we get him right, he will be back. He’s not going to be down there for an extended period of time or whatever, but we do need him right. In talking with coaches and the front office, now was the time to make that move. Hopefully, he’s not down there long because we certainly need him. We still believe in him, but where he’s at in his career right now, it’s got to be more consistent. He’s got to put the ball in play.”
Behind Servais’ diplomatic turn of phrase, “With where he’s at in his career,” what was being communicated to the public, and possibly to Mike himself, was that he’s in a position where he needs to turn the corner; that now is the time to make the change; that now is the time to break through. The words I heard come out of Servais’ lips were, “It really needs to be now.” Zunino had reached the crucible of his career.
Rainiers head coach, Pat Listach, former Mariner and hitting coach, Edgar Martinez, and recently promoted Mariners assistant coach, Scott Brosius, worked with Zunino to shorten his swing, incorporate a leg kick, and change the direction of his swing to focus more hits to the middle of the field. Three changes sound like a lot, but Zunino picked them up quickly and put them to use. On May 22nd, after displaying good results in Minor League play, he was called back up.
What transpired was a revelation.
But, not right away.
On June 19th I had a pair of 300 level seats that came with a stellar view of the Seattle cityscape turning into molten honey as the sun gradually descended to meet the craggy ridges of the Olympics. Heading into the game, Zunino was hitting .336, with 23 RBI, six home runs, and 10 runs since his recall on May 23rd. I was hesitant to get on board the Z-train just yet, as I was afraid the over-hype to do with Mike’s return could jinx his hot streak. I remember sitting in my seat, looking at the skyscrapers glow like oozing strips of honeycomb and recounting the gold road Zunino had been tap dancing on since his recall.
On May 23rd Zunino did what he usually does when he’s recalled and hit a home run to signal his return. However, the Mariners received a 10-1 thrashing against the Washington Nationals that day, so the mood was more subdued than usual. The next four games Zunino went hitless with eight strikeouts and one walk. On May 28th he had the night off. In the visitor’s dugout at Fenway, he watched his team beat the Red Sox without him. On May 29th he prepared to beat the month of June.
From May 29th-31st Zunino collected six hits, three doubles, and one RBI. From June 2nd-7th (he didn’t play on the 1st) Mike had eight hits, five runs, three home runs, and a staggering 12 RBI. June 3rd was a standout performance. Against the Ray’s he brought in a total of seven RBI by smashing a double for two, a Grand Slam for four, and a single to add one more. The real beauty of the performance was that he was staying ahead in his counts or fighting his way back into them—something that was rare for him to do in the past.
The hits kept coming, besides the occasional three-strikeout game like the one he sustained on June 6th. Regardless, he was batting .302 with 15 RBI and four home runs in 13 games. The day after, he bounced back and did some serious damage against the Twins hitting two home runs including a walk-off homer to win the game. His offensive display continued to impress, but those that knew him best saw more in him than just the confidence that comes with a streak. Servais was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times:
“He’s been able to make adjustments. Last night he struck out three times and I asked him today and he knew right away what he was going to go to. ‘I got a little quick, I have to slow my leg kick down, my timing is going to be fine and I’ll be OK.’ Just getting that response back versus the wide-eyed, ‘I don’t know,’ he’s a much, much different player right now.”
On June 19th against the Detroit Tigers, I saw the change that Servais and the players in the clubhouse were seeing. It happened in the 6th inning. The Tigers loaded the bases with Steve Cishek on the mound with only 1 out. Cishek was replaced by James Pazos, the lights-out lefty that had been shaky as of late. The stadium hung in the balance—the tedium of the situation punching guts throughout the bleachers. However, dispelling the feeling of impending doom was Zunino who appeared to be in control of the situation.
Pazos struck out the first batter with a dime of a curveball grazing the outside edge of the plate. The third out, Andrew Romine, stepped up to the plate as Zunino visited the mound. I saw the dust cloud plume from his catcher’s mitt when he slapped it against Pazos’ back. He told the kid something, and I didn’t know what, but I believed it. Especially when Pazos canceled the threat with a 99 mph fastball for strike three to end the inning.
Zunino came up to bat the bottom of the 6th and worked his way out from a deficit into a full count and created the opportunity to send a 2-run laser into the left-field stands. In the 8th inning, he hit another 2-run dinger for insurance. From my seat, what I saw that night was a single player step up to control the game like an able veteran. I didn’t see Mike Zunino, the kid that was rushed to the Bigs, but a calm and collected catcher calling on his inner faculties to maximize his efficiency for optimal output. I still kept my mouth shut, but I was so damn proud of Mike—a beaming and fulfilling sense of pride that you only have for another human being when you watch them rise above and beat the odds against them. Teammate Kyle Seager had this to say in response to Zunino’s battle:
“He went down there, made some real adjustments and it’s tough. He’s a competitive guy and ultra-talented. It’s definitely been tough for him, but he’s battled through it and been professional the whole time. He never lost track of the pitching and catching side of it. It’s been pretty impressive to watch what he’s done.”
It’s true, Zunino’s streak eventually ended, but he had a great September and finished the season with a .251 batting average, 97 hits, 25 of them home runs, 64 RBI, 39 walks, and an on-base percentage of .331. Numbers that superseded his prior best if not obliterated a few of his worst. In the grander scheme of things these numbers are good, but for Mike they’re great.
In hindsight, when I recall the evening of June 19th I realize that Zunino’s performance summoned a feeling of pride that sparked an element of self-interrogation inside me. What I find challenging about Mike Zunino’s story is that it’s not altogether unique and also edging on the cliché. Many players struggle to find their form, and for every one that does, so many more don’t. His success story, at least as it stands now, follows the narrative of nearly every sports film—simple and formulaic. That being said, his story still moves me and stirs inside my gut a mixed bag of feelings.
In the end, I’m proud of him, but I also envy him because he had so much support and a team to stand by him. I envy the fact that he kept screwing up but no one gave up on him, including me; when if I were him I might have given up on myself. I suppose the real reason why I didn’t cheer for him was not just out of a superstitious gesture of support, but also out of a lingering note of jealousy. I support Zunino in emotional terms because I use baseball to escape certain aspects of life I choose not to face. He challenged his failures square in the face and still stands. Sooner or later I’ll have to face a few of my own.
Even in a realm so frivolous as baseball associations and metaphors can be forged that have larger implications in one’s life. The struggle of one is the struggle of many. The success of one fuels the confidence in another. The game of baseball fashions a catalog of situations which always display an opening for great things to happen. Ballplayers become archetypes when they exploit these spaces. The wheel keeps turning.
This Spring Training, five days before Opening Day, Mike’s on his way around the wheel. Currently, he’s batting .390, with 16 hits, 5 home runs, and 11 RBI in 41 at-bats. These likely won’t be his numbers in the regular season. He’s still going to be streaky, falter at times, and strike out, but he’s always going to bounce back because that’s what he does, and that’s what we do. We get up and play the next day.
I think I’ll cheer for him this year, out loud.
(Originally published on 03/25/2018 on my baseball blog, http://www.joebaseball.blog. Goodbye Mikey, we’ll miss you.)