What to expect from Mike Zunino

 The Seattle Mariners’ catcher of the future is back in the majors. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

Mike Zunino was rushed to the big leagues after being selected No. 2 overall on the 2012 Draft. He received a total of 229 plate appearances in Triple-A Tacoma prior to receiving the call-up in 2013. He’d received 276 minor league plate appearances before that, including the Arizona Fall League, for a grand total of 505 trips to the plate below the major leagues.

But that wasn’t the fire-able offense for the Jack Zduriencik regime in regards to Zunino’s development. It wasn’t even their belief that Zunino would be able to finish his development in the big leagues. It was their steadfast confidence the Florida Gators product would be able to sidestep the detriment of being rushed.

Zunino showed promise in 2014 in his first full season as major-league catcher. Sound defensively, Zunino popped 22 home runs to combat at least a small portion of the very poor .199 average and .254 on-base percentage. But “promise” is about the long-term. One can argue the Mariners should have been aggressive in their pursuit for a veteran starting-caliber catcher prior to 2015. They did not. They even acquired one in May and kept him for a few minutes and traded him away.

But Zunino did start 2016 the same place he ended last season — Triple-A Tacoma. Between his send-down last summer and the first nearly-three months of 2016, Zunino has amassed another 330 plate appearances. Why is this important?

Zunino was a mechanical mess for the better part of ’15, getting out on his front foot early on a regular basis — Zunino called it being anxious; he was not attempting to pull everything. Perhaps the biggest result Zunino needed to combat was the 34% strikeout rate he posted in the majors last season, alongside an uninspiring 5.4 percent walk rate.

In Tacoma this season, Zunino has used the middle of the field more. He’s a few of his 15 home runs to right and right-center field, found a few more hits to center and right-center than before, and his strikeout rate sits at 21.6 percent. For a power bat — Zunino slugged .516 in the Pacific Coast League — 21.6 percent is acceptable. Maybe more importantly, the bottom-half load is more sound and allows Zunino to keep his head and hands still more consistently. How consistently? We’ll find out soon, because the only test that matters is the big-league test.

Zunino’s accomplished his solid number by staying back and trusting his hands more, and staying closed in the process, which helps him reach pitches on the outer half. He hasn’t chased the right-handed breaking ball as much, and while I’ve been in attendance — nine games, 37 plate appearances — he’s done a good job of attacking only the fastballs he can drive, showing less urgency in hitter’s counts to go with a simplified contact-driven game plan in pitcher=s counts.

What Zunino appears to be capable of today he showed he wasn’t capable of a year ago is all about a swing that now supports more solid contact to areas of the field other than his severe pull side. He still will hit a lot of balls to left field, he still will strike out, too. But perhaps his work the past 330 plate appearances, plus spring training, will result in fewer weak-or-no-contact outs.

An Iannetta-Zunino catching combo is probably where the Mariners were headed for 2017, anyway, but there is risk in the move, up to and including this being too soon to expect Zunino to avoid jumping back into bad habits. Nobody knows better than the Mariners; front office and player development staff, however, and the hope now is GM Jerry Dipoto — who has broken the original plan by calling on Zunino before July, before he gave them “no choice” — remains true to his player development track record, which means if Zunino struggles mightily for an extended period, he’s shipped back before it’s too late.

If it’s not too late, alreay.

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Jason A. Churchill

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