BY Art Thiel 07:00AM 07/15/2013

Thiel: Mariners’ uptick depends a lot on Zunino

The Mariners were once the most formidable offense in baseball. In recent years, they’ve been the worst. Lately, the power has come back. False positive, or real deal?

Eric Wedge, a former catcher, likes what he sees from the most important youngster in the organization — Mike Zunino. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

To find another time when the Mariners hit in the recent prodigious fashion, fans have to go back to the days before Jay Buhner was screeching from the TV, demanding we buy trucks. Looong time ago. He used to play baseball here back in the day when an 11-8 number was a typical game outcome and not the average temperature in Phoenix.

In 1997, Buhner hit a career-high 40 home runs. But in the club derby, his butt was kicked by Ken Griffey Jr., who had 56. Edgar Martinez finished fourth at 28, behind Paul Sorrento’s 31. Russ Davis had 20, and the main guy behind the plate, Dan Wilson, had 15. Jose Cruz Jr. had 12, and even Little Joey Freakin’ Cora had 11.

Back when email was the new populist technology and cell phones were still the size of cereal boxes, the Mariners hit 264 home runs and scored 925 runs. In a single season. Yes, they played in the Kingdome. The numbers still counted. The team OPS was .839.

The Mariners led the majors by a mile — Cleveland was second in homers with 220  — and Seattle was in thrall; 3.2 million coming indoors in a Seattle summer to watch baseball.

Fast forward 15 years, pausing at 2012. The Mariners hit 149 homers and scored 619 runs with a team OPS of .665, all last in the majors.  Catcher John Jaso led the team with an .850 OPS — about what the 1997 team averaged. And that was an upgrade from 2011, when they had 109 homers and 556 runs, led by Miguel Olivo’s 19 dingers and Mike Carp’s .791 OPS, with a team OPS of .641. And 1.6 million people showed up.

What is sought in these numbers is a little perspective. In fact, longtime Mariners fans have more perspective than most markets when it comes to baseball offense — they have seen the best and the worst.

Granted, much is different between the eras –  big outdoor stadium vs. small indoor stadium, rampant PEDs vs. fewer PEDs, and the growing dominance of pitching over hitting throughout MLB.

Nevertheless, the homestand that ended Sunday produced 48 runs in seven games and was a massive storm for fans parched after five years of drought. It is easy to be swept away in the novelty of the flood.

The goal of course, is a sustainable flow. And there’s little to suggest that it’s here; or that’s it’s not.

The lineup the Mariners used Sunday to beat the Angels 4-3 and sweep their first series of the season is the best they can offer: catcher Mike Zunino (.235), first baseman Justin Smoak (.272), second baseman Nick Franklin (.268), shortstop Brad Miller (.246), third baseman Kyle Seager (.293), left fielder Raul Ibanez (.267), center fielder Dustin Ackley (.205) and right fielder Michael Saunders (.225) and DH Kendrys Morales (.280).

Two obvious things about the group: With the exception of the 41-year-old Ibanez — who is wrinkling time in a fashion that will have astrophysicists in the clubhouse Friday seeking a word with him — all of the hitters are 30 and under and, with the exception of Ackley, becoming productive.

There are no sub-Mendoza Line performers, something that has been hard to say in Seattle since the great 2001 team of 116 wins. All that is very cool for Mariners fans.

The flip side is that three are rookies (Zunino, Franklin and Miller) and two others are young veterans (Smoak and Saunders) who have histories of periodic fades. So the MLB track record for five guys in the lineup is spotty or non-existent.

The trouble with rookies is that they are rookies. The Mariners front office is asking a lot very quickly. For those who remember the 1997 team, which won 90 games and the AL West title, most of them then were as Morales is now — prime-timers. The virtue of producing steadily at the MLB level is, for 95 percent of hitters, a function more of experience than talent. To reach the majors requires talent. To stay in the majors takes smarts borne of experience.

Naturals like Griffey, Rodriguez, John Olerud, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are so rare that they don’t belong in the conversation.

But the Mariners are trying to force one of the young’uns into the chat  — Zunino. He is the one player upon whom any upward arc in the second half most depends, and it’s why he’s in Seattle one year after being drafted out of college.

The circumstance is that he is largely irreplaceable within the organization. In his first month in the bigs, he is catching six days a week. The Mariners have already burned through Jesus Montero, Kelly Shoppach and Jesus Sucre and recently brought 41-year-old Henry Blanco virtually out of retirement to catch one day a week and mentor Zunino.

He’s playing the most difficult position in the game with just a season and change in minor league experience. So far, manager Eric Wedge thinks the Mariners are getting away with it.

“I like what I see,” said Wedge of Zunino. “He’s handled all of the pitchers fine, he’s thrown the ball well, works hard. He’s getting a better feel for our pitchers in regard to calling a game. And he’s getting experience with the league. Those are all positives.”

In the homestand, he was 7 for 22 with three RBIs, bringing his average since the June 12 callup to .235. He was at .238 in AAA Tacoma. As is often said of catchers, anything done with the bat is a bonus. But in Zunino’s case, because the Mariners are so thin, he needs to do it all.

Because of the nature of the job, he should be getting more credit for the Mariners’ 8-5 run against the Rangers, Reds, Red Sox and Angels that closed the first half. And if he slips in the second half, longtime Mariners fans will be quick to label him the next Jeff Clement.

Clement was one among many false positives for the Mariners. Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, both in their contract years, desperately need Zunino, more than anyone else, to be the real deal.


YourThoughts

  • maqman

    Zunino is probably the most important rookie for the reasons you mention but he is also the only one who’s other job requirements are as important as his bat. He is noticeably much better behind the plate than anyone who has squatted there since Wilson. He’s stopped at least a half dozen passed balls just in games I watched in the past week. He probably keeps as many runs off the board with his glove as he puts on with his bat, it’s just not as flashy as a hand over the fence catch in center field. I expect his bat will catch up with his glove eventually, he has an impressive history of hitting well, but he already adds some serious value as is.

    • art thiel

      He’s light years better than Montero, Johjima and the many part-timers. Feet, hands, reflexes, positioning. He has everything but experience. Throwing out Trout at second on a steal attempt was a milestone moment.

      The test is the emotional/psychological pressure. He’s still figuring out MLB breaking balls, so at .235, he’s done well, given his other duties. He’s a real mature kid from a baseball family, so he seems well suited to survive in the crucible.

      • maqman

        I agree, he’s got the make-up and moxie to succeed. The mental pressures might deflect Ackley from his hopes but Zunino has a different character.

  • Jamo57

    Art, the recent uptick in offensive production is certainly encouraging. On the other hand I can’t ignore the sense of doubt that it also coincides with the best extended stretch of summer weather we’ve had in 4 or 5 years. Why do I sense that as soon as we go back to 58 degree damp weather, the Ms will go back to hitting .228 and scoring 1.37 runs a game? Call it Post Boredom Stress Syndrome perhaps?

    • art thiel

      I think the Mariners should contract with Jeff Renner to make out the lineup. There must be a database that spells out who does better at 80+, who still hits at 50+ and who is all-temp.

      But then there’s the increase in home runs for 81 road games. Hmm. We might just have to put it off to ability.

  • Craig H. – Bellevue

    “The goal of course, is a sustainable flow. And there’s little to suggest that it’s here; or that’s it’s not.”

    Art: good macro take on the club, and micro take on Zunino, as usual, cuz (after much Internet searching the past few days, it looks like we may actually be 3d-cousins, 2d-removed, by way of a mutant DNA genome off the PLU campus). But I digress.

    I went to the Sat. nite game featuring Felix dueling Weaver. First time in many years I went to the Safe, both as a matter of economics (I’m a wisecracking senior on a fixed budget), and the sense that I am a more astute observor of what has been going on with us fans with the esteemed ‘brain trust in the exec. suite’ (and won’t aid and abet the fleecing of the local flock). I talked to quite a few passionate season ticket holders there who are in the know, as well as a few ushers, and to a person they are all basically fed up with Yamauchi, Lincoln, and Armstrong. And I share their angst: nothing of longstanding consequence will happen to this club until that entire Ship of Tools is put on an ice floe somewhere off Krakatoa, east of Java (or is it West of Java?). Anyway, cuz, you may get my (ice floe) drift here, yourself

    The one disconcerting thing still for me at the Safe on Saturday? That the loudest cheers of the night were still for the inane hydro races, and the ball under the ballcap caper. And for at least half the attendees in the 32.5K number, they seemed far more interested in seeing if they could get immortalized on the Ackley Gnomecam. My god, folks, act like real fans for a change, OK, and not just someone out for the evening because your Xbox 360 needs charging back in your single-wide down in ‘claw.

    Will the M’s do again what almost comes naturally post-All Star break, and go into a flatliner death spiral at 7 G’s? I suspect they will, and will be taking a bunch of us hardcore fans with them if they do something(s) really stupid at the July 31st trading deadline (like jettisoning faves like Raul and Morales and Seager, and getting essentially a box of rocks and an option for a used Packard in return). If the past is a predictor of future events, as the loathesome Dr. Phil is wont to opine, then ‘we have met the enemy, and it is us’. …or is that what Pogo said?

    Anyway, the recent homestand has been fun to watch, and I do hope the M’s have firmly pulled their collective heads out of their sphincter orofices. If not, your next column will surely eloquently yak volumes about the Hawks’ opening of training camp.

    See you at Thanksgiving at nana’s house!

    Peace (and….pls. to pass the giblet gravy).

    • art thiel

      The ownership issue is somewhat less than breaking news, Craig.

      As far as the crowds, most parks offer the same sort of video games and trinket giveaways. I’d like to say it’s Seattle-specific, but it’s actually global-specific.

      As far as the trade deadline, no one can say, because if the Mariners sustain the hitting for two weeks, the could be on the outskirts of respectability. I still don’t think Ibanez or Morales will bring more than a B-level prospect, and their departures would signal the sellout of the season.

      • Craig H. – Bellevue

        Art, I realize that the ownership issue is ‘somewhat less than breaking news.’ My point was that this long-help belief of mine, and I believe also of your’s, has now from my first-person experience @ Saturday’s game, now firmly taken root in the season ticket class (and not the Diamond Club or korporate suite class; I’m talking the blue collar types, like the retiree I spoke with who had 25 years as a postman & who drove all the way up to the game from Vancouver, WA; etc. I think that when the very bedrock (or at least what is left from the halycon days of 3.5M total attendance back in 2001) of season ticket holders are now grumbling and mumbling openly like a toothless senior on a park bench in White Center (oops, a little to close to home there), then, as Commander Buzz Right Cross Aldrin was wont to say during Apollo 12 (14?), and then reprised that memorable phrase on ‘Dancing With the Stars’: ‘Houston, we have a MoFo of a marketing problem!’

        Do you think the casual fan part of the average Safeco Field hydro-worshippin’ ‘crowd’ (sic) is pretty close to the average percentage of average, casual fans in all other MLB ballyards? I have a feeling that a very healthy minority (or even a 50/50 split) of our home town groaners are there just for the experience, and for Mike ‘Nasal Man’ Blowers to bestow sotted garlic fries on said laps during the interminable 7th-inning La-Z-Boy stretch (w/ Junior presumably delivering the gastronomic mess). I’ve been to MLB games in Milwaukee, L.A. (both), Cincinnati, and the new Comiskey Field, and at no time did I experience the level of casual fan in any of those parks that I do here in SoDo.

        Thanks for your studied perspective, Big Man. Always appreciated.

        • art thiel

          Each passing year brings more casual fans for the park, grass and food. The Mariners’ relentless mediocrity makes it a little harder to be a hard-core fan.

          In terms of baseball passion, this place won’t be St. Louis, New York or Chicago, but that’s OK. Lots of markets get along without the tradition. People paying these ticket prices have a right to be discerning in how they spend discretionary dollars. And there’s a much longer summer tradition here of being on the water or up in the mountains.

  • Da Kid

    Hey, who’s this Craig H. relative of yours? Do the right thing — give him a job and get him out of Bellevue. (Hey, it worked for the rest of the J-A staff.)

    • Craig H. – Bellevue

      Hey, who’s this Da Kid? Former ‘Journal-American’ staff? Ya’ mean guys like Bob Condotta; the Prof. John Clayton (originally from the Hill section of Pittsburgh); Greg Johns (now with the M’s, and bro to US Sen. Patty Murray)? Great group, and great newspaper throughout the decades. And Hey, how about Chris Mortenson, now of ESPN-National? Not former ‘J-A’, but definitely former sports writer for the equally fine ‘Daily Breeze’ newspaper out of Torrance, CA (in the South Bay of the L.A. area).

      Great writers, all, and all still alive and contributing in the sports media industry – kudos to you all !

      And Bellevue is STILL The Place to Be!, Da Kid – why would anyone want to leave? Bellevue Arts Fair coming up the end of July w/over 300K attendees again expected to attend. Hey, are you Da Kid, aka Ken Griffey, Jr.? Your Special Night coming up soon at the Safe? I’ll be sure to pass that one up, thank u very much! Never respected quitters & Lazy Boy loafers who then lied about that, but still, an MLB career to be proud of!

      –Cousin Craig H. – Bellevue, WA (NOT Bellevue, Nebraska or the mental ward in Bellevue Hospital in NYC – at least, NOT this week). –Namaste-

      • Craig H. – Bellevue

        Hey, my money is on Da Kid being 6’7″, acerbic, thought-provoking and humorous, Cousin Art Thiel – what do you think?

        lol, extant.

        Still LUV that strawberry-rhubarb, nana!

    • art thiel

      We are not related. Don’t get him started. Ah . . . too late,

  • Gnome Cam Boy

    Hey Art, ‘don’t get him started’? You trying to corner the whole strawberry rhubarb pie at the next family clambake, cuz? And I hear you also throw some sharp elbows over at the Husky media free luncheon buffet. Ah….too late.

    With your culinary tastes, you also somehow related to Paula Deen. I is what I is…….

    You just as cranky as Letterman has become, only richer?