BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 08/22/2016

Zunino’s hitting rehab seems to have worked

The long hitting rehab that C Mike Zunino, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2012, underwent last season and this season at AAA Tacoma seems to have worked.

Mike Zunino is re-establishing himself as Seattle’s primary catcher. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

The Michael Pineda-for-Jesus Montero absurdity that then-general manager Jack Zduriencik made with the New York Yankees in 2012 seems to have an unmistakable verdict: The Mariners were hosed. It wasn’t the first time they had such an indignity, one of many reasons why Jerry Dipoto replaced Zduriencik in September.

While the often-injured Pineda, who pitches for New York Monday night at Safeco Field in the opening game of a three-game set against the Mariners, hasn’t been nearly the stud the Yankees had hoped (23-25, 4.05 over three seasons), at least he hasn’t been the drag that Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi were in Seattle.

A catcher upon arrival, Montero couldn’t play the position. He drew a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. He had difficulty staying in shape. He infamously brandished a bat at one of the club’s roving instructors during an argument in a minor league game.

Despite Montero’s moderate success at AAA Tacoma, the Mariners cut him loose in March (he is with AAA Buffalo in the Toronto organization).

Noesi went 2-14, 6.13 in 36 games (19 starts) in three seasons with the Mariners, who unloaded him on the Rangers in April 2014. Noesi hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015 and is now with Kia in the Korean Baseball Organization.

If that had been the extent of the blow to the Mariners, it would have been bad enough. But it wasn’t. Mike Zunino, the club’s No. 1 pick in the 2012 amateur draft, sustained such extensive collateral damage that it nearly ruined his career.

Due to Montero’s failures and no suitable in-house options, Zduriencik rushed Zunino to the major leagues  — and kept him there — only a year after they selected him out of the University of Florida. By 2014, Zunino was Seattle’s everyday catcher, starting 131 games. But without the benefit of enough minor league at-bats, he hit .199 and could do little more at the plate except strike out and hit the occasional home run.

Last year, Zunino nearly played himself out of the organization. He batted a woeful .174 in 112 games before the Mariners exiled him to the minors. For perspective on that .174, these are the seasons of the worst-hitting catchers since 1900 who played at least 100 games:

Year Player Team BA Skinny
1909 Bill Bergen Brooklyn .139 .170 career BA over 11 years
1906 Bill Bergen Brooklyn .159 High BA of .227 in 1903
1967 Jerry Zimmerman Minnesota .167 .204 career hitter with Min, Cin
1967 Clay Dalrymple Philadelphia .172 12-year career (1,079 games)
2015 Mike Zunino Seattle .174 Mariners 1st-round pick, 2012
1963 Choo-Choo Coleman N.Y. Mets .178 .197 hitter in 201 games
1967 Elston Howard N.Y. Yankees .178 Played in 12 All-Star games
2015 Rene Rivera Tampa Bay .178 Drafted by Seattle in 2001
1907 Billy Sullivan C. White Sox .179 Played 16 years, hit .213

Zunino’s ineffectiveness sent Dipoto to the free-agent market, where he plucked Chris Iannetta. Dipoto also traded Mark Trumbo to the Orioles for now-injured backup catcher Steve Clevenger (Trumbo has 35 home runs this season), giving Zunino an opportunity to regain his confidence and develop something resembling a consistent stroke in the minors.

“We’re sending him there (Tacoma) to see what we’ve got,” Dipoto said at the outset of spring training.

Zunino played for the Rainiers until early July when the Mariners recalled him. He smacked two home runs in two games but was optioned back to Tacoma. On July 20, the Mariners summoned him again, apparently confident that his .286 batting average and 57 RBIs in 79 games with the Rainiers showed consistency. A prolonged slump by Iannetta greased the decision.

“We’re going to give Mike a chance to play,” manager Scott Servais told reporters after Zunino’s second recall. “This is about Mike Zunino and putting him in a good spot. Keeping him going. We’ve got to find out what we’ve got.

“We took the steps backward. He went to AAA. He made adjustments in his approach. How is it going to play at the big-league level? The only way to find that out is to play him. We’ll find out.”

To their delight, the Mariners are finding out. Zunino hasn’t been entirely salvaged yet, but has demonstrated upside. The primary catcher since recall, Zunino hit homers in back-to-back games Aug. 2-3. He delivered the game-winning sacrifice fly Aug. 9 in the 15th inning against Detroit.

In his first 27 appearances (21 starts), Zunino hit .282 with 13 of his 20 hits (five doubles, eight homers) going for extra bases. And Zunino is on a long on-base streak, one that has reached 17 consecutive games. This is not only the longest streak of Zunino’s career, but tied for the third-longest streak by a Mariners catcher.

Year Dates Catcher Gms. Skinny
1999 June 6-Aug. 14 Tom Lampkin 19 Dan Wilson’s backup, 1999-01
1993 April 30-May 20 Dave Valle 18 846 games for Seattle from 1984-93
1977 May 10-June 2 Bob Stinson 17 “Scrap Iron” played in Sea. 1977-80
2012 May 17-July 27 John Jaso 17 1 year in Seattle, now in Pitt
2015 July 30-Aug. 21 Mike Zunino 17 3rd pick in 2012 draft
1988 May 21-June 21 Dave Valle 15 Hit career-high .258 with 13 homers
1993 Aug. 28-Sept. 14 Dave Valle 15 Second-round pick by Seattle, 1978
1996 July 14-31 Dan Wilson 15 Hit .262 in 12 years with Mariners
2000 July 26-Aug. 27 Joe Oliver 15 Two stints in Seatttle: 1998, 2000

“I really like where Mike is at right now,” Servais told reporters the other day. “The confidence is growing, and that’s what we tried to create this year — to get him back in a good spot mentally and physically.”

Zunino had perhaps his best game Saturday night (he didn’t play in Sunday’s loss to Milwaukee): a solo homer to left (436 feet) in the seventh inning and a two-run double to center in the eighth for a season-high tying three RBIs. With 13 RBIs during his 17-game on-base streak, the hitting rehab Zunino underwent in Tacoma seems to be working. Great move by Dipoto.

Next

RHP Cody Martin (1-2, 3.13) will throw for Seattle at 7:10 p.m. Monday opposite Pineda (6-10, 4.89), who threw five scoreless innings his last time out and holds a 3.18 ERA in three August starts. The 26-year-old Martin, a Gonzaga University grad, gets his second spot start after giving up two runs on seven hits in 4.1 innings in a 4-3 win vs. the Angels l Wednesday. Martin pitched in relief in two prior stints with the club.


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    For awhile there I was wondering if Zunino was going to become the next Jeff Clement. He’s obviously made big improvement over last season. Keeping him up for so long last season was like sending a message that batting the Mendoza line was acceptable. They just need to get Aoki to hit lefties better and get Dae Ho Lee out of his slump.

    • art thiel

      Aoki is hitting better. It gets back to the teaching mantra of the bosses: Control the strike zone. Zunino has nearly a .400 OBP. Stunner.

  • Green Caribou

    The what-ifs:
    What if they had taken the same approach to Montero or Ackley or the other young players with so much promise that they tried to get instant gratification out of?

    One thing fundamentally different about Zunino (other than the fact he is actually a real catcher) is I don’t think anyone has ever questioned his commitment. Montero just seemed to not want to make the necessary commitment to stay afloat.

    • jafabian

      Just look at how Michael Saunders and Brad Miller are doing this year.

      • James Jackson

        Miller had a pretty decent offensive season for us last year, this is only his third season so I can’t say I’m that surprised. As far as Saunders, it seemed like there were major issues with McLendon and Jack Z, I really hated how that entire thing went down. Don’t think anyone saw this kind of a season coming from him though.

        • art thiel

          Lloyd and Z were down on Saunders for reasons unclear. That was a mistake. Imagine having his production this year in the Mariners outfield.

          • James Jackson

            Yep, even in his last year here he hit .273 with a .341 OBP. They dropped the ball on that one.

    • James Jackson

      No doubt about Zunino’s commitment to his craft. It does seem like Montero has turned a major corner in that regard, but it looks like it was too late for him.

      • art thiel

        Zunino is a better athlete, and smarter, which everyone in MLB knew at draft time.

    • art thiel

      The “they” that messed up the others is gone. This management team is dedicated to player development. Zunino is the paradigm.

    • Kirkland

      I recall Dipoto, and others, saying Ackley was the real deal in college, and was the correct choice for the M’s with that top spot. The M’s messed up when they rushed him, so it was a development issue.

      Besides Jack and Lloyd, I wonder how much culpability Chris Gwynn had in poor development of the farmhands?

  • Sam Base

    I had wanted the M’s to draft Corey Seager in 2012 (which seems to be working out pretty good for the Dodgers!), but I understood why they drafted a solid defensive catcher with power who had won the Golden Spikes award. That’s a solid pick. So his struggles were quite disheartening. In a way this almost feels like Zunino’s real rookie season and things are getting very interesting again.

    • art thiel

      It’s a shame that Mariners desperation nearly ruined his career, but kudos to Dipoto’s group for the revival.