Shortly after catcher Mike Zunino was drafted third overall last year, he showed up at Safeco Field with his dad.
The Mariners were showing the new prospect known for his defense the cavernous park he hoped to play in one day. Zunino was able to get into the batter’s box that afternoon and take batting practice. His first few swings were mediocre. Then, he started launching balls over the wall. Over and over.
Everyone kind of looked around, surprised by the power display from the college kid out of Florida. More surprising were his numbers once he joined the Single-A Everett AquaSox. Zunino hit .373 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 29 games. That bumped him to Double-A Jackson in a hurry. He didn’t slow down much.
Zunino hit .333 with a .974 OPS in the 15 games he played for Jackson (sample size, I know).
In his first spring training with the Mariners, Zunino, who looks every part of a catcher from a 1950s baseball card, is in Peoria along with five other catchers. We caught up with him Monday morning.
How was your winter?) Good. Able to take a few weeks off, enjoy December and sort of kick it back up in January.
What did you do over the winter?) Worked on getting back in shape. Weight training, conditioning, started doing stuff back up on the field. I was back up in Gaineseville at the University of Florida, hitting throwing, catching, doing all the type of stuff.
Last year was kind of whirlwind for you?) It was a lot going on, but it was also a lot of fun. It was a good introduction to my first year in pro ball. I really enjoyed it.
What did you take away from that?) I just sort of learned a little bit about myself. What I have to do every day to prepare to play, what the sort of every day grind is of playing. I took a good bit of information from that and am looking forward to continuing it in my first full season.
What were you trying to do at the plate?) Just tried to keep it real simple. I didn’t want to try to do too much and push myself past what I could do. Just tried to keep it simple and have good at-bats and build momentum from there. Had a good half-year.
What were pitchers trying to do to you?) The same stuff. Breaking balls early, fastballs in late. The same stuff that I’ve seen throughout college and early (pro time). It was sort of the same. So, I could go and approach at-bats the same I have for the past three years.
Sounds like you weren’t surprised with the patterns you saw?) No, especially getting up to Jackson when guys tried to combo pitches up and pitch one pitch ahead. As a catcher, I sort of try to catch on as quick as I can and designate at-bats, looking for a certain pitch in an at-bat and that pitch was coming up when I was looking for it. It turned out pretty well.
What are you trying to get done this spring?) Get back into shape and continue that momentum. Catch all the arms I can and make a positive impact; get to know as many people as I can and build positive relationships with them.
How concerned are you about where you start the season?) It doesn’t matter to me. As long as I can play to start the season, that’s all that matters. I’m going to come out here and compete and obviously play as hard as I can and do things to the best of my abilities and whatever happens, happens.
What will be different this year?) Playing every day from the beginning of the season. I played at school where I played four, five days a week, then I had a few weeks off (before joining Single-A Everett). That’s going to be the biggest thing, joining that 140, 160 games, however big that stretch is, from day one.
What would you like to refine defensively?) My receiving. My receiving and footwork throwing. Get clean receiving the ball and help my pitchers out as much as I can. My biggest job is to catch the ball and call a good game.
Challenge here of having so many pitchers to learn?) Just getting around and learning them rapidly. As catchers, we all talk amongst ourselves, see what everyone is doing, throwing well. That sort of makes it easier, also.