Spring training statistics don't matter. This we know. So while Mike Zunino posessing a Cactus League OPS of that starts with "one-point-three" is a lot of fun, so was Brad Miller doing the same thing last March and we saw how quickly things can fizzle.
Though, while spring training performances ultimately mean very little, it doesn't mean the entire month is useless as far as player evaluation goes. While stats will never tell the story, it is possible—albeit rare—for a player to demonstrate a new skill. That new skill may translate to a Bondsian slash line, or it may not, but they're worth watching out for.
An example: in 2012, Michael Saunders showed up to camp with what he was calling a new swing. Players do this all the time—Ichiro showed up the same year with a widened stance aiming to generate more power for batting third—and more often than not, it doesn't do anything. But for Saunders it did, as he demonstrated a newfound ability to hit the ball the other way with authority and, in the process, completely redefined himself as a player and saved his career.
These things happen. Almost never. But sometimes.
I don't know if whatever's going on with Mike Zunino is one of those times, but I'm starting to wonder.
So, what is going on? Well, we have that gaudy OPS, but there's more in the works. Going back as far as February, Zunino said he'd been and would be working on his swing, with this Greg Johns piece pointing to efforts to drive the ball to right-center and keep his bat in the zone longer.
More recently, Shannon Drayer put together an insightful piece shedding light on Zunino's approach with two strikes. An excerpt:
"I feel like I am night-and-day better there," he said. "I feel like I know what I want to accomplish with two strikes. I feel like I have the base, and I can trust myself now instead of feeling like I'm going up there hoping to get a pitch to hit."
That's what it looked like at times last year. This spring it has looked different. In addition to the mechanical changes it just looks like things have slowed down at the plate for Zunino. Having a plan and understanding that plan can do that. Having success with that plan, even if it is in games that don't count, may prove to go a long way once the season starts. It is good to have a base, something to go back to.
"That's the biggest thing," Zunino said. "Is this feeling I am having now and I had in the early spring is something I am going to try to hold on whether it is video, whether it is mechanics, I mean it's something I can go back to where I feel comfortable."
It was kind of a bummer then when Mike Zunino started off yesterday day with this:
Now, that was after he managed to foul off two 0-2 pitches, but after what he's done this spring, it was disappointing to see. But the at-bat wasn't without its lessons. Here's what Zunino told the media about that change out of the zone, courtesy of Bob Dutton at The News Tribune.
"First time seeing (Tropeano)," Zunino said, "a right-on-right changeup with two strikes, that was a good pitch (for a strikeout). But I was able to see all three (of his pitches) in that first at-bat. So I was able to have an idea in the next two (at-bats)."
Alright, so he's seen that pitch down and out of the zone. He's logged him up good and he's not going to be fooled again.
On the broadcast, both Sims and Blowers note this is the first time recently they've seen him chase that pitch far off the plate away.
"He's made changes," said Blowers, "and it's not going to be there consistently everyday for him but he'll continue to work at it and you just hope over the course of time that when he has a swing where he chases a pitch like that, he'll get it back together."
This was the pitch literally as he said that, following a ball in and off the plate.
Now, that's not a great pitch, and certainly a clear ball, but now's as good a time as any to mention that Mike Zunino swung at 39.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year, good for 11th-worst in all of baseball for players who batted as much as he did. And, a fun combination: when it came to just making contact with those pitches outside the zone, he was 6th-worst in the game.
Back to our AB. The next pitch was quite similar to the one that fanned him earlier in the game, though this one was closer to the zone, and in fact too close to take.
Troppeano just couldn't resist throwing that change again, and he hung the next one up above the zone that Zunino, right on it, hammered down the third base line foul. For whatever reason, Troppeano went to the well again, and this time wasn't as fortunate:
He wasn't fortunate the next time he threw Zunino a changeup either.
It must be said: those are some atrocious pitches. Really, meatballs of the finest order—ones that an Italian gentleman like Zunino must truly appreciate. But here's the deal: you can't crush hanging changeups that you never got the opportunity to see because you were overly defensive and flailed at a 2-2 fastball six inches off the plate. And you can't mash a hanging changeup if you're up there guessing and flying open as you try to pull a fastball.
That's all a key thing to remember here—pitch recognition and plate discipline will reveal themselves through more than taking walks. Zunino has five free passes to go with his 12 strikeouts this spring, which is nice compared to what he did during last regular season—but not entirely different than the 14:7 K/BB ratio that preceded it last spring.
Still, something seems different. And it has all spring. For another anecdotal look, here's what he did on Sunday:
Now, we'll have to see if it holds—or, maybe more accurately, if it is even a thing at all. But let's say it is. What can the Mariners do to keep him on track? For one, give the dude some rest.
In that aforementioned Greg Johns piece, Zunino said "When you don't feel 100 percent or start to get a little fatigued, you try to generate too much, and that was pulling me off my swing."
Zunino, as it turns out, has been behind the plate more than any backstop in the Cactus League thus far, notching 98 innings over 17 starts.
The young backstop is at an age when a lot of things can happen. I don't think it'd shock anyone if he took a major leap forward offensively, but as his youthful vigor makes it tempting to throw him out there for as many innings as possible, it'd be wise—even though he says he can handle it—for the Mariners to be mindful of the possibility that his offense and defense are closely intertwined.