The Mariners drafted Mike Zunino in June of 2012, and by June of 2013 they had already seen enough from him in his work in the minor leagues that they were ready to make him their starting catcher at the big league level. While his offensive numbers during the first half of 2013 didn't seem to warrant the call up, leading many to say he was rushed, it seems fairly obvious that the bat is not what the Mariners were promoting him for. I got the chance to talk with Mike during the Mariners Media Luncheon in late January about his experience during that first year on the job, the duties of being a catcher and the transformation from being "the guy" on offense to being the defensive leader on a team.
SeattleClubhouse: Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me today, Mike, I appreciate it greatly.
Mike Zunino: You bet Rick, any time.
SC: Your background is different than a lot of kids because of your dad [Cincinnati Reds Scouting Supervisor and former minor leaguer Greg Zunino] so you've probably understood some of the intricacies of the game a lot better than most prospects coming up. Have you already got to the point that you understand that catching and handling your pitching staff is up here and what you do on offense is down here? How hard is it for you to adjust your thinking from being a premium prospect because of your offense for all of your amateur baseball career to shifting that focus to things that don't necessarily show up in the boxscore?
MZ: It really goes back to my freshman year in college. I sort of got thrown in there, and coach Kevin O'Sullivan at Florida, he said, 'I'm going to put you back there and I want you to play defense.' It was an okay year, but I dislocated my left thumb then two weeks later I broke my right thumb, but I still played. I think I was about oh for my last 40, but he pulled me into his office and he said, 'Look, we're winning ballgames. Just keep doing what you're doing behind the plate.' I think that is the first time that I really realized that's the real important part of my game. So when I could accept that and know that anything else that I could do was a bonus, that is when I think I really took off as a catcher and as a player because I didn't have that added pressure on me anymore because I knew what my goals were and what I needed to do day in and day out.
SC: Tying into that, being one of the youngest players on the team but being in that leadership position and having those leadership qualities, the first time you walked into that big league clubhouse, I'm sure you were subconsciously thinking, 'I'm a leader. I'm a leader.', was it hard for you to look at these veterans and take that personality out there?
MZ: For me it's just one of those things that comes naturally. To go out there and try to do those things it could take you out of your element I guess, but it's always come to me easily. I think a lot of it comes from building relationships with guys. Treating guys right, they have your trust and they trust you, then you can build those relationships to talk with them about certain things. That stuff has always sort of come natural for me. Luckily I've had great teammates in college, obviously making it to pro ball and then here at the big leagues, I've had a lot of guys that trust one another so that's made that part of it easier for me.
SC: Did the transition from Tacoma to Seattle and seeing some of the same faces that you saw down there help out in that aspect too?
MZ: Absolutely. Because then you're not just the one guy going through those changes at that time. We had two, three, four, five guys all going through the same experiences. So I think that was a big key for all of us was that, hey, we could all relate to guys. Relate to what they're feeling, struggling with something that someone else has struggled with instead of just being the one guy going through it by yourself.
SC: You did make it to Seattle very quickly. You and a few other guys. I'm sure you've heard the, 'was Mike rushed?' questions. Does that bother you at all?
MZ: No. Was it a short stay in the minor leagues? Yeah. But, to me, wherever the club needs me, whatever level they put me at, I'm going to try to play my best and help the team win. I want to win, that's how I was raised. So whatever level I'm at, that's my goal. Once I got called up --I mean, you have to have the confidence that you feel that you can help the team in some way -- I felt that luckily I got a few opportunities to help the team win, just to keep building on that.
SC: Everyone says, 'Nothing changes, I'm still playing the same game.' But I imagine that from the days growing up, 13, 14, 15, you probably started thinking you could play in college, then maybe I could get drafted, but then you make it up to Seattle, you squat down behind that plate, look behind you and see 60-plus feet to the backstop...did you take a minute during the season at all and let it sink in that, 'Hey, I'm a big leaguer, I made it'?
MZ: Yeah. I think that first day, I got called up and I didn't play. We [Tacoma] were in Las Vegas, I flew up and I didn't play that night, but that was a great day to just take that deep breath and I got to take it all in. Wedge told me that I was starting the next day, so that was nerve racking because I had to try to sleep knowing that. But it's one of those things that, being a kid growing up, you've played it in your head so many times, that you're like, 'Okay. Now let's see how it actually goes.' It is an awesome experience, and it is really something that you get to let sink in every day. Every new ballpark you go to it's a continual series of firsts.
SC: Did you ever find yourself saying,'I can't believe I'm hitting against Jon Lester,' or, 'I can't believe so-and-so is standing in the box right here next to me'?
MZ: Yeah. It happened a few times. Our first road trip -- we played a game here, then we went to Oakland and then to Los Angeles. I think that was the first time, with Trout, Pujols, Hamilton, Trumbo. That was the first lineup that I was like, 'Wow!'. But then you go through a few hitters, call a few pitches and it's like, 'Alright.' And again, 'It's just a game.' You can't let it get to you because for me, if you get caught up in Albert Pujols being up there then you can lose sight of trying to find a way to get Albert Pujols out. You can't be starstruck, because if you start feeling that way then the pitcher can start feeling the same way, too, and that's when those guys beat you.
SC: So going along with not getting overwhelmed with your surroundings, with the current roster construction in Seattle there could be a lot of pressure on you as one of just a few right-handed hitters on the club. Using the whole field and driving the ball the other way -- in that LA series you had a great double into right center that finished up a fantastic at bat -- how important is your ability to stay back and use the whole field knowing that you're very likely going to be seeing clubs' best righties late in games?
MZ: It's huge. Just from a basic hitter standpoint, you have to be able to be disciplined, stay back and trusting yourself. There were times last year when we ran eight lefties out there and me. And with that I knew that I may very well see the first breaking ball of the whole game in the third inning. So I just had to keep an eye on the game. That first at bat I had to use that as my scouting report and then just trust myself, see the ball well and stay back and drive the ball the other way.
SC: Very good. Alright Mike, I won't take up any more of your time. Thanks again for doing this and for coming out here today.
MZ: Any time Rick. Thank you.
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