This season has been so trying for Mike Zunino, the Seattle Mariners’ 24-year-old catcher, that he can only laugh about how much time he’s spent in the batting cage trying to find a way to push his batting average within shouting distance of the Mendoza Line.
“I should probably just have a bed in there,” Zunino cracked before a game last week. “I’m usually in there all the time.”
And with a different approach now as Zunino and the rest of the Mariners’ hitters have new, intriguing company as they try to boost the team’s meager offensive output.
The Mariners have played 21 games since naming Edgar Martinez their hitting coach on June 20, replacing Howard Johnson with one of the most revered batsmen in franchise history.
Martinez had spent the season working with hitters in the Mariners’ minor-league system, including frequent trips to Cheney Stadium to help teach hitting to the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. He also spent the past few seasons as a guest instructor at spring training.
Early returns from Martinez’s first few weeks with the big-league club are positive.
Or, more accurately: Martinez himself is simply a positive guy.
“When you get a new guy in there, it’s going to be different. He’s got a different kind of dynamic,” said shortstop Brad Miller, who is hitting .247 with eight home runs this season. “He’s obviously still getting his bearings, but one thing I take away is the positivity.
“He knows it’s hard. He knows it’s a mental game. That it’s a game of failure. But he’s just so positive with it, and I really like that.”
Zunino, who has become one of Martinez’s primary projects, has more room for improvement than any player on the roster. He’s hitting just .160 this season with a .223 on-base percentage and 100 strikeouts in 277 plate appearances.
His numbers pre-Edgar and since-Edgar are relatively similar, aside from a slight decline in the percentage of plate appearances in which he strikes out. And three weeks is probably too small of a sample size for which to judge the impact of a first-year hitting coach.
So, say this for the Mariners’ young, struggling hitters: they’re trying, and so is Martinez.
“The key is for them to stay positive and keep working,” Martinez said. “There’s still the second half of the year, just working on the positive and the opportunity they have to get better. So that’s basically the message.”
Zunino said Martinez applies a simplified approach to hitting: find the right swing while hitting off a tee, bring the same cut to the batting cage, then replicate it again during the game.
“It’s just taking the same swing consistently, over and over and over again,” Zunino said. “Hitting off the tee, working in the cage, working in BP (batting practice), and letting that come in and translating into the game. And with that it’s just trying to keep the bat in the zone as long as you can, and just trusting that swing so there’s no panic (if) the ball’s in or out. You can just take a nice, easy swing to it.”
What about the midseason coaching change?
“It’s one of those things where obviously the personalities are different,” Zunino said. “You could have been working on one thing with somebody and somebody else comes in and sees something a little bit different. So you’ve just got to take it for what it is. Obviously, both HoJo and Edgar know a lot about the game and a lot about hitting, so there’s a lot of knowledge you can take from both of it and apply it.”
Outfielder Dustin Ackley -- who, coincidentally or not, has raised his season batting average from .184 to .221 in the time since Martinez’s promotion -- said it was easier to adapt to Martinez’s presence because he’s spent so much time around the franchise in recent years.
“It’s been an easy transition for everybody, because he’s an awesome guy and he knows what he’s doing,” Ackley said.
Oh, and also: “It’s easy to listen to a guy who has a street named after him. It’s easy to buy into that.”