The Mariners’ Mike Zunino (left) points toward the stands as he scores on his home run, while Twins catcher Jason Castro stands near the plate during a game on June 7, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Mariners’ Mike Zunino (left) points toward the stands as he scores on his home run, while Twins catcher Jason Castro stands near the plate during a game on June 7, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Mike Zunino Project pays dividends for M’s

Sent to the minors last year to rebuild his swing, the catcher has been a revelation since his return.

Mike Zunino stared into the manager’s office at Cheney Stadium and was briefly caught in a flashback.

He sat in that room in Tacoma less than a year earlier, pouring out four years of frustration with previous swing changes for about 45 minutes. He needed to unload everything before he geared himself to embark on a complete overhaul of everything he knew about swinging a baseball bat.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” Zunino said after a recent workout at the Rainiers home while rehabbing a strained oblique.

Call it the Mike Zunino Project. That meeting steered the course of Zunino’s reinvention.

Mike Micucci was the Mariners’ minor league field coordinator charged with overseeing this revamp. But for that first 45 minutes all he did was listen.

“We had a pretty intense conversation,” Micucci said. “But by the time we got done with it we felt pretty good about what we were going to try to accomplish.”

Zunino went from looking like he could be the next Mariners first-round draft bust to turning himself into arguably the Mariners’ most important player.

Mariners manager Scott Servais said entering this year that they could least afford to lose Zunino to injury after he strained his oblique. He’s been on a rehab assignment with Single-A Modesto and could return as early as Friday when the Mariners travel to Texas to face the Rangers, Servais said.

But Zunino’s trip to Triple-A Tacoma last year was for a much different purpose. He returned to Seattle on May 23 after almost 20 days with the Rainiers.

In the ensuing 100 games with the Mariners he hit .270/.349/.571 with 25 home runs after hitting .167/.250/.236 with no home runs his first 24 games.

He had always been valuable defensively. That’s his happy place, he said. But now he has a chance to be one of the most productive offensive catchers in baseball, too.

“Behind the dish, that was always my crutch,” Zunino said. “I could lean on that crutch on the defensive side of the ball. I would just dive into that so much. It was an escape for me and from my swing. It’s nice to be able to handle both sides of the ball now.”

“I just think it’s remarkable he was able to do it,” Micucci said. “And to do it as fast as he did was really remarkable.”

Thank you, Holliday

After Zunino was done it was Micucci’s turn.

He started with Zunino’s first move. Then talked about his front hip, showing how it was flying toward the third-base side and keeping him from covering all of the plate.

Micucci had prepared examples of productive right-handed hitters, those who compared most to Zunino’s powerful, 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame and those with similar skill-sets.

He pulled up Matt Holliday, Mike Trout, Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson. Then Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera and even Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.

“We looked at these guys as far as the moves we wanted to make,” Micucci said. “Thicker, really strong, athletic guys and Holliday was the one we really boiled down on. Holliday was the one that kind of really resonated with him.

“But even the guys whose body type wasn’t like him — I wanted to show that there’s a lot of players making the move we wanted him to make.”

It all had to do with the lower half of Zunino’s body.

And it started with his stance. His hands start above his helmet and his feet are more narrow, which fixes his load. Then he gets into what Micucci called a front-side “K” position, with his leg planting and attacking the pitcher while he pinches his shoulder in and slightly angled downhill.

The weight on his front foot allows the back to slide out, keeping his hips locked in.

“There were a lot of things we talked about, but it’s two things to clean up six,” Micucci said. “That was the mentality. Just worry about your stance and that will clean up three things.”

Micucci was in the Rangers’ organization when Servais was there and helped Nelson Cruz transform his swing. There’s some familiar concepts applied to Zunino’s.

“What Scotty did with Nelson Cruz is very similar,” Micucci said. “Basically, you go in, sit down, listen to somebody and then give them the reason why you think they need to change.

“The game is telling you when you need to change and that’s what we were telling Mike. We got to a point where it was like, ‘I don’t want to hear about the University of Florida. I don’t want to hear about Double-A, Triple-A — I don’t want to hear about what you did two seasons ago. I don’t want to hear any of it.

“The big leagues, I just care about that. The big leagues is telling us we need to change because, honestly, you are so gifted and it needs to show up.”

The only two catchers to have a higher wins-above-replacement than Zunino, according to Fangraphs, last season were the Giants’ Buster Posey and the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez. The only catchers to have more home runs were Sanchez (33) and the Royals’ Salvador Perez (27).

The only players to hit over .280 with 24 or more home runs and at least a .580 slugging percentage after May 29, like Zunino did when he returned from Tacoma, were Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto.

“From Day 1 when I started making the swing changes it’s been totally different than years past,” Zunino said. “It was stuff that made sense. Stuff that fit me and just really clicked in how it was laid out for me, which is really nice.”

Zunino had been told throughout his career that he shouldn’t move much throughout his swing because of his strength. Or how he hits too many pop-ups, which made him focus more on his top hand.

“That’s about the worst thing they could have told him,” Micucci said.

This certainly wasn’t an overnight fix, especially with it all occurring in midseason.

But they went straight to the batting cages after their meeting and Micucci gave Zunino three drills, basically working on a move they call the scissor, forcing that movement with his back foot. This was going to help him hit the ball hard the opposite way and cover more of the outer half of the plate.

The next day Zunino was on the field and he smoked a pitch to right field.

“And he just started laughing,” Micucci said. “He was like, ‘I’ve never been able to do something like that.”

But the real test came this offseason and how Zunino would respond after not consistently working on it for a while. Micucci said Zunino sent him a late-night text after a spring training game saying how terrible of a turn his swings had taken.

But they got together, checked video, made the fixes and Zunino later hit three home runs in one game, including one over the wall in right-center on a 3-2 count.

“If I had to pick an at-bat I wanted to bottle up, it’s that one,” Zunino said.

Don’t worry, Chooch

Micucci travels between each of the Mariners’ minor-league affiliates, but he happened to be at Safeco Field the night the Mariners told Zunino it was time to usher the swing overhaul.

Servais told Zunino he was heading back to Triple-A but this would be so much different than times before. This wasn’t to tinker with his approach or correct his timing.

“He needed to go back and change,” Servais said. “I was very candid in my comments to him that day.

“And he said, ‘I just need to get back to what I was doing in spring training.’ I said, ‘No. What you’ve been doing doesn’t work. We need to try something else. You need to make adjustments mechanically.’

“It took about 48 hours for that to set in,” Servais laughed. “But the big thing is he was open to some suggestions. He bought in.”

Micucci ran into backup catcher Carlos Ruiz in the bullpen who seemed pretty concerned about the move.

Micucci wasn’t.

“I’m like, ‘Chooch, don’t worry about it. When he comes back he’s going to be a monster,’” Micucci said.

But that was only because Zunino was receptive, despite all the past swing-change frustrations. And he stuck with it.

And this wasn’t the same as past tinkerings. This was drastic, but also strategic; explained and curated to Zunino’s skill-set.

But maybe the most critical juncture of the Zunino Project — getting Kyle Seager’s stamp of approval.

Seager’s and Zunino’s families are about as close with each other now as the two Mariners are these days. Seager invited Zunino to his home in North Carolina one offseason where they went fishing, ate barbeque and hit a lot of baseballs.

If you’re going to get to Zunino you have to get through Seager. They constantly talk about hitting, Seager said, bouncing ideas off each other. So Zunino approached him about the changes Servais and the Mariners were asking him to make.

“He’s been asked to change so many times that he had kind of been numb to it to a point,” Seager said. “But I think what they did was different. Instead of, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that’ with no reasoning behind it, let’s try something that makes sense for your body type and makes sense for getting you in a better position where you can really use it. And then explaining to him what they wanted to do as opposed to just telling him to do it.”

Before the swing change, Zunino’s stance, though from the right side instead of the left, almost resembled Seager’s open stance.

“He’s too talented of a guy to go up there with a swing that doesn’t exploit his strengths,” Seager said. “He’s a big, strong guy, very athletic and his hips move very well. There’s no reason for him to ever struggle. Ever.

“He will end up being an absolute monster in this game. We saw him do that at the end of last season.”

‘What the hell?’

Servais called Micucci just after the Mariners announced they had called Zunino back up to the big leagues. He wanted to know if Zunino had grasped it, not just blindly accepted the changes. Could he explain everything he was doing and why?

It felt like a pop quiz. Zunino had seven things he needed to have memorized and studied about his new stance.

“And then I got a text about an hour later after Scotty had sat down with him,” Micucci said. “And he was like, ‘He nailed it. He was on it.’ ”

Micucci said he doesn’t know how well this would have worked if he hadn’t previously developed a relationship with the Mariners’ former first-round draft pick while he worked with catchers during the previous spring training.

But if he didn’t have Zunino’s complete trust before, he does now. Micucci no longer needs a 45-minute sales pitch to Zunino. He didn’t force, he didn’t demand. Everything was explained and that’s what Zunino needed.

“It was just taking our time, answering why this was happening, why is this breaking down and this is what we need to do and why we need to do it and how it’s going to make you better,” Micucci said. “Just having the whys and the hows so he had a really good understanding. I’ve always told our coaches as part of my job in player development that if we do our jobs right they don’t need us anymore. We make them their own best coach.”

Eventually Zunino had only one question left.

“I can’t speak for what was taught before we came in ’16,” Micucci said. “But I know when I saw him for the first time that year, and I told him this in our meeting, I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about doing this with you for two years.’

“And he was like, ‘Well, what the hell?’ But he wasn’t ready before. There’s still going to be those days it breaks down, but I’m happy for him. He was able to answer a lot of questions of the critics. It was good for him.”

Said Zunino: “The time we put in and just what I feel like — I know myself as a baseball player now. I know what I need to feel in my swing.

“Sometimes I guess it takes a while to get that right person to mention something, and it took me a lot longer than I would have liked. But it’s nice that it works now.”

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