Advertisement

Guardians legend Sandy Alomar making Zunino a better catcher

May 9—Mike Zunino's numbers are ugly, no matter how one spins it.

Fortunately for the Guardians, Zunino has the work ethic to fix what is wrong, and fortunately for him, a coach on the Guardians' staff is the perfect teacher to help the veteran catcher.

Zunino has been charged with three passed balls, the most in the majors, in 24 games this season. Fourteen wild pitches have eluded him. For comparison, Jose Trevino of the Yankees has played 21 games and been charged with one passed ball. He has failed to block five pitches ruled as wild pitches.

The problems Zunino is having followed him from Tampa. He was charged with an American League-high of 10 passed balls and failed to block 39 wild pitches in 2021 in his last full season with the Rays. Zunino was limited to 35 games last season because of an injury that caused pain in his left (catching hand) forearm. Season-ending surgery was required to repair the problem.

Guardians first base coach/catching coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has been working with Zunino to make him a better defensive catcher. Alomar was a six-time All-Star and 1990 Gold Glove recipient while playing with the Indians from 1990-2000.

"Zunino lost a year (2022) and has some issues with health," Alomar said May 8 before the Guardians hosted the Tigers. "The one thing we have to understand is how can we get somebody to not react to the ball in the dirt. Just block it.

"Sometimes catchers try to snatch the ball instead of blocking it. He's been working very hard. The last two, two and a half weeks, he's done a tremendous job. He's no longer trying to snatch it. The wild pitches are going down dramatically. It's still a work in progress. He's never been a guy that was a blocker. He's always been a snatcher. Now he's become a much better blocker."

Zunino said he feels fine and would not use recovering from surgery as an excuse. He said Alomar has been working with him on positioning.

"I made some catching adjustments to my setup was, and I'm learning to trust it," Zunino said. "The past couple weeks have been great with that, and I'm continuing to build off those reps.

"I'm getting familiar with guys (pitchers) when they want to go to certain things. We have a team that can really spin it. Knowing what those pitches are going to do — you get back into the swing of everything, get your reps in and trust what you do mechanically behind the plate. It's something I take a lot of pride in."

The Guardians let Austin Hedges leave via free agency and signed Zunino to a one-year, $6 million contract to keep the position warm while Bo Naylor gets more seasoning at Triple-A Columbus. Naylor is batting .261 with seven doubles, seven home runs and 26 RBI with the Clippers in 23 games as a catcher and eight as a DH.

Zunino is batting .187 with two home runs and seven RBI. He hammered 33 home runs with the Rays in 2021. Zunino's power bat on a home run-challenged Guardians team made him attractive in free agency to Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Anonetti — that and Zunino's ability to handle a pitching staff.

"One of the things we felt about Mike coming in is that he does a great job of building a rapport with pitchers, building a relationship with them and helping lead them through the game," Antonetti said. "That's clearly been evident in his time with us, but he continues to work on some of those other aspects of his game.

"I think over time his arm strength and his ability to throw out runners will continue to improve the further he gets away from the injuries he had last year."

Throwing out runners is a lost art for catchers, and the new rule that restricts pitchers to only two pickoff attempts per batter means runners on first can risk taking a longer lead.

"Throwing out runners depends on many people," Alomar said. "It depends on the guy making the tag. It depends on the pitcher holding the runner, and it depends on your skill throwing the ball. It's never been his forte in the past. He's working on getting rid of the ball quicker, but opportunity has to be there for him. We haven't done a good job of holding guys."

Naylor has thrown out only two of 30 would-be base stealers with the Clippers — a 7% success rate. Zunino erased only four of 26 runners before the series opener with the Tigers. Detroit center fielder Riley Greene stole second in the first inning. Zunino cut down Akill Baddoo trying to steal second in the second inning.

The Tigers did not test Zunino again after scoring three times in the second inning and once in the third to build a 4-1 lead before eventually winning, 6-2.

Zunino and backup catcher Cam Gallagher are catching a break this homestand because the Twins, Tigers and Angels are near the bottom of the league in steals. The Twins, who were in town for three games May 5-7, are tied for last with nine steals. The Tigers are 24th with 20. The Angels, at Progressive Field for three games starting on May 12, are 28th with 14 steals.