Closing Time: The Mike Zunino reinvention tour (seats available)

Mike Zunino works on his home-run trot (AP)

Mike Zunino was a pretty big deal not too long ago.

Zunino was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, after Byron Buxton and before Kevin Gausman. Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus all considered Zunino a rated prospect back in 2013; everyone had him in the Top 33, and BA went as high as No. 17. Part of Zunino’s cachet was tied to his defense, but he was also projected as a big-time power hitter.

We’ve seen peaks and valleys in Zunino’s professional career, mostly valleys. But maybe he’s figured a few things out in his age-26 season.

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Channel Z didn’t do much right in the first five weeks of the year. Sitting on a .167/.250/.236 slash through five weeks, Zunino was demoted on May 5. And after a 12-game get-fresh stint at Tacoma (five homers, 1.063 OPS), the Mariners brought their catcher back.

Zunino’s flipped from “belongs on the bench” to “Johnny Bench” over the last month. He’s rocking a .338/.386/.738 slash in his return stint, with nine home runs in 80 at-bats. In the past 30 days, he’s the No. 1 fantasy catcher and the No. 14 overall hitter. His two home runs Monday pushed the Mariners past Detroit; one a bullpen blast, one an opposite-field clout.

This binge hasn’t been sparked by a shift in plate discipline — Zunino has five walks against 35 strikeouts since the recall. But when he’s been making contact, it’s been loud. He shows up on the hard-hit leaderboard over the last 30 days, and he’s been the fourth-best in avoiding soft contact.

Perhaps there hasn’t been an overt change to Zunino’s approach, but he’s setting up in a different way. Here’s how Josh Horton of MLB.com breaks it down.

[Zunino] sat down and looked at hitters who he could emulate — Matt Holliday of the Yankees was a big influence, according to Zunino — and he developed some hitting drills and crafted a routine.

With this approach, Zunino hoped it’ll be the last time he’ll have to hit the reset button.

“To me, it was one of those things where you really have to go out and make a different swing now,” he said. “Obviously what I was doing wasn’t working. The last couple years I’ve become more patient, but it’s one of those things where you have to change your swing and give yourself a chance.”

Zunino is making strides in other areas, too. Manager Scott Servias noted his impressive performance managing the pitchers behind the plate, especially working with reliever Pazos to induce two inning-ending strikeouts with the bases loaded.

The easiest thing to do with a player like Zunino is scream “regression!” and drop the mic. He’s not this good, obviously, because no one is really this good. But given how absurdly unproductive fantasy catchers have been this year, I’ve added a few Zunino shares, here and there. Heck, I did it in some places where I didn’t really have a need at catcher. Maybe he can stay relevant for the rest of the year.

Unless you have a no-doubter at catcher, I’d encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be a long leash, but kick some tires. Zunino is available to add in 69 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• Don’t look back, Matt Bush, something might be gaining on you.

No one took Bush’s 0.96 ERA at face value at the end of May, but June’s giveback has been jagged. Bush has two losses and another blowup for the month, shaking out this way: 5.1 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 5 BB, 6 K. The Blue Jays hit rocket after rocket against Bush on Monday, flipping the game in the ninth.

Bush still has a tidy 2.88 ERA on the year, though it’s tied to a wonky 1.36 WHIP. When those numbers conflict, I tend to trust the WHIP. It’s not that a closing change is imminent in Texas, but maybe we need to know the other guys here. And heck, it’s not like Jeff Banister is the paragon of patience.

Jose Leclerc is wild at times, but he does have 32 strikeouts in 18.1 IP (along with a 2.45 ERA and 1.04 WHIP). Keone Kela (3.16/0.94) also sees some high-leverage work. Do what you need to do.

• When Scooter Gennett had his four-homer shocker two weeks ago, there was plenty of laughing and mocking. Much of the fantasy audience was defiant and unmoved; they weren’t going to be the sucker who added a journeyman like Gennett.

Alas, maybe there is more to the story. Perhaps Gennett really is a usable piece in a common mixer.


Gennett’s path to playing time is much clearer with Zack Cozart (quad) on the disabled list. Gennett played second base Monday, while Jose Peraza manned shortstop. Gennett homered for the second straight game, pushing his slash to a useful .293/.329/.565. He’s gone deep 23 times in his last 645 at-bats, and has a lifetime .280 average.

Position flexibility is always a bonus, especially in the injury-riddled mess of 2017. Gennett fits at second, third and the outfield. You’ll find him at the best spot in the Cincinnati lineup, right behind Billy Hamilton and directly in front of Joey Votto. Gennett is owned in a mere 12 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• It wasn’t any shock when Terry Francona ranked first in the Joe Sheehan managerial ranks. Francona was a hero in Boston, and he’s doing great things in Cleveland, too. Monday was another day for some Francona wisdom; he announced Andrew Miller will temporarily move into the closing role, in an effort to limit Miller’s workload.

It’s not clear when Miller will go back to the wipeout role, working prior to the ninth. Maybe this is a short-term thing, maybe it’s a longer-term path. In the meantime, fantasy owners will probably get a bump from Miller’s value — you’ll miss the heavy workload, but you’ll appreciate a few handshakes.

The really cool thing about Miller and Cody Allen is that they don’t show outward ego. Miller has never been insistent on being “the closer” at any stop, and Allen took this shift in stride, too. Perhaps it’s easier for Miller and Allen to shrug things off because both are well compensated, but this sort of egoless attitude is not automatic in every clubhouse.

And at the end of the day, it probably has something to do with Francona’s leadership, too. Rock on, Cleveland.