As far back as he can remember, Zunino was hanging around ballparks, tagging along with his father Greg, a scout with the Marlins back then. "When he first got to tee ball, he was a little advanced,” Greg remembered. “One day they are playing catch and he says, ‘Coach, when are we going to take infield?’” The father laughed. The kid was serious. "He always wanted to get better,” Greg said.
In 2009, Zunino's senior year at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Florida, Michael committed to a baseball scholarship to the University of Florida. And he turned down the A's, who chose him in the 29th round, choosing to become a Gator. And he was SEC player of the year in 2011.
In 2012 with the University of Florida, Zunino hit .322 with 28 doubles, 19 homers and 67 RBI for the Gators. And Baseball America named Zunino their 2012 College Player of the Year.
In 2012, Mike got drafted by the Mariners (see Transactions below).
In 2013, Baseball America rated Zunino as the #1 prospect in the Mariners organization.
Zunino is low-key and a great kid with a tremendous work ethic. And he is a leader both on and off the field. He is not afraid to speak up in front of his peers. He plays hard and he plays when he is tired and/or beat up. He has impressive makeup and a high baseball IQ.And Zunino's leadership skills are off the charts.
October 6, 2012: Zunino got married to Alyssa.
Mike initially pitched and played shortstop. But his favorite player growing up was Charles Johnson, the first-round draft selection of the Florida Marlins in 1992. Greg Zunino was the area scout who followed Johnson first in high school and then at the University of Miami, setting up a strong relationship between the two. That carried over to young Mike.
And that led to his eventual evolution into a catcher.
"When he was playing Little League, I was hoping he would be good enough to get a scholarship," said Greg Zunino. "And then I remember Gary Hughes was in town when Michael was 10, and Gary said, 'He's not bad back there. Interesting.'"
Hughes, who was a scouting director for both Montreal and Florida, was the Yankees' area scout who signed Greg Zunino, a 31st-round draft choice in 1981 out of the University of California. Hughes later convinced Zunino to go into scouting and hired him in Florida.
By the time Mike got to high school, his father's expectations had grown. He not only had watched his son play, but knew the inner drive that Mike possessed. The elder Zunino admitted disappointment that his son lasted into the 29th round in the draft that senior year in high school.
"I told [the area] guys that they missed on him," said Greg Zunino. "But it worked out well. He went to Florida and got bigger and stronger."
"It kept me from getting too complacent," Mike said. "I learned so much more about myself. Every day, I felt I got better." And the scouts paid attention.
"I probably had the lowest draft number on him [that time]," Greg Zunino said. "I would have loved to have had him in our organization, but I am happy he wound up in another organization. It's good for me to be able to back away. He's on his own. He has to establish himself."
Mike's dad, Greg, played at University of California, Berkeley, before the Yankees selected him in the 31st round of 1981 draft. He spent two seasons in the Minor Leagues, then went on to play professionally in Italy, where he met his wife Paola, a catcher for the Italian national softball team. And Greg's brother, Gary Zunino, played three seasons (1979-1981) in the Minor Leagues, too.
Zunino loves baseball. The feeling likely started when he would go to work with his dad, Greg Zunino, a scout for the Marlins from 1992-1998. Mike often tagged along with Greg, watching games for five or six innings at a time.
"We used to sit up in the stands, and he'd hold the radar gun," Greg said. "[Mike] would go for awhile and then he would get bored when he was younger. His mother would take him out and he'd have to go throw the ball against the wall."
If it involved a baseball or a bat, it didn't take much to keep Mike occupied while growing up in Cape Coral, Florida.
"He'd always be out in the backyard—we had a bucket of balls, a tee and a net—and he'd go out there and hit 100 balls every day," Greg said. "If you've ever been down to Florida in the summer, it's a little warm to do that."
Mike has been able to compartmentalize his woes at the plate in 2014 to emerge as one of the best defensive catchers in the American League.
"Today my catcher was outstanding and probably saved the game for us," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "He did a tremendous job for us. Sometimes that goes unnoticed."
Ask Greg, and he'll say Mike's always been able to separate offense from defense and one pitch from the next. He's always been able to maintain a high energy level. Seeing him discouraged is as rare as a Honus Wagner rookie card, though there was one time in high school when Mike seemingly had had enough.
"It wasn't his best game," Greg recalled. "And they'd have to do the field after. I'm sitting in my chair, and he walks in and he says, 'God I hate this game.' He just walked right by and went in his room."
The next day, Mike got three hits.
"This game's pretty good!" he said after walking through the door.
Baseball ran deep in the Zunino household. Mike's Dad's baseball experience extends back decades. He has worked for the Expos, Marlins and Reds. But he took a hands-off approach while Mike tore through the ranks, earning All-State honors in 2009 during his senior year at Mariner High School in Cape Coral.
"I never really was the scout where I'd try to show him a lot," Greg said. "When he came to me and asked, 'What do you think of this swing?' or things like this, I'd help him. Until he really came to me, I'd sort of let him do his thing."
But Greg noticed the cerebral way Mike played the game and the way he asked about how to approach certain situations. When Greg helped coach his wood bat team during the fall, he let Mike call his own pitches— something he wasn't allowed to do in high school.
"He always told me to go out there, play, have fun and trust yourself," Mike said. "That was probably the best advice he gave me."
In 2009, Mike didn't sign with the Athletics after they took him in the 29th round of the draft. Instead, he went to the University of Florida, where he led the Gators to the College World Series three years in a row. In 2012, Mike won the Golden Spikes Award, Johnny Bench Award, and Dick Howser Trophy.
That June, the Reds, for whom Greg worked as a scout, had the 14th pick in the first round of the draft, but there was no way Mike was slipping that far. Greg said he was thankful that the organization didn't ask him to evaluate his son, but they were going to take him if he was still available.
"Not that it would be a really low report, but we probably had the lowest grade on him, because we know where all the little flaws are," Greg said. "I'd grade him a little bit lower on the hitting. I think that's why they didn't have me do it, because it either goes that way or the other way and you're so high on him."
When the Mariners selected Mike with the third overall pick, they knew they were getting a player who grew up around baseball. Tom McNamara, the Mariners' director of amateur scouting, had known Greg for years, and he knew Greg had passed down to his son an authentic love of the game.
"I think Mike is a sponge. You can tell by the way he plays," said McNamara. "He likes being out there. He likes to learn and he's always playing. I think he got that from his mom and dad." (Adam Lewis MLB.com, 6/12/2014)
When people talk about leaders in the Mariners 2015 Spring Training dugout, one name that should be added to that group is Mike Zunino who, despite his youthful status, is quickly growing into a central figure in the Mariners' plans. Watch any of the pitchers work at the club's Peoria facility, and you'll see Zunino in the middle of things, discussing strategy with Seattle's highly regarded hurlers and pushing, prodding and cajoling the talented arms in camp.
"He's just interested, and that's huge," said veteran lefthander J.A. Happ. "Some catchers sometimes can get focused on offensive stuff, but he's very focused on trying to run a staff and learning what guys want to do and the best way to back that. I think as we go forward, it's going to be even better, just getting to know each other and getting a better feel and having a plan."
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon saw in 2014 what the 2012 first-round draft pick brought to the table. He said then that Zunino could be an All-Star backstop once he becomes more consistent with the bat and learns the league better. In the 2015 spring, Zunino has worked hard at hitting the ball to right field and keeping his bat in the zone longer as he strives to raise his batting average from the 2014 season.
"I've seen a real nice maturation process," McClendon said. "I see more leadership skills coming out, taking charge of the bullpen sessions and BP sessions. It's nice to see. Your catcher is the leader on the field. Nothing starts without him. It's nice to have a guy with high energy."
Zunino works hard at his craft and takes a personal interest in each of his throwing partners.
"If [pitchers] can feel comfortable and know I have their best interest in mind, then they can trust me and we can all be on the same page," Zunino said. "That's a big thing between a pitcher and catcher, to gain their trust so they know in hard circumstances, or when push comes to shove, I'm not putting a pitch down just to put it down. I have their best interest in mind."
Zunino's defensive mindset paid dividends in 2014 for a team with the lowest ERA in the American League. McClendon appreciated that Zunino never let his offensive struggles leak over into catching.
"I was very proud of him," McClendon said. "From a defensive standpoint, he always separated his offense, and he understood what was most important from him, and that was to run that staff, control the running game, block balls in the dirt. We have some tough guys to catch, and he did a tremendous job last year." (Johns - mlb.com - 3/16/2015)
July 2, 2016: Mike Zunino and James Paxton, who came up through the Minor Leagues to play in the Majors together, were reunited as a pitcher-catcher duo in the 12-6 win over the Orioles. "There's few guys that can actually work their way up [together]," Zunino said. "And to be able to be a pitcher and a catcher and be able to do that, it's been nice."
Both drafted by the Mariners, Paxton signed in 2011, and Zunino in 2012. They've been up and down since and most recently spent the beginning of the season in Triple-A Tacoma, both working out the kinks before being recalled. Paxton came up on June 1, and Zunino got the call after Steve Clevenger fractured his hand.
Zunino made his season debut, hitting a pair of home runs, including a two-run shot in his first at-bat. He also threw out Manny Machado attempting to steal second base. "We've been working together for a long time and kind of learning together," said Paxton, who earned his second win. "He knows me really well and knows what I'm working on, knows what I'm capable of. So it's just nice to have a guy back there to know what I'm thinking."
Both have made changes to their game this season. Paxton has developed his secondary pitches and Zunino has learned how to be patient and take better at-bats. And that all started down in Tacoma. "For me, it was his arm slot," Zunino said of Paxton's progress. "He really found that about halfway through April and he's just made great strides. Its still relatively new to him he's still finding some triggers and where to be consistent at but it's been incredible. His velo has come up. His off-speed stuff's been great. And he's pounding the strike zone."
Paxton has continued to develop in the Majors, so Zunino had to adjust his pitch calling to incorporate the cutter, slider and changeup more. But the chemistry was still intact. "Once you get to build that relationship and they trust you, that's when it's seamless and [there's] not much shaking off, not much second guessing," Zunino said.
And Paxton said he felt very confident with Zunino behind the plate. "I know that Z's going to block anything that I throw up there in the dirt," Paxton said. "He's such a great defensive catcher and he does a great job catching the ball back there and calling the game. I really enjoy having him back there." (M Lee - MLB.com - July 3, 2016)
April 19-22, 2019: Mike was on the paternity list. “Everybody is good and healthy,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “No baby yet, to my knowledge. But he had given us a heads-up that the plan was that his wife was seeing a doctor and he was going to go back.”
April 22, 2019: After welcoming the birth of his first child, Rhett Michael Zunino, Mike returned to the Rays lineup and was interested to see if he would benefit from the "dad strength" that some of his teammates have raved about.
“It’ll be nice to hit my first homer today, huh?” Zunino said before the game. “Everybody talks about dad strength, so it’ll be nice to see if that works."
That dad strength surely came sooner rather than later, as Zunino blasted a go-ahead two-run home run off Royals starter Brad Keller in the seventh inning to break a 3-3 tie. It helped the Rays snap a four-game losing streak with a 6-3 win against Kansas City. It was Zunino’s first home run of the season, and it traveled 425 feet and had an exit velocity of 106.6 mph.
“It took long enough, but it’s one of those things that if it had to come at a time, that was a pretty good one,” Zunino said after the game. “It was a special moment, feeling good at the plate with obviously having three games off, but I felt pretty good the first couple at-bats and got a good pitch to hit.”
Zunino and his wife, Alyssa, drove down to St. Petersburg from their Gainesville, FL home. The family spent the night at the hospital before spending Easter at home in Gainesville, enjoying an Easter dinner. When Zunino returned to the clubhouse after the game, he came back to a couple of photos his wife had texted to him of Rhett.
“They were all watching. I have a bunch of pictures of him, so it was cool,” Zunino said. “It was the first time talking to her knowing they were going to watch the game together. It’s something special. It was cool, and then to get the text of him and everything afterwards was the icing on the cake.”
Not only was the home run a special moment for Zunino, it was a key moment in the win. After falling behind 3-1 in the fifth inning, the Rays had to rally back from a deficit for the fifth consecutive game. Fortunately for the Rays, this time they were able to finish the comeback thanks to Zunino’s two-run shot. (J Toribio - MLB.com - April 22, 2019)
April 17, 2020: It’s not just because he’s a catcher. But aside from that, Zunino does have several traits that would make him a good manager. He has strong communication skills, especially with a pitching staff, and served as a veteran voice in the Rays’ clubhouse in 2019 despite having a subpar season at the plate. Zunino has also been a calming influence for the Rays, which is something a manager needs during a 162-game season.
He would also be willing to adopt analytics and all the new strategies that have been introduced to the game. Zunino is only 29, so this wouldn’t happen anytime soon, but it shouldn’t surprise people to see the Rays' catcher in a manager’s office in the future. (J Toribio - MLB.com - April 17, 2020)
July 2021: Zunino was chosen as a reserve catcher in the All-Star Game.
2021 Season: Zunino played in 109 games for the Rays, which seems questionable considering his slash line of .216/.301/.559 (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage). This season, however, Zunino hit 33 home runs.
His offensive output made him the third-highest-rated catcher in the American League in wRC+. FanGraphs.com defines it as:
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects. League average for position players is 100.Zunino had 134 wRC+, putting him behind only Yasmani Grandal (159) and Mitch Garver (137). Rays’ manager Kevin Cash has repeatedly praised the defensive work of Zunino, noting that it becomes a given after a while and may not even be realized.
Zunino has also been praised for his handling of pitchers, mainly because Zunino is considered selfless and primarily concerned with getting the best in pitcher performance than with himself. ( George Curcio - Oct. 14, 2021)
NEW PITCH-CALLING DEVICE
March 19, 2022: With one out in the second inning at Charlotte Sports Park, the Braves put runners on first and second base with Ryan Goins coming to the plate. Rather than walking out to the mound to go over a new set of signs with pitcher Phoenix Sanders, Rays catcher Mike Zunino took his place behind the plate and punched a button on a device strapped to his left arm. It looked different, not just because it was Spring Training. The Rays were using new technology that allowed Zunino to electronically send signs to Sanders, a pitch-calling system developed by PitchCom that could help improve the pace of play and eliminate illegal sign-stealing. Minor Leaguers tested the system in the Low-A California League last summer, but this was the first time Major Leaguers used it in a game. The reviews from the two parties most directly involved were extremely positive. “It’s something I'm really intrigued with, and hopefully it picks up some steam,” Zunino said. “It's something that's really going to get the game moving, I think.” Said Sanders: “It was very easy to use. There were no hiccups or anything with it, so I definitely would be up to use it in a game.” For Sanders’ two innings, Zunino attached the PitchCom transmitter -- a black object that looks like a remote control, with a number of small black buttons -- to a sleeve on his left forearm. Sanders tucked a 6-inch-long, rubbery receiver inside his cap, as did second baseman Brandon Lowe. Zunino also wore a receiver inside the padding of his helmet. Zunino would press one of the buttons, and over an encrypted channel, each player wearing a receiver would hear a generic male voice -- which comes pre-recorded in English or Spanish -- say which pitch the catcher had called. “It’s almost like their version of Siri or Alexa just tells you what pitch to throw,” Sanders said. That cut down the amount of time Sanders, already a pretty quick worker, took between pitches. When an Atlanta runner reached second, the Rays didn’t need to use multiple sets of signs or a mound visit to adjust them. Zunino just pushed a button, the voice relayed the call, and the game kept moving. And having a middle infielder like Lowe wear a receiver allowed the Rays’ defense to make pre-pitch adjustments behind Sanders like it normally would. “It didn't slow me down,” Sanders said. “It's got to make their job easier. Like I was telling Zunino, it'd be tough if I came in [to the game] with a new sign set today that he's never heard of, and it's like, 'Hey, we're going to use these at second today,' without him going, 'OK, I've got to learn this on the fly in 20 minutes.' “It definitely gets rid of that kind of stuff and allows you to trust your scouting report and just be able to kind of say, 'OK, this is what I know I can do.’ It was pretty easy.” On the two occasions Sanders shook off a pitch called by Zunino, all the All-Star catcher had to do was press another button. Just like that, the new pitch call made its way to Sanders’ receiver. By pressing and holding down a button, Zunino could go beyond signaling a pitch type to specify certain locations for Sanders -- “fastball in,” “curveball down” and so on. “It seems like it's got the technology to really be able to say like, 'I want this. I want that,’” Sanders said. “It's just a matter of how long [the catcher] holds it down.”
There were some minor issues, like Zunino accidentally setting the volume too high when he punched in his first sign -- it was loud enough he worried the Braves’ Guillermo Heredia might have heard the call in the batter’s box -- or Lowe struggling to hear some calls over the stadium’s public address system. (Players can adjust the volume on their receivers, as they both learned.) Some pitchers might prefer the traditional method of calling pitches, although Zunino said he’d heard from others who would at least be interested in using the system with runners on second base to prevent sign-stealing. Overall, their takeaways were overwhelmingly favorable. “There's going be stuff, I'm sure, that's going come to light,” Zunino said. “But just to be able to do it, call pitches right now and see it has been pretty fun. I mean, I never thought we'd get this point.” Sanders hadn’t used the system before but found his first experience “pretty easy” and said he’d be in favor of more widespread use. Zunino, who had already worn the device while catching another pitcher’s live batting practice session, said he was “hoping some guys pick up on it more” and even suggested further potential benefits beyond just curbing sign-stealing and improving pace of play. “It was easy to call pitches. Most of our guys are very open-minded,” Zunino said. “If it can save them a couple seconds looking in and it could get them in the right headspace to execute that pitch, I mean, maybe that's all we need. … If [pitchers] have that extra time, maybe instead of having to look in, it gives you 2-3 extra seconds for recovery. There's a lot of different things, but ultimately, the times we've used it, it's really sped up the game.” The Rays went back to the traditional method of calling pitches after Sanders left the mound. Zunino said he wasn’t the only one who noticed a difference in tempo the rest of the game. “Man, it was smooth. I had conversations with Chad Fairchild, the umpire, and he could tell when Phoenix came out and we weren't using it,” Zunino said. “We were able to keep a better pace with it. … I felt like it was fairly smooth.” (A Berry - MLB.com - March 19, 2022)
2022 Season: Zunino is a bounce-back candidate, depending on his medicals. He was an All-Star and earned down-ballot MVP votes in 2021, when he hit 33 home runs.
His offensive production slipped in 2022, and he was limited to 36 games before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his left (catching) arm.
Zunino said he expects to be 100 percent ready for spring training. He may not command more than a one-year deal as he looks to return to the field. (Tim Stebbins • Published November 22, 2022)
June 2012: The Mariners made Zunino their first round pick (#3 overall). And he signed on July 2 for a $4 million bonus, via scout Rob Mummau.
Jan 12, 2018: Mike and the Mariners avoided arbitration, agreeing on a deal worth $2.9 million.
Nov 8, 2018: The Mariners traded C Mike Zunino, LF Guillermo Heredia and LHP Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays for CF Mallex Smith and CF Jake Fraley.
Jan 11, 2019: Mike and the Rays avoided arbitration, agreeing on a deal worth $4.4 million.
Nov 25, 2019: The Rays signed veteran catcher Zunino to a one-year deal for $4.5 million. The deal includes a 2021 club option worth another $4.5 million, with the potential to grow to $5.2 million with incentives.
Oct 30, 2020: Mike chose free agency. The Rays did not pick up Zunino's $4.5 million option.
Dec. 16, 2020: The Rays brought back Zunino on a one-year deal. Zunino, 29, will get $2 million guaranteed, which is less than half of what the Rays would’ve paid had they picked up his $4.5 million club option. The Rays also have a club option for 2022.
Dec 7, 2021: Tampa Bay exercised catcher Mike Zunino’s $7 million club option for the 2022 season. A year ago, the Rays declined Zunino’s $4.5 million club option and made him a free agent. But Zunino bet on himself and the relationships he established with Tampa Bay, re-signing with the Rays on a one-year, $2 million contract with a 2022 option worth between $4-7 million depending on his playing time. Zunino proved himself and maxed out his option-year salary during his first All-Star campaign, slashing .216/.301/.559 with a career-high 33 homers in 109 games while playing his usual brand of excellent defense.
- Nov. 6, 2022: Mike became a free agent.
- Dec. 13, 2022: The Guardians reached agreement with veteran free agent catcher Mike Zunino on a one-year, $6 million contract.