ST. PETERSBURG -- Mike Zunino takes great pride in his defensive work behind the plate, and the Mariners catcher has made a huge stride this year in the percentage of baserunners he's caught stealing.Zunino threw out the Rays' Joey Wendle for the game-ending out in Friday's 4-3 win and then
ST. PETERSBURG -- Mike Zunino takes great pride in his defensive work behind the plate, and the Mariners catcher has made a huge stride this year in the percentage of baserunners he's caught stealing.
Zunino threw out the Rays' Joey Wendle for the game-ending out in Friday's 4-3 win and then nailed Mallex Smith trying to steal second in the eighth inning of Saturday's 7-3 loss. He's now thrown out 10 runners in 24 stolen-base attempts this season (a 41.7 percent success rate) compared to 14-of-68 last year (20.6 percent).
That's second among catchers with more than 200 innings of work, trailing only Royals standout Salvador Perez. And when it comes to crunch time, Zunino's caught-stealing percentage of 75.0 percent (6-for-8) from the seventh inning on is the best in the Majors.
"Z has been great throwing a lot of guys out late in games," said Mariners manager Scott Servais. "Those are big outs. They're hard to get and other teams are gambling, taking a chance, and when you can take the air out of their rally, it's awesome."
Zunino said he's worked hard at that part of his game this year and it's paying off.
"Early in spring I wanted to iron some stuff out," he said. "I felt like at the end of last year I threw the ball well and it was a focus I wanted to take. If I could help the team out in that aspect, save 90 feet, it's big. I've been able to get some pitches to throw on and really not try to do too much except put it on the bag."
The standard metric to measure catchers' throws is "pop time," which is the time from when a ball hits the catcher's mitt to when the throw arrives at the base. Zunino's pop time on the game-ending out was 1.93 seconds, which is his best of the season and just off his best last year of 1.89.
The MLB average pop time on stolen-base attempts at second base is 2.01, and Zunino has hovered around that number throughout his career -- 2.03 in 2015, 1.98 in '16, 2.02 in '17 and 2.00 this year, according to Statcast™.
But Zunino has improved on his throwing accuracy as well as his footwork and ability to receive the ball properly to maximize his throws. He has also been helped by the Mariners' pitchers working on improving and varying their deliveries to make it harder for opposing runners to time them up.
"To me, the biggest thing with everything in my catching game this year is just letting the ball come to me," Zunino said. "Not reaching out and getting my footwork out of whack, just letting the ball do the majority of the traveling."
Servais, a former catcher, said that is one of the things that makes Zunino's mechanics stand out.
"The ball is always going to travel faster, so letting it get to you allows him to load up and really use his lower half to throw," Servais said. "When catchers start reaching for the ball, that's when the footwork gets a little long and the arm drags, and you get the tail on the throws. It's hard, late in the game like that, you know the guy might go and you're anticipating it and your first reaction is to go get it."
Zunino had the experience and ability to stick with that approach even with the game hanging in the balance on the final out Friday on the play where he unleashed his best pop time at the perfect time.
"More than the actual pop time, it's when [the play] happened, and the execution that late in the game is awesome," said Servais. "I was really happy for him. That's like the ultimate thing for a catcher, to end the game with a caught stealing. That's the catcher's version of a walkoff."
• Right-handed reliever Nick Vincent is scheduled to pitch a rehab inning for Class A Advanced Modesto on Sunday and could rejoin the Mariners next week if all goes well. He's been sidelined for 12 games with a strained right groin.
• Catcher Chris Herrmann, who has missed the past nine games with a strained right oblique, could also make a rehab appearance with Modesto in the next day or two.
• Servais didn't have any new word yet on right-handed reliever Dan Altavilla, who was placed on the 10-day DL on Friday with a strained right elbow. Altavilla was meeting with the Mariners doctors on Saturday in Seattle.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.