Florida catcher Mike Zunino has a lot going for him.
He’s the best player on the best team in the country. He’s a surefire first-rounder, in contention to be the first overall pick in the draft, and he has been an offensive force in the middle of the Gators’ lineup for the past two years. Last year he hit .371/.442/.674 with 23 doubles and 19 home runs. This year, he’s off to a .350/.413/.700 start through the team’s first 29 games with eight doubles and nine home runs. He’s steadily lowered his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate.
He does his damage when it matters, too. Last year in the postseason, Zunino was 17-for-43 (.395) with four doubles and four home runs, helping the Gators reach the College World Series finals. On top of that, he’s a sound receiver behind the plate who has started to gain more responsibilities for handling the best pitching staff in the nation.
“He’s their heart and soul, no doubt,” said one opposing coach whose team has played the Gators. “He’s their leader. He’s their guy, not only from a numbers standpoint, but leadership too. As good as their pitchers are, I believe he makes them better.”
Add it all up and Zunino is Baseball America’s 2012 Midseason Most Outstanding Player.
“There is not a better player in the country than Zunino,” another opposing coach said. “He’s a presence behind the plate, a presence in the middle of the lineup, he does such a great job handling that staff. He’s scary, man. We were trying to pitch around him. He’s the guy we didn’t want to beat us. You can fool him once, but if you come back again he’s going to make the adjustment. He’s got tremendous power. Behind the plate, he does a great job blocking, receiving and throwing. You can tell he handles the game well.”
Zunino wasn’t always a catcher. Throughout Little League, he mostly played shortstop. He didn’t move behind the plate until he was about 11 years old.
“My dad just sort of threw me back there,” Zunino said. “There was a kid who threw pretty hard, and he goes, ‘Here, why don’t you try to catch him?’ So I was sort of the test dummy and got thrown back there to do that.”
Zunino also played shortstop his freshman year of high school because Mariner High (Cape Coral, Fla.) had a senior catcher that year—Robert Greene—who was committed to Florida Gulf Coast.
But Zunino is the blueprint for an everyday catcher. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he has the size and strength to handle the everyday grind of the position at the next level. He has the tools and he also has the extra qualities teams want in a backstop. He handles a pitching staff well and has excellent baseball savvy since he’s grown up around the game with his father, Greg, who played at California and then in the minor leagues. The elder Zunino has spent more than 20 years as an area scout for the Expos, Marlins and Reds.
Greg remembers brining Mike along on scouting trips when Mike was a kid.
“Especially in the summer, when he’s not in school, we’d go out and I’d do my pro coverage in the Florida State League,” Greg said. “And he’d sit next to me and hold the radar gun and he’d see certain things and we’d talk about them. I thought that was invaluable to him.”
Mike has a professional approach to the game now, but that actually started at a much younger age.
“He wanted to take infield in tee ball,” Greg said.
Unsurprisingly given his baseball background, Mike was a top prospect out of high school, ranked as the 163rd-best prospect in the country heading into the 2009 draft. But he fell to the Athletics in the 29th round because of his strong commitment to Florida.
Zunino said both his parents went to college, and they really wanted him to have that experience, too. He chose Florida because he loved the coaching staff and the facilities. Scouts love Florida because all three coaches there have professional baseball experience and draw from that experience when running the team.
And Zunino has the added benefit of working with head coach Kevin O’Sullivan—a former catcher himself.
“Coach O’Sullivan has helped me out tremendously behind the plate,” Zunino said. “Just feeding me knowledge on what to look for with hitters, so that’s helped my defensive game.”
Greg Zunino lauded the Gators for helping to refine his son as a defender.
“I don’t want to go and bash any of the showcases, but one of the things they do in the showcases is they really put emphasis on how fast you get rid of the ball and not worry about accuracy or anything like that,” Greg Zunino said. “Well, the first thing they did when Mike got to Florida was they slowed him down, because he was in such a hurry to please all the clocks. And I think that’s really helped him on his accuracy to just do things nice and easy.”
O’Sullivan has gained a level of trust with Zunino this year, letting him call his own games—a rarity in college baseball.
“I’m happy that Sully’s gained that respect for me to be able to call the games,” Zunino said. “I’ve learned a lot and try to tap into my memory bank of how he used to call games the last two years. There’s occasions where he wants to call certain pitches, but for the most part he’s given me free reign and I’m really happy he’s been able to do that.”
Even though he’s crushing the ball offensively, Zunino said it’s the other side of the game that he enjoys the most.
“I just love being behind the plate defensively,” Zunino said. “A lot of people ask me about hitting, but for me if we can go and call a good game and pitch a good game and I can manage a game the way I sort of want it to go, that’s the most satisfying thing about the game. If I can go out there and call and pitch and our pitcher executes it and we get outs, there’s nothing better than that.”