Few players have had more of an impact on college baseball over the last three years than Florida catcher Mike Zunino.
Maybe Zunino’s offensive numbers this spring weren’t eye-popping, but they were plenty robust—he tied for fourth in the nation with 19 home runs, ranked 10th with 67 RBIs, third with 28 doubles, 11th with a .669 slugging percentage and fifth with 164 total bases. He finished the year hitting .322/.394/.669, and he did it while playing rock-solid defense behind the plate—baseball’s most physically demanding position.
His combination of offensive production, quality defense, superb leadership and remarkable durability (he started all 66 of Florida’s games, including 62 at catcher) made Zunino the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, and it makes him the 2012 Baseball America College Player of the Year.
We profiled Zunino in depth back in April, when we named him college baseball’s Most Outstanding Player at midseason. Now we’ll let others do the talking. Here’s what Zunino’s coach and some of those who coached against him had to say about him, and what Zunino himself said about his standout season and collegiate carer.
• Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan: “He’s been a tremendous leader, both on and off the field. He’s been a major reason why this program has taken the next step. Obviously he’s improved each year, and I’m awfully proud of what he’s been able to accomplish on the field, and off the field as well.
“(His leadership ability) didn’t start when he got to Florida—it started well before that. He comes from a baseball family, and they’ve obviously done a really good job helping prepare him for this. I think it’s just the want. He wants to be a leader. He’s not afraid to speak up in front of his peers. To be able to step up in front of your peers and speak, I think it takes confidence and a heck of a maturity. The success we’ve had on the mound certainly starts with Mike. I think any pitching coach will tell you, your staff won’t be as good as it can be without a guy who can take charge back there.
“I think offensively, he’s probably improved that part of his game more than anything else. He’s always been a really good defender, always been able to throw, always been able to separate offense from defense. He’s learned to use the other side of the field very well. Like most young hitters, he was very pull-oriented early in his career. His balance is a lot better, he stays through the ball better, and he’s learned to drive the ball the other way.
“I think his body can certainly handle the grind of catching—he’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. He’s certainly made for that position. He held up great, and he’s getting ready to get into a position where he’s going to catch more than that. He’s certainly physically able to do it. I don’t think people realize how big and strong he is until you get up next to him, but his legs and forearms, he’s a really well put together kid. He never complains about being hurt. There are days you know he’s banged up a little bit, and he never says a word. This guy goes about his business. That’s one of the things I admire about him—it’s kind of a quiet toughness.
“We’re certainly going to miss him, but I’m sure every year we’re going to have draft picks. We don’t plan on going anywhere. That’s the special thing about Mike and this group of players is I do think they’ve elevated this program. It’s up to the following group to kind of maintain it.”
• Georgia coach David Perno: “He’s a catcher, he doesn’t miss a game, runs the show, hits three-hole. The power, the leadership—he does it all. If I’m picking first, I’m picking Zunino. Any player in our league, it’s him, no-brainer. He’s just a phenomenal kid. It’s amazing what he’s done through the years there, and the durability is probably underrated. I don’t know that he’s missed a game in two years. I remember his freshman year he was catching, he got stung real bad and had to run off the field, and he didn’t miss. He got some tape and went back out there.
“He’s almost like a good umpire—you don’t notice him, other than he hits the ball out of the yard, makes every throw, blocks every ball. It’s just amazing. Through the years, while he’s been at Florida, you just have had to earn everything you got. You weren’t getting any gifts from him. You could just tell the respect he commands. They just don’t come around like him very often. He makes everybody better, no question about it.”
• Mississippi State coach John Cohen: “I think the neat thing about that kid is, and I’m not taking anything away from his physical skills, but what makes him special to me is he is like having a coach on the field. He is such a game changer just between the ears, the way he plays the game. Yeah, he’s got some power and some feel to hit, but he can make an impossible block. He’s not the best thrower I’ve ever seen, but everything is around the bag. He’s just a winner, man. He is a winner. If you take him out of that equation—I think this is the best way to say it. Florida has been knocking on the door for a national championship for a while, but if you take him out, they’re done. He is the difference-maker for their club. He’s been the guy. He runs the whole deal. You know a program is running on cylinders when, dadgummit, they’ve got a guy on the field who’s running the show for them. He’s a great player.”
• Mississippi coach Mike Bianco: “When you look at Zunino, he plays one of the toughest positions as a position player, catcher or shortstop. They really lean on him, you can tell just from leadership, handling a great pitching staff behind the plate, he blocks balls, throws guys out. Zunino’s the total package. He does it in all the phases of the game, defensively and offensively. I think he brings that intangible to the game as a great leader. You feel his presence on the field.”
• Mike Zunino: “Without the University of Florida, without the coaching staff, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. They’ve sculpted me as a player and helped me tremendously. I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made out of high school. It’s been the best three years of my life playing here. I’m just grateful for it.
“Coming in here out of high school, I was just raw. They saw potential in me, and they got the best out of it. I bought into what they were saying. I’m just grateful for what they did. Obviously we didn’t win the national championship, but I hope we laid the groundwork for what (O’Sullivan) wants to have in years to come.”