Who's No. 1? Zunino is Draft's top college bat
Florida catcher among candidates to be selected first overall
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No matter who you ask, there's not much to criticize about catcher Mike Zunino.
The University of Florida junior is the consensus top college bat in this year's First-Year Player Draft and is ranked No. 3 on MLB.com's Top Draft Prospects list. Zunino has drawn favorable comparisons to Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, a Georgia Tech product who was chosen fifth overall in 2007. Zunino is among the handful of candidates to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick, and it's hard to imagine him falling out of the top five, if not the top three.
None of Zunino's tools exactly jump off the scouting report, but he projects to be an above-average everyday catcher in all facets of the game. His offensive numbers have been outstanding over the past two seasons. Gators pitcher Hudson Randall, Zunino's freshman roommate, lauds the catcher's character, communication and the way he calls his own games, and Randall said Zunino "knows exactly what he's doing back there."
Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan is even more direct in his praise.
"He's the best catcher in the country. I think that will be shown, obviously, when the Draft comes around," O'Sullivan said. "Tremendous player. Tremendous kid. Great work ethic. Great leader. He's the total package."
But there is one longtime scout, currently with the Reds, who knows Zunino's flaws better than anyone else. As a Little Leaguer, Zunino once told that scout to reserve his comments and criticism unless he asks to hear them.
That scout is his father, Greg Zunino, and he has heeded his son's wish to this day.
"When you're young, you always feel like you know a lot more than you do," the younger Zunino said, laughing. "He would just be trying to help me, and out of frustration, I just didn't want to listen. But now, I've learned so much that he's the first person I go to, just to talk to about the game in general and to learn as much as I can.
"I'm grateful for that, and it's helped out tremendously."
This is always a busy time of year for the Zunino family, with Mike leading the Gators toward what he hopes is their first College World Series championship and Greg doing his scouting work throughout the state. Greg occasionally gets to mix work with his fatherly duties as he scouts opposing players in his son's games.
It will be even more hectic this year. Zunino is dealing with the Draft hype and, while he's at it, helping his longtime girlfriend plan their October wedding. He picked the color scheme -- classic black and white, he said -- but has otherwise done his best to stay focused on the multitude of other tasks at hand.
"These events are going to happen at one time of my life or another," Zunino said. "It just happens that they're in the same period this year for me. I just take it one day at a time."
That's a time-tested cliche, one Zunino repeats often. But it's also one of the most important things his father taught him about baseball. Keep a balanced approach, and don't let yourself get too high or low.
Zunino learned that while growing up around baseball. His father was drafted by the Yankees in the 31st round of the 1981 Draft and has been a scout for the past 25 years. Zunino would go to ballparks with his dad, soaking up all he could at a young age. When he was playing T-ball as a 7-year-old, Zunino asked when his team would take infield like the professional players he'd seen.
Zunino was drafted out of Cape Coral Mariner High School in the 30th round of the 2009 Draft. He chose to attend Florida, where the coaching staff eased him in behind the plate. O'Sullivan had mentioned the uncommon idea of having Zunino call his own games during the recruiting process, but the coach remained relatively hands-on during Zunino's freshman year. Two years later, Zunino is completely capable of handling it on his own.
Zunino admitted it mostly came naturally to him, but he supplemented his inherent ability with plenty of work. He breaks down film with O'Sullivan, studying his pitchers and opposing hitters as he tries to expose strengths and weaknesses.
"Each year, they've given him more and more responsibility. They brought him along slowly and let him sort of take hold of the staff," Greg Zunino said. "He's a lot more comfortable with them now than he was in his first year. I think the familiarity with those guys has helped him a lot."
Zunino has been a consistent force at the plate for Florida, posting a .371/.442/.674 batting line, with 19 homers, 23 doubles and 67 RBIs in 72 games as a sophomore. Heading into the final week of Florida's regular season, he boasts a .321/.381/.637 line, with 13 homers, 22 doubles and 46 RBIs in 51 games.
If there's been one knock on Zunino as the Draft approaches, it's been his pedestrian .240/.316/.470 batting line in Southeastern Conference play. Zunino said he feels comfortable, but he's not getting on top of every pitch he wants to. He hasn't been alone, however, as the Gators struggled across the board offensively.
"They pitch him a little differently," O'Sullivan said. "He's been pitched to very, very carefully, but he's also come up with some big hits."
Greg Zunino says fellow scouts at Florida games are impressed by how calm he remains while watching his son play, whether he's going through this kind of slump or getting those big hits well into the postseason.
Those are the times he has to remember the advice his son repeats so often, the mentality that has helped Zunino become such a promising prospect. Keep a balanced approach, and don't let yourself get too high or low.
It helps, of course, that Zunino hasn't given him all that much to criticize.
"There's not a lot that I have to do with him right now," Greg Zunino said. "That's the good thing."