Zaun honing new approach at the plate

Zaun honing new approach at the plate

PHOENIX -- While Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder is booming batting practice baseballs onto the berms of the Cactus League, catcher Gregg Zaun is pounding them into the dirt. Zaun couldn't be more proud of himself.

"It's the most boring thing you've ever seen in your life," Zaun said, beaming. "All I'm trying to do is hit hard, one-hop ground balls through the middle of the infield. They turn into line drives, and every once in a while they turn into home runs.

"That approach has completely changed. It used to be 'lift the ball and drive it.' Now I'm trying to do the exact opposite. It's working for me. I'm pretty happy about it."

So are the Brewers, who are not expecting their new starting catcher to bat .500 in the regular season but are happy to see him do it through his first 12 Spring Training games. Zaun came off the bench for another pinch-hit single in Saturday's win over the Royals, his 13th hit in 26 Spring Training at-bats.

Spring Training stats are often a mirage, but club officials are hoping that Zaun's hot start portends a solid first season with a team that has run through more than its share of catchers over the past decade. Zaun replaced Jason Kendall, who started 280 games over the past two seasons but batted .244 with a .644 OPS before departing via free agency for the Royals, who inked him to a two-year deal.

The Brewers weren't willing to spend what it would have taken to lure Kendall back, so they turned quickly to Zaun. General manager Doug Melvin reached out to Zaun on the first day teams were free to contact free agents -- "Nobody's ever done that for me," Zaun said -- and a deal was set on Dec. 4. It guaranteed Zaun, who has spent most of his career as a backup, a $1.9 million salary and offered an opportunity to start.

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"The big thing for us was that he was able to hit left-handed," said Melvin of the switch-hitting Zaun. "At the time, our only left-handed hitter was Prince Fielder, so we felt that was important. He's always been selective at the plate, and I liked that, too. He has a good line-drive stroke.

"He has a lot of similarities to Jason, actually. Both guys have a very strong passion for the game and a passion to be recognized for their hard style of play. I've seen Zaun block the plate and take a shot, and Kendall was that way, too. Those are two tough guys."

Most of Zaun's career at-bats -- 2,670 of 2,703 -- have come as a left-handed hitter, but he's impressed Melvin & Co. this spring with his swings from the right side of the plate. That could be important this year if the Brewers pick left-handed hitter George Kottaras as the backup catcher over right-handed hitter Matt Treanor. Manager Ken Macha says that competition is still open.

Macha and Zaun have discussed a plan for playing time during the regular season. It's clear that Zaun will not catch as much as Kendall did over the past two seasons, but Macha would like the number to be over 100.

"I think it would be nice if that would happen," Macha said. "But I've got to also be realistic with his age and what he's done in his recent past [in terms of] how many games he's caught."

Zaun, who will turn 39 on April 14, started more than 100 games only twice in his career, in 2006 and '07 with Toronto. Last season, he signed with the Orioles to help bring along top prospect Matt Wieters, who eventually took over the starting catcher job in late May. Zaun knew the move was coming, and figures it was moved along by the fact he was hitting .209 at the time.

The Orioles traded Zaun on Aug. 7 to Tampa Bay, where he continued working on his swing.

"I've worked really hard the last couple of years on hitting," Zaun said. "Last year, I started off swinging the bat really poorly, and by about May I had to step back and figure some ways to keep the ball out of the air. I tried to find ways to shorten my swing."

The answer was in his batting stance.

"I used to hit from a pretty low stance and I relied on my legs to try and generate power," Zaun said. "I just gave up on it. I wasn't having consistent at-bats. I was going through way too many peaks and valleys. So I stood up taller and started getting a better look at different types of pitches."

The result, he says, is that he found more steady success against a wider variety of pitchers, especially tall ones who throw over-handed. He can much more easily identify the spin of the baseball out of a pitcher's hand.

That was Step 1. The second step came over the winter, when Zaun worked extensively at hitting off a tee to hone his hand position. He didn't take any swings against a pitcher until the start of Spring Training.

"I was laughing because my first day taking batting practice off the coaches, I swung and missed," Zaun said. "First time in my career. But I'm sticking with my approach. I come in and hit off the tee all morning and then go out into batting practice, hit the ball up the middle and don't even look at where it's going. It's worked out so far."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.