I don’t often post consecutively, but when I do, it concerns the minor leagues and those posts are ill-scheduled.
A few days ago, I had a luxurious fifteen minutes to myself with which to do as I would and discovered a segment of a podcast with new farm director Andy McKay. Being of significant curiosity and questionable overall mental health, I naturally leapt at the opportunity and donned a pair of bulky headphones in order to best experience it. To be frank, there aren’t often a lot of instances in which major front office types are eager to give away trade secrets, and this was no different. Much of the intrigue of listening involved trying to reconstruct what was going on in the background, as McKay either was preparing lunch or unloading a dishwasher as he fielded the interview. Details were vague and commentary on specific players, far vaguer, but I did come away with two major notes that sparked my attention.
Taking account of his prior role as a mental skills coach for the Colorado Rockies, the interviewers gravitated towards the expected question of “how do you prepare pitchers to do well in Coors Field?” This would be the kind of secret that I think anyone would be fascinated to learn regardless of their rooting inclinations, but McKay’s responses were ones of refutation, claiming that it never really came up and that it wasn’t something that they ever talked about at length. In so many words, what is known as the characteristic of the home park was blown off as if it were nothing and McKay mentioned in passing the bewildering and unusual success that some pitchers had experienced, running reverse splits in some rare instances. Otherwise, so far as he was concerned, both teams had to deal with it.
You may be sensing what piqued my interest here. If the org didn’t really talk about it, you might think of it as a possible bête noire, something verboten to speak of in public and only heard of in hushed tones. Or, the alternative could be to invest a great deal of attention into rendering it the subject of nightmares, only to be overcome by the toughest and manliest of pitchers. McKay flatly stated that the media had more interest in the subject than anyone else he talked to. It was no big deal to him.
The material circumstances might be different, but let’s consider the previous runs of GMs with regard to their attitudes about Safeco Field. Despite the offensive successes of the Gillick-era Mariners, there started to be real concerns thereafter with much chatter about batting eyes and the left field walls. It has been rumored that fan-favorite Adrian Beltre thereafter cautioned power hitters against signing in Seattle. As the Zduriencik regime started to settle into being definitively in the mindset of its egg-shaped namesake, the articulated goal was often to acquire players whose power was so transcendent that it could overcome any park, Safeco included. The only major success we’ve experienced on that front is Nelson Cruz, and Zduriencik is no longer the GM of any team.
It would be too much to link one thing to another, but when you look at some of the drafting tendencies we’ve had, major raw RH power has been a trademark, likely operating under the assumption that an organization ought to develop what it is unlikely to acquire via free agency. Alex Jackson. Tyler O’Neill. Mike Zunino. D.J. Peterson. Gabby Guerrero. Tyler Marlette. Corey Simpson. The list can go on, if you allow it to. And subsequently, all these players have had noted struggles in recent years, with a late-season rebound by O’Neill being a plus followed by a question mark. In many cases, the strikeouts and level of contact have been so poor as to make their major league futures suspect regardless of raw ability. To hear McKay speak of Coors Field dismissively and cite pitchers who had reverse splits makes me wonder if, in whatever way, the public talk by the Mariners figureheads about getting that bury-the-needle power in turn got into the heads of their major prospects, who tried and failed to do too much with it. This is purely inference on my part with little means to corroborate with anything tangible, but having made the connection, one does wonder.
The second part that interested me was the specific circumstances of McKay’s coaching life. He claimed that he had managed enough over his career (also citing his MBA and organizational background) to connect with players and earn their trust regardless of what role he held. Baseball, he claimed, was “100% mental,” and “the body follows the mind.” Both statements read/hear like sports platitudes for the perky young postgame interviewer. Not much to write home about, that is until the later conversation about creating a culture and being hands-on in the dugout and then some other actually interesting notes arose.
McKay’s coaching career runs like this: In the summers, he was stationed in the Northwoods League, a wood-bat circuit comparable to though without the media attention of the Cape Cod League. During the rest of the year, he was in community colleges, coaching players with the intent of preparing them for D-I transfers. In both cases, players often came in with specific needs and McKay needed to address them in limited time frames, a few months or a few years, and then send them off better to the next thing.
It would be presumptuous to say something like “he’s going to turn around the system in a heartbeat! Our savior!” and then have an assortment of cartoon hearts spraying out of my eyes. I’m not that naïve. But the idea of being able to identify needs in a short timeframe and work with directed attention on them would appear to be an asset. To boot, he brought up other issues that were points of contrast with the prior administration, not calling them out by name, but saying that a system that was all about individual development at the expense of winning could risk having players that didn’t know what to do to get the team to win once they reached the majors. It’s an easy slide from there into an armchair sports psychology that would point to, I don’t know, Ackley’s deer-in-headlights expression at times, and to claim that a focus on individual development might, at its most warped, tempt a player into thinking that the weight of the organization was on their shoulders, which simply isn’t healthy. I don’t know if I can extrapolate that either based on the information that we have, but I can say that the dismal state of the farm system with regard to winning percentage has made following it a tougher sell and I could be drawn in by promises of positive records and lesser playoff runs building up to greater ones.
Having nervously tiptoed into the waters that may serve to re-baptize me into a more ardent, born-again fandom, I would do well to bring it all back to something less superstitious and more overt in content. When asked about the state of the Mariners farm system specifically, McKay claimed that it was easier coming in because the lack of emotional ties meant you could make some stone-cold decisions if you had to, which syncs up with some of the trades that went on in the offseason. But the point at which I stopped the podcast, scrolled back, and made sure I got every word was when this quote came out:
“I believe in the players that we have and I believe that the players we have will make strides, but I like to consider myself a realist. We have real challenges in front of us. This is not a system that is thriving right now. The deficiencies are easy to identify. We’ve identified them and are willing to get to work on them.”
As the BA list implied, the Mariners are in a bad way right now with regard to depth. Many things that were expected to not suck have instead resembled shop-vacs attached to uninterrupted power supplies. We aren’t likely to be metaphorically skipping through the meadow amidst the rainbows of a joyful 2016 season, but those in power now seem to have their convictions about what was wrong in the process of how the team operated previously. They have articulated what they aim to do in response to it. Now all we need is data.
Whether it’s diminishing returns on the player development front or merely that the PhD student lifestyle clamors for the lion’s share of my attention, I’ve found myself more tuned out from the minor league goings-on in recent years than I was while blogging about it on a semi-regular basis. The initial enthusiasm of following an organization focused on developing its own players took several heavy hits during the Zduriencik era, as we found many individuals, Ackley and Zunino among them, go from “the hope for the future” to “recurrent sources of frustration.” As one might expect, being excited about player development generally and being a fan of a team that looked to be unambiguously bad at it are not compatible viewpoints, and so my attentions scurried off elsewhere.
And yet, with recent sports losses in the rearview and the promise of new organizational philosophies at play, baseball has a way of dragging me back into the discussion like the often-spurned but lovelorn devotee that I am. Friends, let us talk about baseball. Let us talk about baseball and player development in the context of the fact that Baseball America released their Top Ten Mariners Prospects today. You want that I should copy and paste so you don’t have to click? Fine.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Alex Jackson, of
2. Edwin Diaz, rhp
3. Drew Jackson, ss
4. Tyler O’Neill, of
5. Nick Neidert, rhp
6. Luiz Gohara, lhp
7. Braden Bishop, of
8. Andrew Moore, rhp
9. Boog Powell, of
10. D.J. Peterson, 1b/3b
If I might be honest while, at the same time, flippant, prospect lists have been previously released in this offseason and I have shared them with friends, captioning the links with “hey kids, wanna see a dead body?” It’s a dick move on my part (perhaps less blunt than others), so allow me to qualify that by saying that such remarks tend to reflect more on the nature of prospect lists than anything else. Young players like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Ketel Marte have “graduated” to a big league level where it is no longer the business of prospect-watchers to think about them regularly (also Kivlehan might’ve ranked pretty high *shakes fist*). They represent some of the few successes of the past season as the recent season was, mysteriously, one in which a great deal of young players struggled.
When things like this happen en masse, concerns arise as to how systemic they are and we start to question methods and the like, methods which have been blissfully supplanted by regime change. In short, we know that the minor leaguers performed poorly, but without knowing why, we can’t answer how easily it might be fixed and don’t know what to do with the data we have. Adding to that, recency bias means we’ve been sitting with these lackluster performances since September. Dudes are probably working on things that we don’t even know about yet, but without some way of quantifying that, we are stuck with the overcast “bleh.” It’s not all storm clouds and inclement weather, as we acquired some good pieces at the trade deadline and during the recent draft. However, when you look at the system at large, the stocks of individual players, for however you regard their ceilings, are widely at lows.
What this leaves one with is what you could generally characterize as a “bad system prospect list.” It’s a who’s-who of guys with intriguing physical abilities who have yet to perform, dotted with a smattering of recent draftees who performed well in a sample size too small to make adequate sense of. Anyone who has payed attention to minor league happenings in the long term can name one or two players who had intriguing debuts in the NWL and went on to do nothing particularly special thereafter. Factors such as Drew Jackson’s pure athleticism and the alleged change he made to his contact lenses might bolster what hope you have for him being the SS of the future (or SS that gets moved to CF of the future), yet you can recognize that you need more data to go off of in order to move forward. I rather liked our ’15 draft from a depth standpoint and building up pitching reserves, but it remains to be seen how many of those HS pitchers are going to survive the transition to pro ball.
Elsewhere, as I said, it’s the guys with velocity or power, some prior tool of significance that helped to get them on the radar in the first place. Comparing this year’s list to last year’s, Alex Jackson retains top billing, but you can’t exactly say that he proved himself worthy of the distinction. Kivlehan, Gabby Guerrero, and Carson Smith are all trade casualties (Guerrero missed Arizona’s Top Ten, Kivlehan is likely for Texas’ top ten), Marte graduated, and Austin Wilson’s second half wasn’t quite enough to redeem a rather dismal first half. Diaz isn’t moving up from #6 to #2 with a bullet so much as he’s rising thanks to attrition. Peterson plummeted despite not having a great deal of competition elsewhere. Tyler O’Neill really helped himself out, but we’re also talking about a prospect who has struck out in the neighborhood of 30% of the time.
The good news? Darkest before dawn? Only place to go is up? Any number of cliches and platitudes in a similar vein? Yeah, and it all feels true in this case. We still have some of the same draft people involved while most of the development pieces are new, but in a way, that seems to be saying that the drafts the Mariners had weren’t inherently bad so much as there were things that weren’t coming through in the development process. To retain McNamara, at least for the time being, demonstrates some level of confidence in what he’s done and the belief that the new team can help recover the lost value these prospects had. For all of the past year’s shortcomings, Alex Jackson and O’Neill still have elite power, Edwin Diaz still has a high-end FB/slider combo, Gohara has solid velocity for a lefty, Powell can take a pitch, and Bishop can play a mean CF. The question is where the Mariners go from there so that these fellows don’t slot themselves in as role players and little else.
The M’s had been a big-league team for a few months when it came time to make their initial pick in the amateur draft. Picking near the end of the first round, the new club selected a CF out of a California HS. There was no history to look at – the M’s front office didn’t have a “type,” and no one knew anything about the player development group. Seattle fans would learn to be skeptical in future years – years of Tito Nannies and Al Chambers and Terry Bells – but in that year of firsts, the M’s wished upon a power/speed combo at an up-the-middle position. They would be rewarded for it.
Henderson made his debut in 1981, looking overmatched in a few dozen PAs. But in 1982, he settled down and showed real promise. Flanked by an aging Al Cowens and All-Star Bruce Bochte, Henderson was part of a legitimate big-league OF. No one on the IF could hit – the highest OPS+ on the IF was Julio Cruz’s 80 (an 81 wRC+), while the *worst* OPS+ in the OF was Hendu’s 107. It was something to build on, anyway – Hendu was 22, after all.
In short order, Bochte left in free agency and the M’s began churning through LFs like Spinal Tap drummers. Henderson’s development seemed to stall, as his production dipped a bit in 1983 and then more severely in 1985. He was still a fine player, a gap-hitting CF with a perpetual smile, he seemed to thrive with other competent hitters (as in 1984, Alvin Davis’ big rookie year), but as these were the M’s of the 1980s, lineup protection was not something to count on.
As a kid, I don’t remember the ups and down of Hendu’s production as much as I remember the losing. I was a baseball optimist then (this may be hard to believe to some readers), and this was troubling. To the hardened realists of the time, though, Henderson’s volatility was an issue. The M’s would get Hendu and Davis playing well, but then Barry Bonnell got Valley Fever and that was that. Or, they had Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and a solid year from AD and Hendu’s numbers crashed. It was maddening, but to me it was seemed like the growing pains of a future dynasty. In 1986, Henderson was having his best year. Rookie Danny Tartabull proved to be an instant success, and, with Bradley, the M’s had their OF set. Hendu/Bradley were 27, while Tartabull was 23. The M’s were hopeless, of course, finishing further back than they had in 1985, but they had one question answered. And then, in a fit of pique, they blew it all up.
The first to go was promising RF prospect Ivan Calderon, a favorite of mine not so much for his long HRs but for a charmingly stilted interview he gave with Dave Niehaus after a game winning hit or something (at that time, Calderon spoke approximately no English, and Niehaus no Spanish). A month or so later, Hendu and SS Spike Owen headed to Boston in exchange for SS Rey Quinones and pitchers Mike Trujillo and Mike Brown. Brown’s career was over 16 innings later, while Trujillo spent another 100IP or so as a swing man. Quinones seemed like an ironic divine punishment – the team that believed Henderson was wasting his talent would be shown what *true* waste looks like. In a few months, once the 95-loss campaign wound down, the M’s dealt Tartabull to Kansas City for Scott Bankhead.
As a fan in 1986, the playoffs and the World Series were incredibly exciting but abstract. I loved them, but they seemed like a different game – the M’s hadn’t come close to making them, and now seemed to be rebuilding. They’d played 10 seasons and seemed to be treading water six feet below the surface. I thought the M’s were talented, but even the players they cast off seemed to wither and die. Julio Cruz got to play in the post season for the White Sox, but he had an awful year and the Sox lost the ALCS. Henderson and Owen were at least thrust into a real playoff race, and that would have to do. I’d hoped the M’s would build a winner out of my favorite players, but if they couldn’t, I wanted them to go off and do well – to show others that yes, Mariners players weren’t historically bad, they were just star-crossed and mismatched.
Soon, he’d develop a reputation for coolness in pressure situations, but the initial returns on the big trade with Boston weren’t great. Henderson’s K rate spiked and he put up a Zunino-esque line of .197/.226/.314 in a handful of PAs. Thrust into what looked like a deciding game 3 of the ALCS thanks to an injury, Henderson’s initial contribution was to have a long fly ball pop out of his glove and go over the fence for a bizarre two-run HR. Then, and only then, would Hendu redeem himself. Down to their final strike against a tough closer, down 5-4, Henderson hit a 2R-HR that gave Boston life. After California tied the game in the bottom of the inning, Henderson ended up winning it with a sac fly in the 11th. I was dumbstruck, and I was happy. Dave Henderson was free, and now he had even more of a reason to never stop smiling for the rest of his life.
This is actually not about Hendu’s career, though. I know, I know: that was a hell of a lot of prologue for a post about something else. What I think is so interesting, and in the week or so since his passing, so sad, is that I/we never really knew Henderson while he played for Seattle. Here’s a typically great post by Ken Arneson about Hendu. Go read it – I’ll wait. Henderson arrived in Oakland in 1988, the peak of Bash Brothers mania. The A’s had assembled a terrifying offense, with game-transcending superstar Jose Canseco in RF and new star 1B Mark McGwire. They still had Carney Lansford at 3B, and they had a rotation anchored by Dave Stewart. They added to it in 1989, bringing Rickey Henderson back (far better than the Steve Henderson the M’s flanked Hendu with) and getting a career year from Bob Welch. The point is: Hendu flourished in this environment, and his constant grin won the fans over. As Arneson points out, he had TWO fan groups dedicated to him, and he’d interact with him before each game. This wasn’t Henderson growing into himself, or gaining confidence after his ’86 heroics. *Nothing about Henderson had changed*. He smiled all the time in Seattle too, and he kept doing it as a TV color analyst after retirement. All that changed was the context.
Beatwriters knew and loved Hendu. Read John McGrath’s heartfelt tribute in the News Tribune as an example. But the fans didn’t. The team seemed to be conflicted about Henderson’s constant grinning (“you can’t smile when you’re losing every day!”), and it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for any of the M’s given that they were out of the race by May-June *every year* and drew 1 million fans in a good year (the M’s were under 900,000 in total attendance for two of Hendu’s four full seasons in Seattle). No one knew what Henderson would do in a pressure situation, as the M’s hadn’t had one in their first decade of existence. But in Oakland, Henderson was beloved for being himself.
This isn’t to say Oakland’s fans were better, whatever that means, or that Seattle misunderstood Henderson (that came later). It’s just another way that losing affects us as fans. We look at players differently – we interrogate them. I can’t really blame us for doing it, either. Baseball is beautiful even when your team’s out of it. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this, and I would’ve stopped following the M’s in 1986. But for whatever reason, Henderson’s death and the reactions to it have reminded me that persistent losing distorts our vision a bit.
Unfortunately for Henderson, his turn as a broadcaster did the same. Analytical blogs like this one, and analytical fans like this one, often saw ourselves as pitted in a duel with the dread forces of received baseball wisdom and mainstream media. Every cliche, every rote denunciation about a rookie having to prove something, or vague phrases like “playing the game the right way” seemed like relics of the 19th century – they were the linguistic equivalents of high collared uniforms and segregated baseball. At a distance now, this is all quite hyperbolic, but hey, ours was an insurrection, and equanimity doesn’t rally the troops like righteous indignation. Dave Henderson was the color man tasked with/selected for his ability to dispense these baseball nostrums about, I don’t know, Jeremy Reed or whoever. He started on broadcasts when the team was an offensive juggernaut, and only a few die-hard Bill James acolytes would’ve objected. By 2003, this blog was around, and the M’s were about to fall off a cliff. BY 2006, Henderson became an odd kind of focal point for the traditional versus analytical debate, and a constant irritant for readers here and elsewhere. He came back in 2011 in the wake of Niehaus’ passing and was treated to another 95-loss, go-nowhere club. Losing had, again, obscured our view of the guy.
Not to say he was Vin Scully – I don’t want to scold all of us for not appreciating his broadcasting. Rather, the broadcasting became just another annoyance in years that offered a steady stream of them. We were angry, and the team was awful, and why is he *grinning* so much? Dave was an amazing father and a very good ballplayer. He leaves a family hurting -that’s the sad part. But as two fanbases offer warm remembrances, many M’s fans remember him either as a broadcaster or a once-promising guy who found stardom later (“why do they always get better when they leave?”). Neither do the man justice.