Another Player Development Note

Jay Yencich · January 22, 2016 at 6:44 pm · Filed Under Minor Leagues 

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.


10 Responses to “Another Player Development Note”

  1. MrZDevotee on January 22nd, 2016 9:59 pm

    I don’t know why, but something about your second point resonates with me, in a medieval war sort of sense… Psychologically speaking, perhaps it helps a man go into “battle” with the idea that “there’s a line of a 1000 of us, and they can’t kill us all” rather than (as the Mariners approached player development) “we’re sending you out there, one at a time, and hopefully YOU’RE the guy that can finally break through the line”…

    Different kinds of pressure… “I want to contribute with you guys” versus “Man, I hope I’m not the one who lets us down, they seem to be really counting on me”…

    It does seem like a seismic shift in the psyche’s preparation. And could help guys focus on their specific talents they can contribute to the team as a whole, rather than trying to be the ONE complete player who can turn things around if he could only hit, run, catch, pitch, and smile for the camera at an All-Star level…

    (Robbie Cano might even be a victim of that mindset– when the rest of the team struggles, he’s suddenly the guy who single-handedly is supposed to hit a ball so hard it gets three or four guys on base at once… And then he’s supposed to drive them all in, too…)

  2. ck on January 23rd, 2016 11:32 am

    Thank you, Jay for two great posts. Jack Z. oft cooed publicly about,’…light tower power…’
    M’s commercial with J Smoak, smiting mighty oaks, was a set-up for failure. If the football coaches now running the M’s dugouts can convince the players just to, ‘… do their job …,’ winning percentage should improve system-wide.

  3. Westside guy on January 23rd, 2016 1:01 pm

    Thanks for another post, Jay!

    Grabbing onto the end of your article – I found it refreshing to see/hear someone officially tied to the organization make a blunt, honest statement regarding the state of the farm system rather than falling back on vague platitudes or only being willing to point out some narrowly-defined non-sucky aspect of the farm.

    And with regards to the farm, we are all definitely going to have to be a little patient…

  4. heyoka on January 23rd, 2016 7:37 pm

    “players whose power was so transcendent that it could overcome any park”

    One of the all time Mariner bargains: Russell Branyan

  5. Jay Yencich on January 23rd, 2016 7:39 pm

    I thought of Russell Branyan, but his home runs, they just flew up, and stayed there, and stayed there, and then eventually they cleared the fence. Sort of like the reverse of when Eddie Guardado was a successful closer by allowing the longest flyball outs possible.

  6. borris_g on January 26th, 2016 6:38 am

    The comment that I found really interesting was about the importance of not only the development of each player but the importance of winning in the Minors and create a winning culture.
    It made me think on how the Royals always said that winning at every stop in the Minors helped them believe that they could win it all once they were in the MLB. I know it is not linear and success in Minors does not grant success in the Majors, but it can’t hurt to be used toi lifting trophies one you reach the Majors.

  7. Jay Yencich on January 26th, 2016 12:16 pm

    The Mariners had a pretty good farm system early in the 2000s and that didn’t particularly help us reach the playoffs. Of course, there were also rather dumb moves we made like getting rid of Shin-soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Rafael Soriano.

  8. heyoka on February 3rd, 2016 6:51 am

    …Adam Jones….too soon?

  9. Jay Yencich on February 3rd, 2016 1:02 pm

    There may very well be a portion of my brain which blocks out the existence of Adam Jones entirely for fear of trauma.

  10. Eastside Crank on February 13th, 2016 8:10 am

    There may be more hope than initially appears. If Dipoto truly is unshackled from the delusional ideas of Lincoln, and is free to make system wide changes, players who previously were failing may prove to be useful. Under Uncle Fester, pull power was all that mattered. Many batters were destroyed trying to covert their swings to meet the demand for more home runs. The Rauuuul effect set up the minor league system for failure. The new regime seems to be more open to developing more aspects of each player’s game and taking advantage of other ways to score runs.

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