Another Player Development Note
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.