Drayer: Mariners take a look in the mirror, re-tool their process

Feb 12, 2024, 11:42 AM | Updated: 3:48 pm

Seattle Mariners J.P. Crawford Julio Rodríguez Josh Rojas...

Josh Rojas of the Seattle Mariners is congratulated after scoring a run in a 2023 game. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

(Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

As the Seattle Mariners shift their operations to Arizona this week with pitchers and catchers due to report Wednesday to spring training, we will take a closer look at what they have put together for the 2024 season.

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We start with a look at what happened at the beginning of October. Not the press conference, but the breakdown and evaluation of the 2023 season that was required to determine exactly what was needed moving forward. Coming off a postseason appearance the previous year, they had felt good about where the team was. Add quality bat(s), an easy determination. Last season, the feeling wasn’t as good – and not just about the finish.

Assistant general manager Andy McKay, who recently joined the Mariners’ Hot Stove on Seattle Sports, shared as much when asked about the process of breaking down the ’23 season and team.

“It was really hard,” he admitted, his voice reflecting as much in the look back. “And it was emotional from the standpoint of we just lost by just a game, which you can obviously whittle down to just a pitch. We needed one more game to go our way, which would have been the result of one pitch anywhere from April to to the end. And for me, it was the culmination of a three-year run where you’re just missing. You’re just missing. So you have to get through the emotion of the devastation of it, and then, OK now, let’s pull it apart. Let’s try to understand where we are coming up short. How we can find this advantage to get past the people we need to get past.”

There was clearly no consolation in coming close to the playoffs, and dissecting the process they fervently believe in was not easy.

“We’ve worked hard to crystallize our process as to who we are and what we are all about and then to execute that process, and we know we are not good enough right now,” he said. “Three years ago we missed the playoffs by a game. Then we get into the playoffs (in 2022) and we lose that crazy series to Houston on the homer in the 18-inning game. Last year we missed by a game. That’s who we are. Our process is just missing.”

McKay and fellow front office members had to take a broader look than just “what can we add to get over the hump.” Throughout the offseason, we have heard more about processes and hitting strategies. A point of emphasis has been that the team needs to have a better start. Sure, the first 45-60 games are often about figuring out what you are and what you need, but when you get to the end of the season and find yourself coming up just short, games in April and May tend to look much more important than they do at the time.

“We could have won a game in April. We could have won two more games in April,” said McKay. “This is something I have tried to take ownership in. Most teams, you beat yourself before your opponent is able to beat you. So I wanted to really look at the controllable aspects of what we do, and are we controlling it and how many wins are available there? That’s been our big point of emphasis this year is that the things we need to do are 100% controllable by us. It’s not about Houston, it’s not about Texas, it’s not about Oakland, it’s not about the Angels. It’s about us doing the things we know we are capable of doing and understanding when we don’t, why are we not? How are we getting away from it and how do we get it back? But it is really trying to remove everything except us, and that we are in control of this and we are not dependent on anybody else.”

A new look to coaching

Too many swings and misses and not hitting with runners in scoring position play into the controllables, as does roster construction. It became apparent late last season there could be a shift away from the “we can live with the strikeout if he hits home runs” players, and that has played out to some extent this winter.

It is not all on the players, however, as they Mariners have made a change in the coaching, as well. Seattle has brought in three coaches from the outside, a shift from what they have done the past few years where the priority seemed to be promote from within the organization. With a young and developing team, it made sense as these coaches spoke the same organizational language and were with many of these players as they made their way through the minors. There was continuity in both the faces and messaging.

Where the Mariners are now at the big league level, the coaching positions can be utilized in a different way. In new bench coach and offensive coordinator Brant Brown, who rejoins the organization after spending the last six years coaching for the Dodgers and Marlins, McKay sees a coach who can help install a run-scoring mentality in the current group.

“It is kind of an NFL model how staffs are built,” McKay explained of the new offensive coordinator position. “You have a quarterback coach, O-line coach, etc. They all have their individual responsibilities, but then you have a coordinator sitting on top of them who really only cares about one thing, which is getting the ball in the end zone. You have to have somebody who can bring it all together.

New Mariners coach Brant Brown dives into hitting strategy

“There’s the ability to swing a baseball bat – that’s not necessarily hitting. There’s a huge mental component to it. There’s a gameplanning component to it. There’s hitting with two strikes. There’s the goal of hitting is to get on base. So you have to take it all and try to put it into a cohesive gameplan that’s working together with the idea that the only thing that matters, it’s not OPS, it’s not a strikeout rate or a base-on-balls rate or just tacking on stolen base. It’s touching home plate. That’s what matters from an offensive side, and you need somebody to drive that message constantly that takes the individual aspects of baserunning and hitting and puts them together. And Brant was really exceptional in his interview process about his passion and understanding of that.”

A refocus for M’s

A look in the organizational mirror was a necessary step after coming up short again last season, but with this group so committed to the processes and identities they created and believed in, it was perhaps not automatic that they would take the uncomfortable path of stepping out and taking a different look. They just as easily could have found the 1-2 wins on paper in player additions, but instead it’s a bit of a refocus in how they do things offensively at the plate. Instead of just finding a player who hits better with runners in scoring position, they will continue to emphasize – in game and out – what needs to be done, and that these for a large part are controllables.

The focus was not just on what was brought in but what was already there. And to that end, spring training could look and sound a little different.

“We have to get better because our players need to get better so our fans can get what they deserve,” said McKay. “It’s really just looking at your structure and making sure you have the right people carrying the right messages, and that you are organized in a way that ultimately leads to we are not trying to be the best at anything other than winning the baseball game.”

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