SHANNON DRAYER

Mariners infield defense under guru Perry Hill all starts at a wall

Feb 27, 2024, 6:02 PM | Updated: 6:31 pm

Seattle Mariners Perry Hill Ty France...

Ty France of the Seattle Mariners talks with infield coach Perry Hill during a 2021 game. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

It is a spring sight that has become familiar at the Seattle Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Ariz., in recent years.

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Shortly after the sun has risen, the “thwak” of baseball hitting concrete and the screech of rubber soles shifting can be heard along with words of encouragement or correction from infield coach Perry Hill. Work is taking place utilizing the most simple equipment: a ball and a wall.

“The wall is the best teacher because you can get so many reps in,” said Hill. “The ball comes right back to you and you can fire it away and you can get 60 reps in in a 10-minute session.”

 

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In a sport that is played nearly every day for six months, practice time is precious. There are no “work days” when the season begins; energy is conserved for the games that count. The name of the game is efficiency when it comes to defensive work both in and out of season.

“Everything is structured by time,” said Hill. “I only have 20 minutes with my infielders (for on-field drills). I don’t have time during that 20 minutes to stop the drill for everybody and explain something and waste repetitions. That’s where the wall comes in. We can throw the ball against the wall and in 10 minutes you can field 50 or 60 balls. And whether it’s the back hand or a ball right to you, a ball to your left or a double-play feed, we can work things on the wall, and if there’s something wrong we can fix it right away.”

Equal for all Seattle Mariners infielders

Problems or no problems, in spring training all infielders in camp get their time with Hill on the wall. He schedules each for 10-minute session every third day – minor league invites, Gold Glove winners, longtime Mariners, new Mariners. It doesn’t matter.

“It’s spring training, so everybody’s treated the same,” said Hill. “It’s a review of all the fundamentals and what we teach and how we go about things. And even the veteran players over the winter sometimes may need to lose something or they may need a tweak or two, so instead of assume they know and then backtrack, I don’t assume anything. We start from square one.”

As it turns out, square one isn’t always needed. Hill points to shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Ty France as the exceptions as they have much experience with how Hill works and what he expects. They still have their sessions, but they have less to work on. They also fill a vital role in teaching Mariners infield defense.

“They know the system, they know what we expect,” said Hill. “They know that they’re going to be held accountable and the good thing about this is that the people who have never gone to spring training, if you watch those guys work, it’s like they’re playing in the seventh game of the World Series. I mean, they don’t take any of these plays off. They know how important it is to get ready for the season, how to master their fundamentals, and that’s exactly what they do.”

For France, taking balls of the wall is now routine, but it wasn’t until he got to the Mariners. It didn’t take long for it to all make sense, however.

“Each coach has their own styles and different ways they go about drills,” France said. “I’ve never done it on the wall before, but it’s just a way to simplify infield work, slow things down in the game. The game can go at a really fast pace, so it’s a chance for him to kind of see how we use our bodies as infielders and to be able to control the environment.”

Always something to improve

For new Mariners, regardless of experience, there almost always is an adjustment to be made. It doesn’t take long for Hill to find a missed fundamental and show his new pupil a better way. As was the case with new second baseman Jorge Polanco, who has 10 years of MLB experience with Minnesota, the “aha” moment came quickly.

“It happens all the time,” said Hill. “We saw it with ‘Polo’ the other day on his backhand toss. He was like a pinball flipper. He could flip it, but you can’t control the pinball. And so we broke the backhand toss down the way we teach it, where it can go, but towards the shortstop’s chest every single time. We’re teaching old dogs new tricks, and he saw it right away in the consistency. That’s all it is.”

You don’t have to look far to see the improvements that are made. Crawford won a Gold Glove, and former M’s third baseman Eugenio Suárez elevated his game to being in the conversation for the award. Coaching players through position changes continues to be a big part of Hill’s job as does keeping utility players sharp at all positions. It is tireless work, but it has drawn the huge appreciation of Hill’s charges.

“He’s a unicorn,” said France, who then used some hyperbole to make his point. “He’s been coaching this game for 112 years so to be able to work with someone who has such knowledge and has been around the game for so long, he’s seen it all. I don’t think there’s one thing that would surprise that guy. I’ve had him for four years now, and just the amount of stuff I’ve picked up from him and been able to translate so quickly into a game, to be able to work with someone like that as a player is really lucky.”

The man behind the Mariners’ gloves

The appreciation for Hill can be seen and heard in the good-natured ribbing that goes on between teacher and student. It is impossible to interview Hill without at least one player walking by and barking his “STOP IT” catchphrase, and the jokes are quick to come particularly in season when the whole group gathers on the field for early work. Hill takes each minute he has to work seriously, and every now and then a player will break out of that mode to get his reaction, fully knowing what it will be.

“He knows it’s all with love,” said France, “but he he dishes it right back so he can’t talk. But he’s been great. To be honest, like, just how hard this game can be to have someone like that who can make light of things? I talked about slowing the game down, but he does a really good job of taking pressure off of you and preparing you for every situation possible. He’s very unique.”

For Hill, the reward is there every day in the opportunity to better an infielder.

“I’m like a tour guide,” he said. “We’re walking on the path and some player kind of gets off the path and wants to explore by himself, and it’s my job to go get him and get him back on the path.”

Often that work is done on a wall. In spring training it is on the backside of the complex and adorned with a giant graphic of Mariners legends. At home, when the need arises, T-Mobile Park provides a good wall surface on the concourse. Because other stadiums can be tricky, Hill will sometimes double up the wall work a few days at home before they hit the road.

“Sometimes the best walls are over on the home side (at other teams’ stadiums) and you know you can’t waddle over there too many times,” Hill explained.

Wherever it is, Mariners infielders will follow. Hill pledges to be there as long as allowed.

“I’m going to work until they tell me I can’t work. That’s it. Really, it’s what I do. You know, it’s who I am.”

More Mariners coverage from Seattle Sports

Watch: New DH Garver, OF Canzone crush first homers of spring
Servais: Mariners’ ‘high expectations’ in large part due to pitching
Do Seattle Mariners need Matt Chapman to shore up third base?
Haniger, who never wanted to leave Mariners, happy to return
Cole Young shows why he’s Seattle Mariners’ top prospect

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Mariners infield defense under guru Perry Hill all starts at a wall