Inside how the Mariners’ pitching lab gets most out of relievers

Mar 26, 2024, 1:06 PM | Updated: 2:52 pm

Seattle Mariners Gabe Speier...

Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Gabe Speier in a 2023 game. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

With two of the Seattle Mariners’ best relievers – and baseball’s best, for that matter – beginning the season on the injured list, the team’s “pitching lab” has perhaps never been needed more.

Breakdown: What Mariners bring north this year is very different

A “secret sauce” has turned unknown relievers, many who have struggled to gain a foothold in the major or failed to maximize their potential because of command issues, into bullpen forces for the Mariners in recent years. And as the team prepares to enter the season.

Have the Mariners found the next (if you want to dream big) Paul Sewald, Matt Brash or Andrés Muñoz that they can they further develop, or maybe other valuable contributors in the mold of Gabe Speier, Justin Topa, Erik Swanson, Drew Steckenrider or Tayler Saucedo? Did we see those players during spring training in Arizona? If so, how were they found and how could they be transformed?

For that, we take a look at the Mariners’ “secret sauce” and “pitching lab.”

Finding the next great Seattle Mariners relievers

The Seattle Mariners’ magic in finding pitching gems is little more than targeting players using data-driven identifiers and making them better through progressive techniques. Not my words, rather those of Mariners senior director of data science Joel Firman, who thankfully goes much more into depth on the process.

“The primary source in identifying the player is the front office,” Firman says. “John Edwards, who’s our lead pitching analyst, and Dave Cameron, who’s our senior director of player procurement, really putting their heads together on who are the pitchers in this pool that might be undervalued and how we might be able to tap into more value there. So that’s kind of where it starts in terms of identifying, but we have a lot of collaboration with our player development staff ahead of time with what do we think we can do with this player.”

Once the player is acquired, things get interesting. In talking with any number of these relievers, which this year included Jackson Kowar and Carlos Vargas, what jumps out is early on they almost all say the Mariners have done very little, if anything, to change them. Where in the past pitching coaches may have focused on mechanics or adding pitches in an attempt to improve the player, what the Mariners are able to do with the pitchers they have selected, thanks to the work done in targeting them, is actually quite simple.

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais explains.

“It’s not about the mechanics. When they get to this level, they usually have certain things they do pretty well,” Servais says. “It might not be that clean and there’s certain things over time you’d like to get tightened up a little bit, but we don’t address that stuff early on. It’s more of the philosophical things. ‘Here’s what we’re about. Here’s how we’re going to get you better at throwing strikes, getting the right pitches and targeting’ – (that) is the thing we talk about often. Where you’re trying to start the pitch. Some guys have big sinkers and they’re in bad counts because they’re targeting in the wrong spot.”

Says Firman: “I think we have sort of a universal understanding that external targets are the best way to bring out the best movement patterns and stuff that you have anyways. In some ways, I think we are believers (in) emphasizing simple concepts that are outside the body like really dominating the strike zone, attacking the strike zone, throwing your best pitch with as much conviction as much as possible.”

Putting plan into action

A pitcher new to the Mariners is not going to be overwhelmed by being asked to change what they do. Rather the focus is on how they do it and the work already done, and then a player plan is put together.

“That is as collaborative of an effort as it gets,” Firman says. “You have people from the high performance department, people from the strength and conditioning department, the traditional pitching coaches and members of the analytics and front office staffs. And it’s really just to throw everything up on the board, try to figure out what are the two or three things that we think are most important for this player to focus on to get better. Sometimes it is brainstorming on unique skills that they have that you can tap into more and make them better. It is always a combination of finding opportunities for them to take a step forward with pitch usage or DTZ (the ‘dominate the zone’ philosophy) or something like that, but also identifying when a player has just had better present ability than what the market might see.”

A unique skill the Mariners were able to capitalize on in a big way was seen in a young Andrés Muñoz while he was with the Padres. They were able to look past a 100 mph fastball that could perhaps make him very good, to a pitch that could make him great.

“The level of command that he had of his slider was really special in ways that I kind of don’t think he was getting credit for up to that point,” Firman says. “He was kind of the guy with nasty stuff that threw 100. His ability to throw strikes, and throw quality strikes, with his breaking ball was something that we thought was sort of flying under the radar and something that could really be tapped into.”

The Mariners essentially flipped the usage rate of Muñoz’s fastball and slider, getting more out of the breaking ball coming off the 100 mph fastball. Simply put, they helped him become nastier.

“Honestly, one of the things that I’m most proud of Muñoz and our org together in what he has accomplished since coming here is obviously the emergence of him as a high-leverage, elite reliever, but doing that by way of cutting his walk rate down,” Firman says. “And I think that a big part of that was taking the pitch he commands the best in the strike zone and using it more frequently.”

For Gabe Speier, who spent four seasons with the Royals and never made more than 17 MLB appearances in a year before coming to the Mariners, the approach Seattle’s pitching staff took with him – telling him to let his stuff play – paid off in dividends with Speier being a key contributor last season.

“Being on the offense as a pitcher and attacking hitters is huge, but also the message that they relay when they do tell you that, it adds confidence. Like, ‘Hey, we love your stuff,’” Speier says. “’We just want you to be in the zone with it,’ and maybe in the past I had heard, ‘You’ve got to throw this pitch in this quadrant, you’ve got to be kind of perfect.’ Pitching that way is just so hard. Here you hear, ‘Hey, we like your stuff. You’re good enough. We just need you to be in the zone,’ and not only do you go ahead and do that, but them just saying that just gives you all the confidence in the world.”

Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth and coach and director of pitching strategy Trent Blank play a huge role in further developing the relievers, putting the Mariners messaging and plans into action. Importantly, they are able to boost buy-in and results with words, work and data. There are no short days for the pitching coaches in Arizona. A Mariners reliever always has a coach available. They also have teammates to answer questions and encourage in them in things that are not always as easy as they seem. ‘Just throw strikes’ or ‘do (anything) different’ can often translate to risk for a new pitcher. If they are tempted to take the safe path and stick with what almost got them there, teammates provide the last piece to the puzzle.

Words from other pitchers always hit a little stronger, and Speier has been happy to step into the role of encourager.

“What I told them is just do what they tell you to do, because their message to pitchers, you see it, they turned so many careers around – myself included,” he says. “Listen to what they have to say and do your best to do what they tell you to do.”

The next Sewald, Steckenrider or Speier may or may not be in the group of new relievers we saw in Peoria. If they are, that pitcher may or may not be on the opening day roster, just as Sewald and Speier, Topa and Saucedo were not in their first years with the Mariners. Cody Bolton, Collin Snider, Tyson Miller, Carlos Vargas, Brett de Geus and others all at some point this spring drew the praise of Servais, and all likely will be needed at some point of the season. Whether their contribution is small or great, many will have had a hand in their development.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Why Jeff Passan ‘flirted’ with picking Mariners to make World Series
Mariners SP Bryan Woo lands on injured list days before season
While breaking down Seattle Mariners, reporter interrupted by cops
Torrid all spring, Mariners’ Mitch Haniger adds an exclamation point
Seattle Mariners GM Hollander details who has stood out this spring

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