SHANNON DRAYER

Scott Servais showed his lack of experience was no issue in first year as Mariners’ manager

Oct 6, 2016, 9:51 AM | Updated: 10:16 am
Scott Servais had never managed at any level before guiding the M's to an 86-76 record in his first...
Scott Servais had never managed at any level before guiding the M's to an 86-76 record in his first season. (AP)
(AP)

Just over a year ago, general manager Jerry Dipoto made what was his most important move since coming to Seattle by hiring Scott Servais to manage the Mariners. The two had a long history that extended from a training room in Colorado when both were players to the front office of Anaheim, where Servais was Dipoto’s first hire when he took over as the Angels’ GM. What Servais didn’t have, however, was on-field managing experience. While there had been a trend in MLB of hiring of former players who hadn’t spent time on a major-league coaching staff, Servais hadn’t managed or coached at any level. For many observers and fans, this was a concern.

On the day Servais was hired, a headline in a Washington Post story read, “MLB teams keep hiring inexperienced managers. It’s not working.”

“So many recent managerial hires don’t even have (Jeff) Bannister’s level of experience,” wrote Adam Kilgore. “The last time Servais wore a uniform was the final game of his 11-year playing career. He’s worked in DiPoto’s front office. (It should be interesting to see what happens when he asks Robinson Cano to run out a groundball.)”

Drayer: Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto in for a different, but still busy, offseason

In the last year, I trust most have learned the correct spelling of Dipoto. They most likely have put to bed the notion that Cano, who should finish in the top five in MVP balloting, needs to be asked to run out a ground ball. They perhaps also discovered that in the case of Servais at least, managing can be learned in a suit.

When Servais was hired, about all we knew of him was his resume and that he had a good personal and working relationship with Dipoto. There were questions from some about how he could command a big-league clubhouse having never managed or even coached. In his introductory press conference, he seemed to say the right things in the right manner. He seemed to have the room. There was nothing about him that made me think, “Uh oh. He might have a hard time grabbing the clubhouse.”

That’s not to say there weren’t raised eyebrows that day. Servais talked about doing things differently, because, well, things clearly hadn’t been working out in the current system. Things would look a little different in spring training. Later we would learn that would involve daily meetings, which for me was a potential red flag. Then we would hear there may be a show-and-tell of sorts involved. OK, good luck with that. Definitely different, potentially dangerous if he didn’t get buy-in from the veterans.

Fortunately for the Mariners, buy-in was never a problem. The core veterans bought in from day one.

On the final day of the season, Robinson Cano told me that the daily “get-to-know-you meetings” were huge for him. Not only did he learn more about his teammates and future teammates as almost every 40-man roster player in spring training spent time with the big-league club, but they also earned more about him. That was important to Cano. Think about it. If you are the 25th or 40th man or perhaps a long reliever up for a week or two, are you going to stop by Cano’s locker to to shoot the breeze and find out a little bit more about where he grew up or what his biggest challenge in life has been so far? This meant something to Cano.

Servais’ ability to bring a team together in this manner came from study done away from a big-league ballpark. Remarkably, the Mariners’ culture was set before a meaningful pitch was thrown. No on-field experience needed there.

Dipoto put a team together that on paper, with all things being equal, he believed should win 85-86 games. That’s what the numbers added up to. To get them there, Servais had a vision for his team that had nothing to do with numbers. Of course they would come into play. But for as stat- and numbers-oriented as he was said to be, Servais’ main goal was tougher to quantify though ultimately an invaluable part of what we saw on the field, particularly in the last two months.

“It was about figuring out a way to get our guys to play for something bigger than themselves,” he said following the Mariners’ loss in game 161. “And we did. There is absolutely no doubt. I saw guys pulling for each other, not worrying about their numbers. It was all about winning the game. I think at the professional level, when you can get to that point, you’ve accomplished something. Unfortunately we didn’t get as far as we needed to go and that hurts, but it is a great run, in my mind a successful season. We’ve laid a foundation here of how we are going to do things going forward. We will build on that.”

Servais withstood many challenges in his first year. The roster was in constant flux. A team-record 32 pitchers were used. He lost two main pieces of his up-the-middle defense for two weeks in June and his ace for over two months. At one point during the summer, he was down three starters from the opening-day roster.

The challenges were not limited to just the roster. Servais asked for more in-game preparation with daily meetings rather than just series-opening meetings. We saw a change at closer. There were platoons to be managed with some guys not getting the number of at-bats they were accustomed to. Then there were the defensive shifts, a tough sell for some of the starters. All of the above could lead to questioning, grumbling, and perhaps pose a threat to the foundation that was still solidifying. But we did not see that.

Preparation was huge for Servais, both his and that of his coaches and players. Thorough preparation helped close the gap with his in-game management experience, where we learned he was a stick-to-the-information-type manager. He wasn’t one to play hunches. He was one to use his resources, those on paper (or iPad) and those by his side.

“Once the game starts, that’s where the feel comes in,” he said in May. “I’m not really into it (playing hunches) that much. There is data tied behind the decisions based on who the pitcher was, what he throws in certain counts. If we can get into those counts, it might play into our favor … The in-game feel, you never know how that is going to go, but fortunately for me, Tim Bogar is there, Manny Acta is there. There have been very few decisions that have been made where I have not talked to Manny or Bogey, Edgar (Martinez).”

After watching Servais for 162 games, it is hard to tell what he could have picked up and brought to the team had he come from a minor-league field or big-league bench rather than a front office. I don’t think the same could be said for the inverse. Servais’ experience is diverse and includes years in a baseball uniform as a player. But managing people? That was learned away from the field as was the numbers side of the game and a good dose of the psychology.

Now Servais has the field managing experience and an 86-76 record to start his career. On “Brock and Salk” Tuesday morning, he said that the 2016 team will always be special to him because it was his first. He acknowledges the shortcomings of the team but believes they can be overcome.

“As good as we were, we were just as bad at times. But to finish it off the way we did and put a run together and experience this says a lot about the players,” he said. “It is an accomplishment, but I’m not in it to finish .500. We’re in it to get to the playoffs, to get deep, to get to the World Series. Everything we do as an organization will be to do that. We have got work to do.”

We have learned a lot about Servais in his first year, and to a man in the clubhouse, the reviews have been over-the-top good. The challenges will be different next year as they will include managing a club that has higher expectations put on it. From what we have seen, there is little question Servais will be prepared.

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