SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: Key part of Mariners’ rebuild has already arrived in big leagues

Mar 8, 2020, 1:06 PM
Mariners OF Kyle Lewis...
Kyle Lewis is plenty familiar with the Mariners' program of player plans. (AP)
(AP)

A major part of the Mariners’ rebuild began years before the near complete dismantling of the MLB roster that started in the fall of 2018. While the majority of the public’s focus in Jerry Dipoto’s first years was on what the big league team was trying to do, there was much work being put in on the minor league side.

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The Mariners may not have had the prospects yet, but they could go about the business of establishing a foundation and programs that would eventually ensure that when a player arrived in Seattle from the minors, there would be an organizational stamp of sorts on him.

This didn’t all happen overnight but gradually you started hearing language that could be attributed to programs that were installed in the minor leagues. There was a way things were done, a way things were measured, a language that was spoken and a focus that was understood and shared. Slowly we have seen some of this start to filter up. In the past two years we’ve seen a number of coaches and coordinators from the minors make their way to the majors, and this year we will see the players. With a large number of young players both in camp now and expected to get time in Seattle this year, we will see that behind the scenes it is no longer big league business as usual as some of the programs from the minors are being brought up along with the players.

We have heard for years about the different programs and tracking that has gone on in the minors. Scores are kept not just for games but quality of at-bats and pitches throughout the organization. In the past, minor league systems were for minor leaguers with the explanation being that big leaguers already did those things. Whether they did or they didn’t, those types of programs would be a tough sell with veterans, and if a program doesn’t have veteran buy-in, it is probably not going to succeed in the clubhouse.

With a clubhouse that is mostly young and already invested in these programs, it is a different story this year as the in-season player plans that every minor leaguer has had will now be utilized at the big league level. The program that the major leaguers will now take part in has been in use – and further developed – in one form or anther in the minors since the start of the 2016 season. The evolution, complete for the time being. The finished product is a start of the season meeting with each player that includes manager Scott Servais, position coaches, hitting coaches, a member of the medical staff, the strength coach, a mental skills coach and analysts.

If this sounds like a lot, the preparation and presentation are key.

“Each year the number of people involved in the plan has grown as has our ability to condense it down into a simplified plan,” explained Mariners director of player development Andy McKay. “One of the terms we use is we want to make it simple rather than to keeping it simple. The difference in keeping it simple is ignoring important things as opposed to taking the time to truly get all of the information and simplify, which takes a lot of time.”

It’s a commitment with the initial meetings already taking place in Peoria. Once the season begins there will be monthly check-ins scheduled with each player that according to McKay typically take from 30 to 40 minutes. While Servais will have a hand in these meetings, they will mostly be coach-led.

“During the season it’s about maintenance,” said Servais. “We meet as a staff, take the information we put together and deliver it to a player; there’s a check-in. ‘Here’s what we asked you to do. Did this get better?’ And be honest with them. ‘We don’t think it did.’ OK, we’re not going to stop working with them, how do we continue to improve upon those things in spring training leading into the season? The key is to get off to a good start and have a good season.”

Austin Nola is no stranger to the player plan, having had one while he was in the minors last season with parts of that plan carried over after his big league call-up. The Mariners catcher sat down with the staff on Thursday to get his 2020 plan and came out of the meeting with appreciation for the process.

“It’s all about how you can become the player you want to be,” he said. “We all have goals, but how do we measure them? There’s got to be measure to it, there’s got to be a process to it and there have got to be people who are going to hold you accountable to it.”

The measure, the numbers and analytics aspect of the player plan is something that helps get everyone not only on the same page but on the same team, according to McKay.

“It’s a plan of how they get better,” McKay said. “How they can enhance their career, how they extend it. How they help us win. The best part is we find what helps them, helps us. There is no conflict.”

Incorporating the analytics is key.

“I like them because it’s honesty,” said Nola. “It’s clear. The numbers (not opinions) show what you need to improve on. We have the numbers. In this day and age you can measure anything. It’s a way to use it and bridge that gap – how we can measure it and how we can actually improve on the field.”

For Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis, the numbers can be eye-opening.

“The player plan meetings give you info about yourself that you maybe didn’t know,” he said. “I think it’s a cooperative effort. It’s cool because you are able to go in there and have a discussion about areas that you feel you should improve.”

Lewis gave the example of gaining more awareness of his hitting hot zones as a benefit to one of his player plan meetings in 2019. He was hitting the baseball and seeing results, but were there perhaps better results available to him?

“Sometimes you don’t really know what you are hitting well because when you are really rolling, the games start to roll together,” he explained. “That’s an opportunity to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Just know what you like to hit, know what you hit well so when you get in the game you know what to look for.”

The meetings can also help foster communication. With so many numbers now in baseball telling so many stories, there’s a risk of a player getting a murky picture.

“You get a lot of honesty in those small rooms and I think it gets player and staff on the same page,” said Lewis.

Same page, same team, with the ultimate goal what McKay stated. A win for the player works toward wins for the team.

“That’s the biggest thing with player plans,” said Nola. “You are in there around people who care about you, care about your career, and they are going to hold you accountable for what you do. That’s the best way to get better, right?”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

Read Shannon’s Get To Know Your Mariners series

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• Cal Raleigh has been on the baseball path since Day 1
• OF Jake Fraley could be the gem of Zunino trade
• If anyone can relate to top Mariners prospects, it’s Taijuan Walker
• Julio Rodriguez looks the part of future superstar on and off the field

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