“It’s gonna be much different than what you’ve seen in other camps. And there’s a reason—we’re trying to get a different result. I think if you wanna get a different result, you gotta do something different…You gotta be open to change. Change is uncomfortable. Just not used to it. But we’re talking about changing the culture, you gotta do something different.” —Scott Servais, January 28, 2016
When the Mariners hired Jerry Dipoto, and gave him authority to hire a new manager, he seemed keen to avoid the power struggles that had marked his time in Los Angeles and necessitated his eventual departure. In the days leading up to his resignation in July 2015, Ken Rosenthal reported that Dipoto and Mike Scioscia had clashed over the coaching staff’s over-reliance on “feel” and resistance to advanced analytics to prepare the Angels for matchups. In Seattle, Scott Servais offered something else—a career’s worth of collaboration, coupled with a willingness to try new things. In many ways, Servais looked the part of a major-league manager. He was a former catcher, and head of player development. He had an extensive coaching background even if he had never previously managed. Perhaps more importantly, he had an extensive background with Dipoto. Even before Los Angeles, they had overlapped several times. They were friends and colleagues of 15 years, and Dipoto had praised Servais’ willingness to listen to and try new things. Dipoto was the stathead, and Servais the player development guy, but they met in the middle.
There was and is an obvious tension between the needs of an analytically minded front office to be open to dissent and Dipoto’s understandable desire to have a manager with whom he can have a productive, smooth relationship. After Servais was hired, Dipoto told The Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish, “But I can assure you, and I think you’ll probably learn that over time if you haven’t learned that already, Scott’s not here to be my yes man, nor is he here to be my puppet. That’s not the way this thing works.” Servais and Dipoto seemed like magnets that normally stick together, but occasionally come apart to have their opposite poles repelled from one another to consider a new orientation, only to pivot and come back together again. This was billed as chemistry through sabermetrics. It looked like it might be a new model in the relationship between the front office and the dugout, a “baseball bromance” as Divish would call it, only one backed by data.
When Dipoto and Servais joined the organization, they promised a departure from the prior regime’s sins, real and imagined. Fans were promised less bunting and more athleticism. The club targeted players who could put together long at-bats and demonstrate a patient approach. In spring training, Manny Acta, the newly hired third base coach, tweeted a picture of an iPad with recommended defensive alignments: “Adjust or else.” It wasn’t the first time a new regime had promised to be analytically minded, and skeptical Mariners fans probably couldn’t help but remember Jack Zduriencik’s vows to adhere to similar principles. But it wasn’t just a reluctance to bunt or a fluency with BABIP; Servais seemed intent on building a culture of communication in order to deploy that culture for a specific purpose. This wasn’t just about guys feeling good. This was about guys buying in.
Player meetings in spring training focused on players getting to know one another and invest in each other’s development. Situational hitting drills were designed to focus position players in on controlling the strike zone and grinding out long at-bats, all while Team Cano and Team Cruz endeavored to defeat each other on a back field in Peoria. It wasn’t quite the spring training equivalent of hiding a kid’s vegetables in dessert, but it was aimed at finding common ground with players. As Kyle Seager told 710 ESPN’s Shannon Drayer, “There’s different stuff that we need to improve on and I think that’s where your numbers come into it. But if you are talking to us, and you are talking over our head, you are not really going to get most of us, so they do a good job in speaking more of our language.” As fun as it was, this wasn’t just culture for the sake of friendship. It was familiarity for the sake of communication and execution.
So has it worked? Is “sort of” an acceptable answer? The lineups have generally been well optimized. Gone are the days of Lloyd McClendon trotting out Logan Morrison against a left-handed pitcher because of moderate success in limited plate appearances, ignoring damning splits. (Gone is Logan Morrison.) The Mariners have generally shielded Adam Lind from left-handed pitching, and platooned smartly across the outfield. The two-through-six hitters should generally be two-through-six hitters, although Nori Aoki was allowed to linger overlong in the lead-off spot before being sent down, and his absence saw Servais running Daniel Robertson and Shawn O’Malley out at the top of the order. Manny Acta’s shift chart appears to be in play; according the Mark Simon of ESPN Stats and Info, who gets his numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, the Mariners are second only to the Braves in their increase on defensive shifts on balls in play (910 so far in 2016 compared to 352 in all of 2015). By Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency, they’ve improved from 11th in the American League in 2015 to 5th in 2016. They still bunt, but don’t lead the league in it. A lot of the low hanging fruit seems to have been plucked after years of easy outs and runs rotting away.
But there have been moments when Servais has revealed himself as an irresolute sabermatrician. The Mariners bullpen fell into entrenched roles. Joel Peralta was allowed to pitch as the set-up man despite a career high HR/9 rate before being DFA’ed. When injury ravaged the starting rotation, it was unsurprising that the bullpen performance would suffer, but Servais has also misused his pieces at times, and bad pitching has followed that strange management. Servais has given big innings to Joaquin Benoit while lower-leverage turns went to better relievers, like the recently departed Mike Montgomery, or young flamethrower Edwin Diaz and his revelatory arm. Steve Cishek’s performance at closer has been wobbly, but his chair appears to be anything but. And after all the talk of improved athleticism, the Mariners are 28th in Team Base Running, ahead of only the Tigers and the A’s. June is littered with games lost with outs on the basepaths. Some of this is the result of circumstances beyond either Servais’ or Dipoto’s control, but it has led to the revolution being implemented in half measures, like a saber- game of telephone, with some parts of the message received clearly and other bits resulting in Daniel Robertson in the leadoff spot. Add it all together, and you have a Mariners team that isn’t out of it, but has also underperformed its pythagorean win expectation by about three games, which is about how far out of the second wild card spot the Mariners are.
It’s always difficult to evaluate manager performance, or isolate the manager's effect on a team. We don’t have a perfect sense of how much of leaving Nori Aoki down in Triple-A after the All-Star break was Scott Servais, and how much was Jerry Dipoto. The bullpen has suffered from rigid roles, but given the damage to the starting rotation, it was probably always going to be a tricky time. The baserunning has been god awful, but that’s probably what happens when Nori Aoki isn’t fast anymore. At least Kyle Seager has stop trying to run. The Mariners sit in an interesting spot going into the trade deadline. As of Saturday, they sit just 3.5 games out of the second wild card, and while they are still 5.5 back of first place in the AL West, they’ve gained six games on the Rangers since the end of June. The team has been playing better baseball of late, bolstered by stabilized starting pitching. The King is back. Those extra outs given away and runs surrendered by saber half steps matter now. Servais isn’t responsible for reclaiming all of those, but as the Mariners look gain ground, it’s time to refocus on communication and execution. To be open to change, and doing something different. To adjust. Or else.
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