A Conversation with Andy McKay, Mariners Director of Player Development (Part One)

Andy McKay oversees one of the best farm systems in the game. Seattle’s Director of Player Development does so with a sports-psychology background — McKay has an MBA in Organizational Behavior Studies — as well as a deep appreciation for data and technology. The former college coach is anything but old school when it comes to developing young talent. Case in point: Mariners prospects have their regularly-revisited player plans put together not by coaches, but by analysts.

In Part One of a wide-ranging interview, McKay addresses several of his philosophies, as well as how the Mariners are approaching development without a minor league season.

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David Laurila: We’re talking on July 26, 2020. What is the state of the Mariners farm system right now?

Andy McKay: “We’re really excited about where we’re at, both in terms of our department — the people we’re employing, and the process we’ve created — and the players we have in our system. Those things are moving along at a really good clip. We’re continuing to move the needle forward, even through COVID-19.”

Laurila: How exactly are you moving forward with no minor league season?

McKay: “We made the decision to turn our taxi squad into a very heavy prospect-based camp. If you look at who is down in Tacoma right now… not to mention we had, I think, four players make their major league debuts yesterday. We’re the youngest team in the big leagues. So we have the 10-week program going on, like all the other clubs, and then we’ve got things going on individually, all over the country with our players.

“One of the things you have to understand is that every year, players show up to spring training wildly improved from where they were when they left. And they [do] that without playing games. Baseball is a sport where you can make huge strides in the absence of games. We’re seeing that occur with the stuff that’s coming out of our pitchers’ hands. Guys are throwing harder, or they’re shaping pitches better, than they ever have. They’re meeting the goals of their player plans, and they’re doing it without games.”

Laurila: Those developmental strides still need to translate to a game mound…

McKay: “Absolutely. The games are the test. They show you how your skills are actually showing up. So there’s no debate; the games are important. But again, every offseason there’s an absence of them. While in this case there’s an absence of them [due to the pandemic], it’s not going to prohibit players from getting better. Of course, now the results of that improvement aren’t going to be verifiable — not until you can actually do it in a game.”

Laurila: That said, do certain age levels, or developmental levels, need game experience more than others?

McKay: “I think it varies. For example, if you’re talking about a Logan Gilbert, his stuff is really good, it will play in the big leagues right now. But you need games for him to figure out things like, ‘Hey, I don’t have my changeup in the first inning; how do I pitch?’ Or, ‘The bases are loaded and nobody’s out; how do I slow the game down and stay focused on executing the next pitch?’ Those are the types of things that games are absolutely critical for.

“On the other hand, if you take a younger, newly drafted player, the components of his player plan are more skill-based. Maybe we’re trying to create more rise on a fastball, or we’re trying to shape a slider differently. Those guys can actually take bigger strides right now, because the main components of their player plans don’t require another team to do. So it varies.”

Laurila: How are you trying to make up for the absence of games?

McKay: “We’re not, really, because I don’t think you really can. But we did just get done with a summer camp where many of our young players were in a big-league stadium for the first time, competing against major league players. Now that we’ve transitioned [to the alternate site], you do the best you can — but you cannot simulate a 145-game season, and the ups and downs, and the mental components of that. So we’re not really trying. We’re focusing more on the skills. We’re focusing more on the individual physical development, because that’s what we have the opportunity to do right now.”

Laurila: I assume that’s very tech-heavy…

McKay: “Yes.”

Laurila: What is the relationship between scouting and player development in the Mariners organization? Is it intertwined?

McKay: “Yes, and I feel confident with that. Our player development system has worked really well with our major league group, and we’ve worked well with our analysts. For example, our analysts are basically creating our player plans. They’re the ones who are coming up with the career paths for our players, and then we are in charge of trying to execute them. I don’t think that’s very common.

“And then with our scouting group, for five years it’s been tremendous in terms of the collaboration between the two departments. I can’t speak for other orgs, but I think ours is in a very healthy place.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on “our analysts are basically creating our player plans?”

McKay: “Our analysts have access to an enormous amount of information. They’re the ones who are able to look at a player from a very objective standpoint. They don’t know the player very well, and they don’t know the coach very well, so bias has been removed. They’re just looking at numbers.

“They’re able to look at the data and say, “Our third baseman in Modesto doesn’t hit the ball hard enough. Period. Here are all his exit velocities. Here are the guys he’s competing against. Here is what the guys in the big leagues are doing. You guys need to figure out how to get him to hit the baseball harder.’

“Maybe it’s ‘Your shortstop at Double-A has a groundball rate that won’t work. We know that, because there is nobody else carrying a groundball rate like it. We need you guys to figure out how to get the ball up in the air more.’

“So they just have more information; they have a much broader perspective. As a result, they initiate the plans. Obviously, there’s a lot of collaboration on the plans. We may come back and say, ‘Yeah, it’s not gonna happen. We know what you’re seeing — we’re not debating it — it’s just not going be able to happen with this player; we need a different route.’ Ultimately, when the player plan gets introduced to the player, while it may start with the analyst, we have to talk to our mental skills group, we have to talk with our strength coaches, we have to talk to our trainers.

“We might be dealing with a player with some restrictions in his hips. Okay, that’s going to impact what we can do with him from a skill standpoint. Now we have to go back and say, ‘Okay, is there something we can do with the hips? Are there ways we can change how his hips function, so that we can get his body to move how we want to move, or do we need to accept this and find a workaround? All of these components are working together to ultimately create the plan. But again, the actual need basically starts with our analysts.”

Laurila: How soon after someone joins the organization does a player plan get implemented?

McKay: “This year is obviously a unique year, but in general, once we get a player in, we begin assessing immediately. And now, with all the information you’re able to pull out of Division-I baseball — pull out of the circuit for amateur players — you’re starting out way ahead of the game. And the plans are a fluid document. They’re addressed and updated, and presented to the player, once a month. We’ve got our main goals, we’ve got our trackers, and once a month every player will get a sit-down to go through his player plan.

“For example, if we’re talking about a hitter where the number one priority on his plan is to elevate the baseball… Okay, how are we going to do it? What are the changes we’re going to make on approach? Is it a pitch selection thing? Is it a timing thing? Do we have to change the swing plane? Is it a contact point thing? All of those are real options. And then every month we’re checking in on it. Maybe he’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has, but he’s still hitting it on the ground too often. Or maybe it’s ‘Hey, we’re trending in the right direction.’ It all comes down to trying to give the player absolute clarity as to who he is and his best path forward.”

Laurila: Circling back to the relationship between scouting and player development, have you had a direct role in the draft?

McKay: “Yes. With my background, and having done a lot of player interviews, this year I did a lot of phone calls with amateur players leading into the draft. That was a fun experience — I enjoyed it — and I certainly got to know a lot of our guys, as well as some guys that are playing with other teams now.”

Laurila: In a sense, you were playing the role of the area scout who goes into a player’s home to assess makeup.

McKay: “Correct. And I can tell you that my phone call with [first-round pick] Emerson Hancock could not have been any more assuring. We were drafting somebody where, obviously, the stuff is unquestionable. But we were also drafting somebody who really understands what it means to compete, what it means to prepare, and what it means to be a good person. Sometimes you have phone calls and you’re out on a guy. Most phone calls are kind of in between. And then sometimes, like with an Evan White, with a Kyle Lewis, the phone calls are so overwhelmingly a positive that you’re totally confident in what you’re about to select. That was certainly the case with Emerson Hancock.”

Laurila: Lewis is off to a strong start this year. Can you touch on the developmental strides he’s made since being drafted 11th overall in 2016?

McKay: “Kyle is obviously a very talented player. His perspective, not only on life but also the game, was really tested through the [knee] injury. Here is an example of what we were talking about with the lack of games. Kyle Lewis, very early in his first year with us, had reconstructive surgery, and for all intents and purposes he spent the better part of two years, close to three years, rehabbing. Yet somehow he got a lot better. How does that happen?

“There are a lot of components to performance, and the ones he was able to control, he did. But going back to your question, I feel pretty confident that I understand Kyle’s approach to hitting, and when he’s committed to it, he’s as good as anybody. When he gets away from it, the challenge is how quickly he can get back to it. In my opinion, Kyle is far more concerned with his approach to hitting than he is the mechanics of his swing. As long as he stays committed to that, he’s usually in really good shape.”

Laurila: Are pitch recognition and plate discipline teachable?

McKay: “I would say yes. But any time you have things like this in the industry… such as, right now pitch recognition is a big deal. Right? The second there is a product out there that is having real success with players, all 30 teams will have it. So right now, I’d say that I do believe it is teachable, but I don’t know that anybody is doing it really well.

“As the new 90 has become 100 — guys are throwing harder than ever — and guys are throwing more breaking balls, these skills become harder. They also become more important. So while I think there are little things you can do, we also know that DNA matters — we know that genetics matter — so we’ll see where this goes over time.”

Laurila: A number of hitters have been successful with an aggressive, free-swinging approach, and for whatever reason, that’s what works best for them. How do you determine who those guys are, as opposed to someone you want to try to ‘change’?

McKay: “It’s hard to say, because there are so many variables in the puzzle. A slight twist of one piece can make the whole thing work. For example, if you change the hitter’s targeting system… maybe he sets his sights high, and all of a sudden that allows him to lay off sliders in the dirt. Okay, but have you really improved his swing decisions?

“In today’s game, I think the best thing a hitter can do is look right down the middle of the plate. That’s because I don’t think there are many players who have visual skills that are going to allow them to make these decisions on corners. It’s coming too fast, it’s moving too much. So if you can keep my sighting over the middle of the plate, that should keep your swing decisions at least on the plate. Your ability to not chase probably moves up. If you’re looking in, you’ll chase in. If you’re looking away, you’ll chase away. Everybody chases on the edges of their targeting system.”

Laurila: A number of hitters have told me that their approach is to look away, and react to pitches on the inner half.

McKay: “That’s B.S. With the pitching we’re seeing today, it defies logic that you’re going to really look away and still get the barrel to something in. I know there are really good hitters that would laugh at me for saying that, but it’s what I believe.”

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Part Two of the interview will run tomorrow.

We hoped you liked reading A Conversation with Andy McKay, Mariners Director of Player Development (Part One) by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Stevil
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Stevil

Good stuff. McKay has been instrumental to the progress and rise of Seattle’s farm, so its great to hear some of the thought behind his work.

Joser
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Joser

And certainly for Mariners fans, the farm is the only solace. I was actually planning to see more games in Tacoma (and possibly Everett) than at T-Mobile this year. Now… well, I guess I’ll be seeing exactly the same number of games in person at each of those venues.