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

This is Part Two of a wide-ranging interview — the conversation took place on July 26 — with Seattle Mariners farm director Andy McKay. Part One can be found here.

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David Laurila: Given your background, do your player-development philosophies differ from most people in your role?

Andy McKay: “I don’t know, because I don’t spend a ton of time evaluating the others. I just know that my background as a teacher, and a mental-skills coach, is something that kind of sits in the middle of our department. Everything is important. What I mean by that is, you can make or break a player in the weight room, the training room, the batting cage, in a bullpen. You can make or break them with nutrition. All of those things are critical, and the mental skills component is what allows them to actually surface during competition. The fact that my background is heavy in mental skills, we probably prioritize that a little differently than most.”

Laurila: How does that mesh with your reliance on data?

McKay: “It’s a need for clarity. Mental skills should completely embrace tech. Why would we want to coach players with opinions when we can do it with evidence? What will better allow a player to be more confident, my opinion or evidence — you know, clarity or wishy-washy verbiage? So the two have melded very well together. Ultimately, we want to be the best in baseball at telling the truth. We want that to be our competitive advantage.

“We search for the truth, and we deliver it to each other, and to our players, probably better than anybody. The only way you can get better is if you know. For instance, you have to know that your slider isn’t good enough — and here is some evidence to support that. Without that, it’s hard to get better.”

Laurila: What if data suggests that a particular slider won’t play at the highest level, but the pitcher throwing it has yet to fail? He may not be convinced of a need to change anything.

McKay: “Correct, but again, we can give players real evidence. For example, you can sit down with a pitcher and say, ‘Here are the characteristics of your fastball; there are 40 guys in the major leagues that have almost the exact same fastball characteristics. OK? And here is your changeup.’ Oftentimes, you’re able to show them, ‘Look, what’s coming out of your hand actually works in the major leagues, but you’re in A-ball and not having the success you want. Why?’ Well, we can check off quality of stuff, because we know that’s good enough. So now you start going to things like usage. It’s like, ‘Well, here’s the big issue right here: your stuff is fine, but you’re not throwing enough changeups. The guys that have your kind of stuff and are surviving the big leagues are throwing it almost twice as much as you throw yours.’

“You’re able to give a guy a much clearer path, based on evidence that’s coming off of your TrackMan, or your Hawkeye, or whatever system you’re using. Oftentimes, it’s a real confidence builder. Other times, you’re having to show them where their deficiencies lie. But you’re just not telling them ‘Hey, your slider has to get better.’ You’re actually able to give them, ‘Here is the shape we need, and here is how we think we can get it there. And if you get it there, now your slider is just like these pitchers in the big leagues.’

“That’s what I would call human analytics. In terms of like your bat path, your exit velocities, your attack angles… and then you can start using the industry analytics, and showing guys, ‘Hey, look, there are no first basemen in the big leagues that are carrying this kind of strikeout rate. You’re in Double-A and are striking out at a rate that nobody in the big leagues carries.’ That usually hits a player pretty hard. When you actually show them how they line up, it’s hard to refute.”

Laurila: Showing a player data is one thing; you still need a mechanism to help him make the necessary adjustments.

McKay: “Correct, and in terms of the process that we have in place… everything we’re doing is based around trying to dominate the strike zone. We have the metrics that matter to us, that not only help us win, but also help our players maximize their industry value. We’re doing very well in those things.”

Laurila: You brought up usage a few minutes ago. Who is at fault when an A-ball pitcher isn’t throwing his changeup enough? Is that on him, or is it the catcher putting down signs, or even his pitching coach?

McKay: “Ultimately, we’re all self-determining individuals. I would like the pitcher to take responsibility for his career.”

Laurila: Understood, but are most young pitchers going to be comfortable shaking off with any regularity?

McKay: “It’s hard to say. Look, our job is to provide the information, to provide the hard evidence. But the game is still played by human beings. I can present evidence to a player and say, ‘You need to throw your curveball more,’ but he might have an emotional attachment to a two-seam fastball. These conversations take time, and sometimes lessons have to get learned the hard way.

“The job of the coach is to try to speed the learning curve. But again, pitchers are usually attached to certain pitches. Oftentimes they don’t understand what their best pitches are. They might tell you their four-seam fastball is their best pitch, but it’s actually got the highest wOBA, or the highest exit velocity against. There’s an emotional component to this, and as good as we’re getting measuring and tracking, we still have to remember that the information has to go into the minds of a performer who has emotional attachments to things.

“Like we talked about earlier, diagnosing the problem doesn’t mean the player can actually do it. I’ll give you a simple analogy: You take a right-handed pitcher and ask him to throw a two-seamer arm side, away from a left-handed hitter. Maybe he’s able to execute that pitch 70% of the time. Now you put a right-handed hitter up there who stands right on top of the plate. I ask him to throw the exact same pitch, and he can’t do it. Why can’t he do it? There’s no freedom for him to miss off the plate, because now there’s a hitter standing there.

“So it’s not as simple as saying do X, Y, and Z and you’re fine. Sometimes they’re going to be able to do X, but they’re scared to death to do Y, and are never going to get to Z. Finding the path to get them there is coaching.”

Laurila: Good coaching is invaluable…

McKay: “It is. You hear these rumblings of, ‘coaches are going to become obsolete.’ That’s completely off base. Coaching is more important now than ever. In today’s game, your ability to help funnel information, to simplify and present information in a usable format to a player, is at an all time high. Maybe coaching is changing a bit in terms of the necessary skills, but it’s as important as ever.”

Laurila: What about scouting?

McKay: “Scouts have such a hard job. Talent identification in any industry is really hard, and baseball is no different. What you want in scouting is to get the skills right — you want to get the tools right. Tying to predict what an 18-year-old is going to be like when he’s 23 is really hard. Trying to predict what an 18-year-old is going be like next week if I give him a million and a half dollars is really hard.”

Laurila: You mentioned two-seamers. Does your organization have a philosophy on them?

McKay: “No. I think our org has done a really good job of being creative, and of understanding that there are a lot of different ways to get there. Baseball goes in circles, and we’re kind of in a rave of four-seam fastballs right now — and they’re great. We all know that the strike zone is a vertical strike zone right now. Will it evolve? Maybe.

“There is a spot for sinkers. It’s not going to go anywhere. And there’s a spot for high, riding four-seam fastballs. There’s a spot for everything, and I think we’ve done a really good job of honoring that, and not pigeonholing players into ‘you have to do this.’ Every time you say that word, you’re going to get disproven.”

Laurila: But like you said, four-seamers are big now, as it high velocity.

McKay: “Yes, we see where the game is going with velocity — we’re not debating that — but if you’re maxed out at 89-92, there’s still a way for you to do it. Just because we can’t figure out a way for you to throw 96, we still believe there’s a path for you to get major-league hitters out. And it’s really important that to keep players focused on there being a way for them to be successful. If you ever start sending signals that if you can’t throw 95, you’re dead, you’re killing a lot of people. We watch it every night on television. Marco Gonzales. How is he doing it? Well, there’s the proof. Does that mean you go out and draft a bunch of guys like that? Maybe. I don’t know. But I’ll take Marco on my team every day.”

Laurila: Changing direction, how much will player development be impacted if contraction happens and 40 minor-league teams disappear?

McKay: “It would certainly eliminate positions, and it’s going to eliminate 25 or 30 players that have roster spots. I would say there are going to be positives to it, and there will likely be some negatives. But to be honest, I haven’t thought a lot about it. It was a big topic, but then this thing called COVID came along and kind of took precedent in my thought process.”

Laurila: If short-season teams are eliminated, the jump from complex leagues could be especially challenging.

McKay: “Yes, but you have to understand that if all 30 clubs are doing it, it’s relative. The jump is the jump if everyone is aligned that way. You’re making the next jump just like every other team is doing.”

Laurila: Even so, an individual player getting that promotion mid-season is essentially double-jumping in terms of talent level.

McKay: “This is just my opinion — I’m sure there are people who would debate it, and certainly roll their eyes at it — but those lower levels blend quite a bit. And they always have, especially for the college player. The difference between Everett last year, in the Northwest League, and West Virginia in the South Atlantic League… I could barely tell the difference in the quality of competition.

“It comes back to your young international player who is in the states for the first time, in Peoria. You definitely need that spot there. Coming out of the Dominican Summer League and trying to play at an A-level is not realistic… although Julio Rodriguez made that realistic pretty fast.

“Everyone has a different opinion if you ask him what the biggest jump in the game is. Some people will tell you that going from High-A to Double-A is the biggest jump you’ll ever face in the game. I don’t think the jumps are that big, to be honest. I think the jumps are pretty gradual, and somewhat relative. That part doesn’t concern me a whole lot.”

Laurila: Double-A jump being the hardest jump is something I’ve heard countless times…

McKay: “We both know there are things that have been said in this game for 100 years that are wrong. And people keep saying them. It would make logical sense that the biggest jump in the game is from Triple-A to the big leagues. It’s where the best 750 players in the world are every day. To me, that’s the biggest jump, and it will always be the biggest jump.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

McKay: “If I could name one thing that I think is the core component of our program, it is the ability to find the truth and to tell the truth. That’s what we are about.”

Laurila: In other words, don’t B.S. the players…

McKay: “Don’t B.S. the players, but also do the work. You can’t tell the truth until you find the truth. You need to take the time to manage all of the information, to come up with a plan. Then you deliver it.”

We hoped you liked reading A Conversation with Andy McKay, Mariners Director of Player Development (Part Two) 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

Great stuff once again. This complete overhaul of the developmental system was long overdue for Seattle, but better late than never, and the future looks bright for the organization and the fan base.

Refreshing to hear a more empathetic and human approach to coaching and development.