Andy McKay, the new Mariners director of player development, mentioned the name of only one pitcher Thursday during the team’s annual pre-spring media lunch: Roy Halladay.
No, the organization does not consider Halladay, 38, to be a prospect. Plagued by back problems, the right-hander retired in 2013.
The reference had to do with Halladay’s 2000 season, when he posted a 10.14 earned run average in 19 appearances for the Blue Jays. It set a record — highest single-season ERA for a pitcher who threw at least 50 innings — that remains intact.
Halladay’s historic futility found him beginning the 2001 season in Single-A, where, as McKay put it, “he became Roy Halladay,” a 203-game winner who won two Cy Young Awards and was named an All-Star eight times.
“When people hit failure too often, they think it’s final — the last chapter in the book,” McKay said. “They need to rearrange their thinking and understand it’s the very beginning of the book, and we’re not done writing yet.”
This past October, when the Mariners announced they’d replaced Chris Gwynn with McKay as farm director, the move appeared odd. McKay has no player-development experience at the big-league level. His expertise is in mental skills: preaching positive thinking to achieve peak performance.
That might sound like psychobabble to old-schoolers of the see-ball, hit-ball, just-keep-it-simple persuasion. But general manager Jerry Dipoto is on board, as is manager Scott Servais, whose son Tyler played for McKay’s college summer-league team in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“He told me, ‘Dad, you’ve got to meet this guy. He’s got a lot of cool ideas,’ ” Servais recalled. “He doesn’t say things like that very often.”
When McKay was at the helm of the La Crosse Loggers between 2008 and 2012, they were a Northwoods League powerhouse that went 203-105. The manager was so admired the team retired his jersey — a tribute, he jokes, denied La Crosse-area native Servais.
“He has a mental skills background, which is a great advantage,” Dipoto said of McKay, who coached 14 seasons at Sacramento City College. “But it won’t define him as our farm director. He’s a good baseball man who’s had a long career understanding the need — the art — of unlocking a player’s mind.”
McKay plans to implement what he called a “four-pronged” philosophy throughout the farm system, stressing the importance of character while honing the players’ fundamentals, maximizing their appetite for competition, and stressing the notion of “surrendering themselves for the good of the team.”
It’s no coincidence the first item on McKay’s developmental laundry list is emphasizing the long-term professional benefits of solid citizenship.
“Character is a big part of it,” he said. “Character does count. Character impacts wins and losses at the major-league level. We will have a formal process to develop the character of our players. We believe better people make better Mariners.”
Perhaps, but success in baseball is predicated on scoring more runs than the opponent. A lineup of batters potentially eligible for canonization will lose every time to a lineup stocked with of cannons.
Toward that end, McKay oversaw a recent “hitting summit” that brought 15 minor leaguers to the team’s spring-training headquarters in Arizona, where former Mariners stars Edgar Martinez and Alvin Davis served as instructors.
“There was a lot of chalk talk,” McKay said, “but we also went out on the field each day, putting into their heads what we’re about.”
Said Dipoto: “It’s hard enough to hit in the major leagues — it’s arguably the hardest thing to do in professional sports. When our players were getting different messages from different voices about what they should and shouldn’t be doing from a hitting standpoint, it really made it difficult on them.”
The idea isn’t to turn Mariners prospects into same-swinging clones but, rather, to share a confidence derived from accentuating the positive while acknowledging failure as an inevitable occupational hazard.
Thanks to the unconventional appointment of a mental skills coach as their farm-system director, it seems the Mariners are on the same page of a book that’s only just begun.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org