Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has taken a fundamental and fiery approach to his first spring training as manager, and it could create wonders for a younger team.
The first spring training game is six days away. McClendon's first full week at Mariners camp has been interesting to say the least. Lookout Landing's Colin O'Keefe already wrote about McClendon's defense of Robinson Cano after lashings from Cano's former hitting coach Kevin Long of the New York Yankees. To be brief, Long's statements were about Cano's lack of hustle on ground balls to first base. McClendon fired back and laid down a gauntlet early with his statements.
McClendon was manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2001 to 2005. The tales of Pirate woes during that time are well known. The Pirates were the butt of the baseball world's jokes during McClendon's tenure. Stingy owners, injured prospects and fire sales may have hampered McClendon's time in Pittsburgh, but all in all he compiled a 336-446 (.430 win percentage) record as manager. By comparison, Eric Wedge had a slightly higher win percentage (.495) in seven years as Cleveland's skipper before coming to Seattle.
But it's 2014 now. McClendon has the experience of managing a club with recent futility, and "Legendary Lloyd's" first week or so in spring training has raised eyebrows but also scratched heads. The positives I've noticed:
MLB.com's Greg Johns reported on Tuesday that McClendon worked on bunting drills with his squad. He also reported the manager will focus on a new fundamental each day of camp.
Bunting -- something not often seen in Wedge's time. How many times have we watched games over the past three years and asked ourselves "Where was the sacrifice bunt to move to runner to third with one out?" Sacrifice hits decreased over the past few years. According to sportingcharts.com, the Mariners had 56 sacrifice hits in 2009 but steadily decreased in years following. The Mariners had the lowest sacrifice hits number since 1990 with 26 in 2013. Even spring training games have yet to be played, McClendon's focus on simple fundamentals early on can provide optimism for a younger team.
The next day, McClendon focused on pickoffs. Once again, pickoffs are at an all-time low. In 2007, Seattle succeeded in eight pitcher pickoffs. Compare this to a combined seven from 2011-2013. Pickoffs can be one of the more challenging aspects of a pitcher's game, I'm intrigued to see McClendon dissect these small facets that can make or break a game for any team.
Yesterday, the first-year manager pulled first baseman Justin Smoak aside during batting practice. This early in spring, McClendon already notices possible adjustments in players' stances that could provide for a breakout season. Justin Smoak has his picture next to "under-perform" in the dictionary during his time donning a Mariners jersey. Smoak's quote from yesterday, courtesy of Johns:
I was a little wide, and (McClendon) asked me why. He said when he first saw me a couple years ago, I was more narrow, and he liked that better with bigger guys. And it felt good. That's where I was when I first got called up. It's interesting to hear him say that. He remembered, so it was pretty cool. He was on top of it.
McCledon took notice of a player not on his team years ago. Perhaps he saw what could maybe turn around Smoak this year. He's also been having one-on-one conversations per reports with each of his hitters. Maybe he sees more of a line-drive hitter in Smoak. McClendon's tendency thus far seems to be dissecting every facet of every player.
He has confidence, though, in shakier things. McClendon, rightly so, is giving infielder Nick Franklin the chance to compete at shortstop. Franklin needs better lateral movement and a stronger arm to take over at shortstop, but I'm curious to see if Franklin can make the transition. An article earlier today by Scott Weber talks about how McClendon pegs Dustin Ackley as the starting left fielder or at least in spring games. To be fair, McClendon has a mess of an outfield to work with currently. I still believe Stefen Romero will be the left fielder of the future (a topic I may write about later) unless a major roster move occurs, but as of now, who else will be trotted out there? The only other possibility right now is Ackley in center and Michael Saunders in left.
Words are great. Fundamental practice is better. But McClendon can only do so much with what he has. So far, though, it seems like he knows how to make due with personified scrap heaps with little trinkets of gold on top. It still remains to be seen for how much he -- and this team for that matter -- can cash in that gold.
Do you like the fundamental approach of McClendon thus far? Are you in favor of coaches publicly speaking out in defense of their players as McClendon did earlier this week with Cano? Do you feel McClendon has the skills to successfully work with what he has currently?