Doing this differently is not inherently the same as doing things better. When things are going poorly, as they have been for the Mariners' player development efforts, change is a good idea—not because it guarantees success, but because at some point you just have to try something different.
Andy McKay is something different. And while he's nothing if not unproven, at least at the major league level, it's easy to be excited by his vision for developing the Mariners' young talents. Or, if not excited, at least intrigued.
For those who missed it, McKay joined the Mariners last week as their new farm director, replacing the outgoing Chris Gwynn. He joins the Mariners having most immediately served, for three years, as the Peak Performance Coordinator for the Colorado Rockies or, as Bob Dutton described it when he delivered the scoop, their "mental skills coach."
So, what's that guy do? Let's look.
It's actually difficult to get a strong sense for what he did with the Rockies as there wasn't much press at the time of his hiring and the anecdotes aren't as easy to come by as they are with other guys who recently joined the Mariners, in Scott Servais and Tim Bogar. But they do exist, and his approach with pitchers in particular gives a sense for his unique style.
Top Rockies prospect Jon Gray credited some of the visualization work he did with McKay some improvement in Triple-A last year, improvement that'd eventually earn him a call-up to the big club, where he'd face the Mariners in his debut. Gray said of his work with McKay:
"I'm trying to make sure of the pitch I was throwing before I threw it, that, 'I'm going to execute that pitch, and this pitch is going to get the hitter out,'" Gray said. "I visualize it before I throw it. That way, there are no negative thoughts that can get in the way." [...]
"When things are rolling and ... three or four ground balls get through, or when you throw a good pitch and he hits one in the gap, before, it was, 'Why? I made a good pitch, and he hit that? Does my ball look flat? Is my stuff easy to see?'" Gray said. "Once you get out of your own head, your ability can come out."
Not necessarily revolutionary stuff, but again, it gives you a sense for what he's trying to do.
Here's more of his work, that being with Tyler Matzek—a one-time pitching prodigy whose development had been tumultuous before reaching the doorstep of the bigs as a 23-year-old. Drafted 11th overall in 2009, Matzek got to the point where the was sent home for a bit of a mental break in 2011 because he was scuffling so much. The Rockies would eventually assign him to put in some time with McKay.
McKay told Matzek to read a golf book — written by Bob Rotella, a psychologist — titled "The 15th Club: The Inner Secret to Great Golf." Matzek doesn't even play golf. But he recognized that a preputt routine is a lot like a prepitch routine.
When he turned pro, Matzek was entirely too focused on getting zeros — no hits, no walks, no baserunners at all. So when it didn't work, the chatter in his head got louder and louder.
Over weeks of conversations with McKay, Matzek learned to see what he wanted instead of thinking about it. He worked on visualizing pitches and not worrying about negative results.
"It was all about competing and being able to really not care about anything besides getting the guy out," Matzek said. "It changed my mind-set about how I pitch today."
The next year, the Rockies brought Matzek back to Modesto. His break didn't prove to be a quick fix. He was back to flashing big-league promise, producing 153 strikeouts in 142 innings. But he was still inexact, with 95 walks.
"I wasn't perfect when I came back," he said. "But I started building the house back up, nail by nail."
Matzek would go on to make his debut in 2014 and did pretty decent, notching more than a win and a half in fWAR in 117 innings, even throwing a complete game shutout in September. But not every story has a happy ending. He scuffled badly to start 2015 and would find himself in single-A in June before again taking a break from baseball. He was back in August, with triple-A Albuquerque—but yeah, these things aren't easy.
But this is about Andy McKay's story—the bulk of which, in terms of coaching, took place at Sacramento City College, where he managed for 14 seasons. It's difficult to unearth that story though. Trust me, I've been looking.
There's another part of the story though, a gig few have mentioned. While McKay managed for more than a decade in Sacramento, his summers from 2008 to 2012 were spent applying his trade elsewhere, along the shore of the Mississippi River in La Crosse, WI. That happens to be my hometown, and where Scott Servais was born too—which is a little weird in one of those "the universe is funny" ways. Servais and McKay even crossed paths there while the former was AGM with the Angels.
I moved away before McKay was there, and the team he managed too. Founded in 2003, the La Crosse Loggers play in the Northwoods League, a summer circuit for college players. And if you really want to know the type of guy McKay is and is going to be, read about his time there. I'll help.
We can start at the end and work back.
To give you an appropriate frame of reference, McKay's number 6 remains the only number retired in the history of the Loggers. Over the span of five seasons, his teams went 213-142—that's an even .600 clip. Or, if you want the 162-game pace, that's 97 wins. For five years.
It was more games than any collegiate summer league team won in that span—and if you didn't know, there are a lot of those leagues.
In his last game as manager of the Loggers, his team won the Northwoods League Championship. In the article recapping the win, McKay said "I'm getting way too much credit for this." His players disagreed:
"He's the best coach I've ever had," said pitcher Jake Stassi. "The mental game, he really helps get your mind right, ready for the game."
"You know, Coach McKay, I'll admit, he single-highhandedly, he and Coach Katz, they helped turn my career around, and I owe everything to those guys," said pitcher Jacob Dorris.
"I heard he was a great coach, I got to experience it for myself," said second baseman Brendan Farney. "That's a great man right there. They retired his number."
Of course, you may not have heard of Jake Stassi, Brendan Farney or Jacob Dorris—I sure as hell haven't. But it wasn't all no-names for McKay there in La Crosse. Chris Sale pitched for McKay in 2008, his first season with the Loggers.
Of his time there, Sale said "If you go talk to cap, my coach, Andy McKay, he'll tell you I had a little fire in me in La Crosse too, so not too much has changed."
The most in-depth look you'll find on McKay's style and philosophy comes courtesy of the La Crosse Tribune, done way back in 2008 when he was just taking on the Loggers job.
"I can't guarantee you we're going to win this league, although that's my goal and that's what I want to do," McKay said. "But I really can guarantee you a level of expertise and an energy and a passion that will be there every single day."[...]
"That balance between player development and winning, those aren't conflicting ideas. It's the same thing. If kids play well, they're going to win.[...]
"Players are going to be giving me their goals in terms of special things they need to work on and we'll be creating time for that," McKay said. "We're not going to be doing anything that every minor league team isn't doing. If a second baseman wants to work on his double play turn, you do it right for 15 minutes per day and the results after three or four days would astound you."
The following example might not sound that forward-thinking, but in 2008, this coming from the mouth of a college coach managing a minor league team is something to note:
Are we going to steal? Yeah, when I think we can be safe. Are we going to (sacrifice) bunt? I'm not saying we won't, but when you do that, one of the next two guys has to get a hit; you've put yourself in a situation where you have to hit .500 to score. It's one of the worst strategies in the game of baseball. Are we going to be a pitching and defense team or an offensive team? Hopefully, all three."
So yes, Andy McKay is a bit of a different thinker. While simply not bunting isn't revolutionary in today's game, I'd imagine his views and strategies have evolved in the seven years since he took over as La Crosse's skipper.
Now, it's time to see where he's at. With a general manager who clearly prioritizes player development, and one who above all else wants to instill an organization-wide culture geared around some of the things McKay's already described, this could be fascinating to watch.
McKay's playing in the big leagues now. If the Mariners managed to successfully unearth a hidden gem with this hiring, it could lead to the discovery of many more.