While the last few months have been flush with surprises, the 10,000-foot view of the proceedings isn't all that complex. Jerry Dipoto told us what he was going to do, he did it and then he told us what he did. Really, his first offseason running the Seattle Mariners would make for a hell of a ninth-grade essay.
He said he was going to add pitching depth, so he traded for Wade Miley and Nate Karns while turning over the bullpen. He said he was going to play more to the ballpark, so he added a couple actual outfielders. He said he was going to lengthen the lineup, and now has a 1-through-9 without the holes we've come to expect. He said he wasn't going to play at the top of the free agent food chain, and he didn't.
Finally, a flurry of moves reached its conclusion at Winter Meetings, where Dipoto told reporters "this is our team" on his way out the door and—well, sometimes surprises happen.
I wouldn't get used to it though.
While there will certainly surprises of some form, awaking in the morning to a timeline filled with tweets on a certain trade, the philosophy behind those trades should never be shocking.
Sure, the organizational philosophy itself is refreshing—simply having any widespread organizational philosophy is an impressive change. But a philosophy or strategy are only as good as their execution. And the execution is only as good as its communication. So far, the Mariners' communication under Jerry Dipoto has been very, very good.
I'd say all we have are anecdotes; actually I will say all we have our anecdotes. All we have are anecdotes. But when you take all those anecdotes and group them together, you get a theme, a theme that is very different from what we'd experienced previously.
Some anecdotes and instances of this communication style may seem trivial, but not deducing anything to triviality is what separates good executives from ineffective ones.
As an example of such a minor instance, contrast Jack Zduriencik and Jerry Dipoto's styles on the messaging around player roles, particularly platoon outfielders.
When Zduriencik signed Justin Ruggiano and then Seth Smith in short succession, his intentions were clear. Instead of going out and spending big—in money or talent—on a full-time outfielder, he'd combine the pair's talents to create one on the cheap. But when asked to fill space with a quote saying as much, he danced around it a bit:
"We’ll see in spring training," he said. "We’ll let them compete. I don’t want to pigeonhole anybody or predict what’s going happen. If you look at what Ruggiano can do against left-handed pitching and what Seth can do against right-handed pitching, I think it’s a good combination
In fact, last spring, Zduriencik's avoidance of using the term "platoon" was something of a running gag. And it may have consequences.
While this wasn't made clear, as these things never are, a rift developed between the Mariners and Ruggiano—with that apparently stemming from character issues and the player's belief that he was bigger than his role. He spent a couple months in Tacoma before being sold to the Dodgers, for whom he'd bat .291/.350/.618 down the stretch.
Is it possible Zduriencik's public sentiment differed from his private communications, that he'd let Ruggiano know what his role would be and Ruggiano was fine with that? Sure. But if he hadn't and Ruggiano felt deceived, it wouldn't be the first time a player Zduriencik acquired felt that way.
Now, compare that mishandling to Dipoto's approach when asked about the distribution of playing time in his outfield:
"The one thing for certain is that Nori will play regularly," Dipoto said, "that Franklin (Gutierrez) will get his at-bats against left-handed pitching and that Seth Smith will get his versus right(-handed pitchers).
"Nelson (Cruz) is going to play right field, and he’s going to DH. Seth and Franklin will split right field on days that Nelson doesn’t play (in the field).
"They’ll also play left on days when Nori slides into center versus a tough lefty to give Leonys a day off. There’s a nice rotation in there."
The pigeons, they are holed.
There are good surprises, like a fun new trade, and there are bad surprises, like showing up for work one day and having a different job. Dipoto aims to eliminate bad surprises.
While this all sounds like the type of thing that has a soft impact in the margins, it matters. And even the soft stuff, that matters, too.
Can you imagine what it's like working for a guy who stands up at the holiday party and announces—before anyone else knows—that the team is bringing back an organizational cornerstone once believed to be gone? Having your boss be someone who trusts you not to tell everyone, casting caution aside so the whole organization can yell and cheer and feel good about what's being built? Pretty fun, right?
But back to the more visible, tangible effects, we come to the latest instance of this new transparent communication. I assume everyone has seen it, but if you haven't, do watch this video from the Mariners on their commitment to controlling the strike zone:
The video was widely praised, but a fair point had been raised as something of a counter: this isn't new. Controlling the zone "has been a minor league focal point since at least 2013," tweeted Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto, noting also that shirts were printed and relevant stats were posted in the locker room.
There was even an annual 'C the Z Award' handed out each year, to both a pitcher and a hitter. But this is where the cracks start to show.
Try to find a definition of what that award actually is, or even the annual recipients within the organization. Or nail down when and for what it was given out. You can't, and you start to wonder how much this matters. Because it doesn't seem like it does.
Apparently, it didn't, as Shannon Drayer shared this yesterday:
While it sounded good in theory, I'm not sure it worked in practice. I talked to a number of young players last spring about C The Z and most were not able to articulate the meaning of the slogan. Some admitted to not being interested in it. C The Z looked good on a plaque, but the concept appeared to be anything but an organizational philosophy that took root.
The very best explanation of this philosophy, maybe the only explanation of this philosophy, comes from Patrick Kivlehan in an interview with Rick Randall over on Seattle Clubhouse:
'C the Z' stands for 'Control the Zone'. To me, that means to make sure you know what you're doing when you go up to hit, don't just go up there without a plan. And then when you get that pitch that you can hit, make sure you do something with it. But if you get that chase pitch or something that you are not looking for then you let it go. I hope that's the right answer. I don't know, I guess we'll see what [Minor League Field Coordinator/roving instructor Jack Howell] says.
So there you see the level of uncertainty in even the clearest explanation.
Maybe the Mariners took this philosophy very seriously in the past and we didn't know about it. It's clear guys like Jack Howell did, which is excellent—as he's still with the organization. But it's also clear the players did not, which, if this is going to have an impact, has to change.
It doesn't change with a video on Twitter, but it does change when the organization takes it so seriously that it warrants a video on Twitter, that they want to blast it out to their fans and back at their organization (and people there find it pretty cool, too).
This is about more than t-shirts and posted statistics, though we know the latter will still exist. When you put yourself out like this, it matters. Coaches will be hired and fired based on their ability to instill this philosophy. Players will get more playing time and be promoted based on their ability to do this. And most importantly, according to this front office, teams will win games if they show the ability to control the strike zone
Really, the whole point boils down to something Bob Dutton tweeted with the video:
Hear what they say now, then judge them on the results.
I wrote two years ago about my desire for the Mariners to be more transparent. And it wasn't just for better PR or more fodder for us bloggers, it was because I thought it would help the organization by bringing a level of internal accountability it wasn't currently displaying.
The gist of it, then:
The goal here, again, isn't to explain everything. That's not the essentiality of what I'm asking. I believe a commitment to explaining most actions has the strong potential to lead to actions that are more explainable. The Mariners, and any franchise seeking success, should move forward with purpose. The Mariners are not doing that.
In certain places, M's just aren't explaining the things that are easily explainable due to, what I assume, is a lack of confidence and commitment. By not explaining them, they've missed opportunities to forge an institutional focus and build a bit of credibility moving forward.
The Mariners, finally, are forging an institutional focus. When you commit publicly to a focus and direction, you're guided by that thought-out commitment, not by the whims of circumstance.
Whether these organizational philosophies are the right ones or not, we don't know. We can't know, not yet. But the philosophies don't stand a chance unless they're well-executed, and they can't be executed unless they've been clearly communicated.
The Mariners are clearly communicating, and they're not going to stop.
They've made clear what they're going to do, so there won't be any surprises—but with what they've told us so far, it's impossible not to be optimistic and excited about whatever's next.