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The Mariners are making some interesting “outsider” hires in the minors

The Mariners, like several other teams, are looking beyond the ranks of former pro players and digging into the data

NCAA Men’s College World Series Championship
it’s the 2007/2017 glow-up challenge for Mitch Canham
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Mariners announced their minor league coaching staffs for each of the various affiliates. Most of the names are familiar, but there are a few standouts both in new hires and in people being reshuffled at various levels of the organization. Like they’re doing on the field, the Mariners are going younger with their coaching staff. They’re also following an industry trend in the recruiting talent outside of the realm of ex-pro players; as we’ve seen #HittingTwitter stars like RA Parker and Jason Ochart get scooped up by MLB teams, the Mariners have quietly added coaches of a similar background who run their own baseball academies, similar to the hiring of Brian DeLunas last season.

Starting at the top, Triple-A, Tacoma Rainiers manager Pat Listach was let go after four years helming the Rainiers and over ten years of coaching at the major and minor-league levels. He’s being replaced by Daren Brown, who spent the last three seasons coaching the M’s Double-A affiliate (including the Southern League champion Jackson Generals in 2016) but has been with the Mariners for over twenty years, working in every capacity from interim manager after the firing of Don Wakamatsu in 2010 to filling in as third base coach while Jeff Detz underwent cancer treatments in 2013. Most recently, Brown managed the 2018 AFL champion Peoria Javelinas. Brown has a history of winning; he’s the winningest manager ever for the Rainiers, and will add to that total as he assumes the helm again at Tacoma.

Brown will be joined by hitting coach Roy Howell, most recently at Double-A with Brown but another longtime member of the Mariners organization who also has “managed the Rainiers” on his resume. Lance Painter, former pitching coach of Great Britain’s national team owing to his British ancestry and the pitcher-whisperer who numbers among his accomplishments helping James Paxton find his ideal arm slot, will stay on at Tacoma as well, rounding out a staff of seasoned veterans both of MLB and the Mariners’ organization.

The promotion of Brown to Triple-A creates an interesting ripple effect in the rest of the organization, none more interesting than the promotion of 34-year-old Mitch Canham to Double-A Arkansas. Canham, hired in 2016, is so new to coaching that his Wikipedia article doesn’t have a section on his coaching; rather a note suggesting he might not be “notable” enough for a Wikipedia entry. Canham is certainly notable to Northwesterners who remember the Richland native as a standout at Lake Stevens High, a star catcher at Oregon State who was on the 2006-2007 back-to-back national championship squads. (He also has a painful, powerful personal history that deserves a moment of your time if you aren’t familiar.)

For his first job with the Mariners, Canham oversaw the Clinton LumberKings in 2016, a year after the team finished 46-93, and guided the team to an 86-54 finish and a playoff berth. He was promoted to High-A Modesto in 2017, the year the Nuts won the California League championship, and at age 32, was honored as the California League Manager of the Year. Now, the Mariners are trusting him with a promotion to the high minors. Canham will be the youngest manager in the Texas League by almost a decade, and almost thirty years younger than the league’s oldest manager. In all of Double-A baseball’s thirty teams, only two will have a manager younger than Canham: Colorado affiliate the Hartford Yard Goats (Warren Schaeffer, just a few months older than Canham) and Angels affiliate the Mobile BayBears (Lou Marson, 32, so fresh from his playing days that he still has an active page at Rotoworld; the Angels have yet to officially announce their minor-league staff, but sent Marson to manage the AFL team in Mesa this season, so it seems he’s still a big part of their plans).

Pitching coach Pete Woodworth will graduate to Double-A alongside Canham, and new hire Kyle Wilson will serve as the hitting coach. Wilson is an example of pulling a player from outside the traditional coaching ranks of ex-MLBers; a standout at NC State, Wilson has run The Performance Academy for the last several years, where he focuses on teaching both baseball skills and mental skills; check out his YouTube channel for specific drills and to get a sense of him as a teacher.

With Canham and company moving up to Double-A, that pushes former Twins great Denny Hocking up to Modesto from Single-A. Jose Umbria, last year’s minors staffer of the year, will also make the jump to High-A. Joining them will be another new hire, pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr. (not the noted metal guitarist Rob Marcello). RMJ also has his own academy, Top Level Athletes in the Orlando area, where 2019 draft standout Matthew Allan trains and where Astros pitching coach Brent Strom was also an employee.

New affiliate the West Virginia Power will be overseen by a familiar face in Dave Berg, former Rainiers hitting coach. He will be joined by hitting coach Eric Farris, earning a promotion from Everett, and pitching coach Alon Leichman, former player (and coach) for Team Israel, who spent last year on staff at Seattle’s Dominican Academy and whose Twitter feed—like those of Ochart, Parker, or others—is full of thoughts about how to coach baseball most effectively.

In Everett, Jose Moreno will continue to manage the club and Joe Thurston will move to Everett from Modesto. Colorado native and former Giants prospect Ari Ronick will join the organization as the Aquasox pitching coach; Ronick was most recently a PhD candidate at the University of Montana in Physical Therapy and owner of Ronick Baseball, where, according to his website, he “combines knowledge of fundamentals learned in professional baseball with an understanding of biomechanics, performance, and injury prevention learned in the classroom.” Ronick, whose website is fairly rudimentary and has all of 35 tweets, is maybe the most “outsider” pick on this list, but his background in injury prevention is intriguing.

Two other new hires in the minors stand out: Connor Dawson, recently of Marshalltown Community College, who will serve as rookie-level Peoria’s hitting coach; and Max Weiner, who will work as a floating Pitching Coordinator. Dawson is a data-driven coach heavily involved in the ABCA, the American Baseball Coaches Association, who will bring his knowledge of the Flightscope technology along with a progressive approach to coaching:

Max Weiner, who will be a roving pitching instructor, also has his own academy, The Arm Farm, although he was most recently with Cleveland as a pitching coordinator. For those of you who love pitching mechanics or are pitchers yourselves, Weiner’s site is a gold mine of lengthy videos and articles including specific exercises and drills. His articles are grounded in science, show a wide-ranging knowledge of his subject matter, and are exceedingly well-written and clear despite describing complex biomechanical processes. I recommend them highly for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of pitching; moreover, it’s exciting to think about what a thinker like Weiner, like DeLunas before him, can bring to the Mariners’ organization.

If you’ve ever taken a class from someone highly ranked in your field, you know that not everyone who is accomplished at something is also a great teacher of that thing. The best, most recognizable writers I worked with in college were often terrible at explaining the nuts and bolts of how they got from an idea to a finished novel. Teaching is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice and reflection to be a really great teacher. Weiner, Dawson, Ronick, Leichman, Marcello, and Wilson—joining other previous “outsider” hires like catching coordinator Tony Arnerich and field coordinator Carson Vitale—all represent a coaching philosophy that doesn’t rely upon “when I was in the majors...” but rather on actionable data, close observation, and supporting learners by actively teaching mental skills that lead to positive outcomes. It will be fascinating to track player development as the organization becomes more heavily slanted towards those who identify themselves as “educators” rather than “coaches.”