The Mariners infield is a diverse collection of players who have taken different paths to baseball, from different places, over different time periods. Gold Glove winner J.P. Crawford was a top prospect taken out of a California high school. Ty France was a less-heralded prospect who hit his way up through the minors. Venezuelan-born Eugenio Suárez is an All-Star who got downballot MVP votes in 2018 and 2019. Adam Frazier came through the gamut of the SEC and spent five seasons as one of the best players on a consistently lousy team before being traded. Carlos Santana is a gold medalist for the Dominican Republic in the WBC who has over ten years in the majors and is one of the few 2022 Mariners with postseason experience. Dylan Moore came to the Mariners having never played above Triple-A and elbowed his way on to the big-league roster by proving himself to be indispensable.
All of them begin the day the same way: they emerge from the dugout, kneel in the grass along the first base line, and glove balls that Mariners infield coach Perry Hill taps at them with a fungo bat, dropping the ball in a nearby bucket. It’s a comforting rhythm: tap-pick-drop. Tap-pick-drop. Veterans and rookies, Gold Glovers and converted infielders alike, everyone drops to their knees and spends time with the fungo bat and bucket of balls. It’s an expectation of everyone who plays infield for Perry Hill, and it’s something each of them do with their own flair: Ty France lobs jokes and jabs as he picks his balls; J.P. complains good-naturedly about the smoky weather (“Close the roof! I can’t breathe this air! I opt out for health reasons!”) and offers to share his HBO password with Hill so he can watch his new favorite show; Adam Frazier, new to Hill’s way of doing things, grins bemusedly throughout; Carlos Santana is silent and serious, bringing the same level of focus to this drill as he does to all his pre-game work. They do it differently, but they all do it: tap-pick-drop.
And Perry Hill will teach anyone who asks, even non-infielders. Since he’s been recalled to the team, Luis Torrens has, in addition to taking catching reps, been taking infield practice at third base behind Eugenio Suárez on his off-days to keep his hand-eye coordination sharp. They’re just drills, but Torrens isn’t exempt from Hill’s good-natured heckles when he boots one—nor his praise, delivered with an affectionate hand on the shoulder. That practice paid off when Torrens held down second base for the Mariners in the final game of the regular season, competently executing this not-entirely-routine play at second:
Brought on prior to the 2019 season, Hill’s first year with the Mariners wasn’t smooth. The 2019 Mariners were bad at, well, everything, but especially defense, where they had multiple players playing out of position, as well as some who weren’t yet bought in on the way Hill wanted to do things. But by 2020, a team that had ranked 28th in baseball by FanGraphs’ Defense metric was a much more respectable middle-of-the-pack, with two of his infielders (Evan White and J.P. Crawford) taking home Gold Glove awards. In 2020 and 2021 the Mariners were top 10 in baseball in every infield position except 2B.
Overseeing this kind of turnaround is nothing new for Hill. Long before the stat of Defensive Runs Saved was tracked, a 44-year-old Hill took the 1996 Detroit Tigers—abjectly awful in every statistical category, including defense—and helped them become league-leaders in defense by 1997. The term “Gold Glove Maker” has been thrown around for Hill, and it’s not wrong; at least half a dozen players under his tutelage have won Gold Gloves, and in 2016, his Marlins infield set an MLB record with 28 error-free games. If you want to know how impressive that is, the Mariners, who in 2022 are tied for second in fewest number of errors committed per game, have a maximum stretch of eight games error-free, from June 12 on.
However, the infield-only error-free streak is 15, from May 17 all the way to June 3rd; they also had another 13-game streak starting on June 12, that when broken was followed almost immediately by a seven-game streak. There was another 12-game streak that spanned both sides of the All-Star Break. It seems no coincidence that the infield error-free streaks overlap neatly with Mariners’ winning streaks, just as it’s not a coincidence that of the Top 10 teams with the highest DRS, seven of them are headed to the 2022 postseason, while two more fell just short. Defense does indeed win championships.
But as the Mariners started their stretch of poor/injured play in late August, the streaks start to disappear. Some of these are caused by players playing out of position—a five-game streak was interrupted by an error charged to Adam Frazier playing shortstop, and a six-game streak was interrupted by Abraham Toro playing third base for the first time in several weeks. Others are caused by J.P. Crawford’s abnormal defensive struggles this year—after being in the 98th percentile for Outs Above Average in 2020, and above-average in 2021, J.P. is down to the first percentile in what’s been a fluky year. Both corners of the infield missed time with injury, and second base has been a rotating cast of players all season as players were called upon to fill in gaps in the outfield.
However, regardless of the challenges they’ve faced defensively, the Mariners have been able to find an edge with savvy defensive positioning and heavily employing the shift, advantages they won’t have next year when the shift is banned.
But the presence of Perry Hill is itself a competitive advantage. The saying is “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” and every day, Perry Hill demonstrates how much he cares about every member of the Seattle Mariners.
Part of that caring is holding high standards that are consistent from player to player, and that word—consistent—came up again and again when asked what makes the 70-year-old Hill so dynamic and relatable to his young, diverse charges.
“He brings a spark,” says J.P. Crawford. “He keeps the same energy all the time.”
“He’s very consistent,” agrees Scott Servais. “I think when you’re not consistent, players can see through it. He doesn’t back off, he holds guys accountable every day. And I think if you want to be true to your craft, you have to be good at that. And it doesn’t matter who it is—whether it’s Ty, whether it’s J.P., if it’s a guy filling in for a day, he just doesn’t back off. And players appreciate that. They might not appreciate it in the moment, but they appreciate it in the long-term.”
Ty France echoed the skipper’s sentiments. “It doesn’t matter who you are, he’s going to treat you the same.” And while players respect Hill for his knowledge and his impact on the game—during the Braves series, rookie shortstop Vaughn Grissom shyly approached Hill to shake his hand—they respect the man behind the experience just as much as the experience itself. “He’s very genuine,” France says, who saw Hill wearing a baseball cap with a bone on it, a nod to his nickname of “Bone,” and immediately purchased similar caps for his fellow infielders.
If “consistency” was Hill’s most-referenced trait, “genuine” was the second-most used word. “He’s true,” says Servais. “He’s not fake. You can’t fake it with players. The players have changed, the personalities have changed, but at the end of the day, good players want to be coached.”
Sometimes, whether they want to or not. On the day they’d eventually clinch the first post-season appearance for the Mariners in over 20 years, Ty France was at the far end of the Mariners dugout doing a pre-game television interview for a national outlet.
“Hey Ty, you still taking infield practice?” called Kristopher Negrón, as France shook hands with the reporter and walked back across the field.
“Of course he is,” Hill answered for France. “That’s a stupid question.”
France emerged from the dugout minutes later, glove in hand, and took his place in the grass as Hill picked up his fungo bat.
“He cares so much about defense,” Crawford says fondly, looking over at Hill. “He loves defense. It makes you care even more.”
“He just wants the best version of you to come out every night. And it does.”