Andy McKay, the new director of player development, believes in a mental approach to baseball and wants to help redefine the “Mariners’ way” to play the game.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto believes that unlocking the mind is “the next great frontier” in baseball.
And in Andy McKay, the ballclub’s new director of player development, the M’s think they have the person to help guide them to this brave, new world.
McKay was Dipoto’s out-of-the-blue choice in October to replace Chris Gwynn as the overseer of their farm system. They had never even met before the interview, but McKay once coached the son of new Mariners’ manager Scott Servais in a collegiate summer league in LaCrosse, Wisc., and Servais helped put him on Dipoto’s radar.
It didn’t take long for both to realize they were kindred spirits, bursting with ideas on how to synchronize the organization, bring out the best in players, and formulate a “Mariners’ way” to play baseball.
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“When a team comes into Safeco Field,’’ McKay said Thursday at the Mariners’ pre-spring training media luncheon, “we want to play our organization against their team. If we can do that, we’ve tilted the advantage into our hands.”
McKay came from the Rockies’ organization, where he was their peak-performance coordinator. That’s a fancy way of saying he was Colorado’s mental coach — but Dipoto is quick to stress that there’s far more to McKay’s toolbox than sports psychology.
“While Andy’s history as a mental-skills expert, of sorts, is a great advantage, it won’t define who he is,’’ Dipoto said. “He’s a farm director and a baseball man first.”
McKay doesn’t actually mind being typecast as a mental coach, because he firmly believes the basis of all baseball success is between the ears. In fact, his conviction that baseball is “100 percent mental” is at the core of his entire team-building philosophy
“You can’t separate the two, the mental and the physical,’’ he said. “It’s a misunderstanding. To say someone’s a mental coach, you’re already contradicting the basic concept, which is that your physical breakdowns are always preceded by mental breakdowns.’’
McKay will operate the farm-director position differently than the Mariners have ever seen. For starters, he plans to don a uniform and sit in the dugout when he’s visiting a minor-league affiliate, which will be frequently.
“I would like to be as hands-on as you can possibly be,’’ he said. “I’d like to be out there for early work. I consider myself a coach.”
McKay was the highly successful coach of Sacramento City College for 14 seasons (where he also taught math and business), and coached for Team USA. His educational background is as an MBA; his mental training was honed via voracious study, and trial and error. Like many, McKay was inspired by the work of the late Harvey Dorfman, considered the guru of baseball psychology and author of “The Mental Game of Baseball.”
“Harvey is the reason we have a mental-skills job,’’ McKay said. “He’s kind of a pioneer in terms of bringing it into the mainstream of professional baseball … if you look at the family tree of mental skills, it all starts with Harvey.”
McKay, though, doesn’t want mental skills to be something the Mariners teach merely in a classroom — a “side-session, ” as he put it. He wants it to be central to the entire teaching process so that “it becomes embedded in everything you do.”
He elaborated: “You can whittle mental skills down to the basic concept of paying attention. So when I’m doing a drill, my mind is completely consumed with that drill. You teach it through textbooks, you teach it through classroom settings.
“Most importantly, you teach it by your coaches bringing it to life by constantly reminding those players and bringing your focus back to the present moment. If you can train that way, it should translate into performance.”
McKay will have a manual that details the Mariners’ philosophy of baseball fundamentals, which will be consistent throughout the organization. He’ll have an individual player plan for everyone in the system that the minor-league staff will review with the player every 25 days.
There’s more, but the idea is that everyone in the system, from Everett to Safeco Field, will have a cohesive vision.
“That’s the beauty of what we’re doing,’’ McKay said. “There’s no separation. They’re our players, and it’s our system….This is what defines being a Mariner. The sooner you can get on board with it and start believing what we believe, the cumulative power will be there and it will translate into wins.”
It remains to be seen if the players will buy into all this. But lest you think this is all esoteric psycho-babble, you might be encouraged by the type of players McKay wants to produce from his farm system.
“It basically comes down to playing very solid, fundamental, aggressive team-based baseball,’’ he said. “Guys that will pull their hats down low, smear the eye-black, and play really hard for the guy next to them.”
And one final post-script from McKay about his mental-skills background: “What I’ve found is, a lot of people do it in different ways. It’s just about getting more buy-in. It’s not about being the smartest in the room. It’s about getting the most people in the organization to believe what you believe.”