After an abysmal 2015 season, Mariners' catching prospect Tyler Marlette answered any doubters with an important and improved 2016 season that included an invitation to the Arizona Fall League. Can he continue the progression into 2017?
GLENDALE, Ariz. — A few hours before one of the last games of the Arizona Fall League, Tyler Marlette looked around at the talent on the field at Camelback Ranch.
There were top prospects from different organizations around baseball taking part in a typical pregame workout: hitting, fielding, running and socializing. The AFL is a place where teams send their top prospects — projected big leaguers — to face similar talent in a short stint of games. And he was one of those chosen few.
“This is really big for me,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that not a lot of guys get.”
Marlette made the most of the chance, hitting .267 with a .773 on-base plus slugging percentage, three doubles, two homers and 10 RBI in just 13 games.
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“Before I even got here, I sat down with Brownie (Jackson manager Daren Brown) and some of the front office and they told me what they wanted to see from me in the Fall League,” he said. “I’ve just been concentrating on taking good at-bats, being quiet in my front half and letting my hands work.”
The good showing re-asserted Marlette’s place within the organization. On the Mariners’ overall catching depth chart, he sits fourth behind starter Mike Zunino, backup Carlos Ruiz, defensive specialist Jesus Sucre, who is also out of minor league options and ahead of converted shortstop Marcus Littlewood. He’ll likely start the season in Class AA Arkansas with a chance to get to Tacoma by the end of the season.
“He’s stepped out and had a very good fall league, particularly swinging the bat,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “And as you find out, the more you swing the bat, the more people think you can catch. He’s done enough to promote himself.”
A year ago, the possibility of Marlette playing in the AFL would have seemed unlikely. It wasn’t for lack of talent. Selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft as a hit-first catcher, who was built like a fire hydrant and possessed the potential to hit for some power, Marlette moved up the organizational depth chart quickly in his first three seasons. In 2013, he hit .304 with an .815 on-base plus slugging percentage, 17 doubles, two triples, six homers and 37 RBI in 75 games with Class A Clinton. The following season, he hit .301 with an .867 OPS, 23 doubles, 15 homers and 49 RBI in 81 games for Class A High Desert, earning a brief late-season stint at Class AA Jackson.
It also earned him an invite to Major League spring training in 2015, where he impressed then-manager Lloyd McClendon with his aggressive nature, slashing line drives and self-confident attitude.
He was projected as the No. 8 overall prospect in the organization by Baseball America. Big things were expected for Marlette in 2015.
And then, he fell flat.
After three seasons of production, Marlette struggled. With Steve Baron at Class AA Jackson, Marlette returned to the High A level, starting with Class A Bakersfield. Instead of a tearing up the Cal League for a second straight year, Marlette hit .216 with a .649 OPS and 35 strikeouts in 39 games. With some catchers shifting in the organization, he still earned on a promotion back to Class AA Jackson, where he played in just 50 games, hitting .258 with a .693 OPS.
“I definitely got exposed,” he said. “I was just taking too big of swings. I had a big leg kick and too much movement.”
Marlette had always been a hitter first. Now his best attribute was escaping him.
“To be honest, yeah, it was frustrating,” he said. “I hadn’t dealt with that before. But I’m a hitter and that doesn’t change. If I have a bad year, I have a bad year. I just said I just have to come back the next year and give all that I have and have better at-bats.”
With his bat failing, he tried to make up for it by focusing on his defense behind the plate — something that was always a criticism. He had to if he wanted to play.
“What I was most satisfied about is my catching, my catching grew from that,” he said. “If you want to stay in the lineup, you have to do something. I think it’s helped me become a total package player. Even if it was a down year, I still got something out of it.”
The 2015 offseason brought a new front office, including a revamped player development system with a new philosophy, focusing on consistent “control the zone” hitting approaches. He got a crash course of it as one of the 12 invited players in an introductory “hitting summit” last January.
“It was really different,” he said.
It was also a chance to reset the front office expectations and opinions of him following his abysmal 2015.
“New eyes on you are always good,” he said. “Being able to show what you have and what type of player you are, just being able to get out there in front of someone else even if the past guys did like me, it was important.”
Still, when spring training invites came out, his name was left off the list. And when another catcher was needed with Baron hurt, Littlewood got the call and not Marlette.
“I wasn’t expecting it after the year I had,” he said. “I figured I would go to mini-camp to break my swing down and recreate some of the stuff I had done right. I kind of figured I wasn’t going to. It definitely motivated me, especially this year. It was an eye-opener.”
The swing breakdown was meant to find some consistency.
“I had that big leg kick,” he said. “This past year, we took all of it out. I’m just focusing on getting my front foot down and letting my hands work. I was really successful doing it. The power was still there without the leg kick. Whatever has been feeling comfortable for me is what they want me to go with.”
The changes led to success, though not immediately.
Sent to the Cal League for the third straight season, Marlette hit his way to a promotion, posting an .808 OPS with 21 doubles, 14 homers and 53 RBI in 83 games.
“When he started the season in Bakersfield, he was highly motivated to get to Double A,” said director of player development Andy McKay. “That was a factor. From my perspective, I think we were very clear with him as with all of our players of what our expectations were. He needed to do a better job of controlling the strike zone and be a lot more consistent from pitch-to-pitch in the batter’s box.”
Marlette had never seen a pitch that he didn’t feel he could drive. But he soon began to find slightly more selectivity led to success.
“I think I had more walks than I ever had this year,” he said. “I’m definitely swinging at better pitches now instead of going up there and being classified as a hacker. I have an approach now. I’m trying to find barrels, move runners and control my bat.”
McKay saw it really click in toward the end of the season. .
“When you look at probably his last 175 at-bats in the Cal League and you take into account what he did in Double A, there was a definite, measurable amount of progress,” he said.
In Marlette’s final 177 at-bats at Bakersfield (45 games), he hit .322 with an .885 OPS, including a .383 on-base percentage, 14 doubles, six homers and 29 RBI. Marlette played the final 15 games of the season with Class AA Jackson and into the postseason. He hit .300 with a .733 OPS, two doubles, a homer and six RBI.
“Tyler Marlette can really hit and he’s going to hit,” McKay said. “It’s a just a question of the consistency on a day-to-day basis and that consistency starts with a mindset. That’s the hardest part of the game to tackle. There’s zero question whether he can hit or not.”
But the conscious effort to be better behind the plate when he was struggling at it, might be what carries him forward.
“He caught probably the two best games I saw caught all year,” McKay said. “That part of his game was really impressive and the growth and the amount of pride he took in that part of the game. I couldn’t have been happier with the progress he made back there.”
For Marlette and the Mariners, the 2016 season was a reminder of what he can be and the Fall League success helped verify it.
“It’s as close to the big leagues as you can get without being in the big leagues,” McKay said. ” I think that’s kind of a ‘I belong.’ To get there and show: ‘Ok I can play on the same field as these guys and hold my own.’ It was never a question in our mind that he could do that. But just like with all these guys, there’s a point at which what I think it really does not matter what we think and it’s what the player does on the field that does matter.”