Scott Servais enters year No. 2 of managing the Mariners, coming off a first year in which the team went 86-76 and narrowly missing out on the team’s first postseason appearance since 2001.
PEORIA, Ariz. — If every player’s position and role for a baseball team can be previewed, debated and analyzed in the days leading up to the first day of spring training, why not also take a look at the manager?
After all, it’s a relatively critical responsibility to a team’s success. It’s probably not in the ways most fans perceive — to bunt or not to bunt, pitching changes — but more in getting players to buy into a philosophy, understanding expectations for the upcoming season and preparing accordingly.
Scott Servais enters year No. 2 of managing the Mariners, or any team for that matter. Last season, he helped lead them to an unexpected 86-76 record and narrowly missing out on the team’s first postseason appearance since 2001.
On Tuesday, pitchers and catchers will report to the Mariners spring training complex and Servais’ second season as skipper will officially begin.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “I sat here a year ago and never managed a major league game and somehow I made it through and learned a lot. We learned a lot about our players last year and I think we got along. We made a lot of strides in establishing our culture and I like our environment around our team.”
There were plenty of questions about Servais going into last season. He’d never managed a team on any level. And general manager Jerry Dipoto took plenty of criticism for hiring Servais, his close friend, over more established managers. Servais’ off-the-field experience after his playing days as a catcher came as a scout/instructor with the Cubs and then a front office executive with the Rangers and Angels.
“I never felt stronger about anything in my professional life in that he was the right fit for this group,” Dipoto said at the end of the season. “I believe in him like he believes in the players. There was a rookie manager that didn’t really have a history to lean on, and a veteran group of players who it would have been very easy for them to just turn their head the other way, and they didn’t do it. I think that’s a testament to Scott’s character, his directness, and his honesty.”
Servais made it clear from the start that he would do things differently than maybe what players were used to. He emphasized the idea of changing the culture by having daily team meetings, bringing a level of fun to the monotony of the season and forcing players out of their comfort zones and individual shells.
“I am looking forward to Year 2 because there’s a lot less anxiety,” he said. “I know what I’m in for and it is going to be a long haul.”
Perhaps more important, the returning players, specifically the key team leaders, know what Servais expects and demands.
Going into last spring training, there was a fair amount of curiosity as to how established veterans like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager would react to yet another new manager. They all knew about Servais’ lack of experience and heard the criticisms.
In what might have been Servais’ biggest accomplishment of his first season, he was able to get all four players to buy into his philosophy, embrace it and then empower them to make it their own. None of the four players had really exhibited a comfort level in that leadership role with the Mariners, but they took ownership of the team, which is what Servais wanted all along.
“I thought we took some huge strides at the end of the year, especially from our veterans group and seeing those guys stepping up and leading,” he said, adding: “The game is about the players and it’s their team. I think and felt that they took ownership of that at the end of the year.”
So with the concept of his desired culture in place, Servais will look to those four to continue the development of it this spring.
“Our leadership group, our guys, they run the ship here,” he said. “They drive it and how we play and we interact and how we get the most out of each other is driven by those guys.”
As for Servais, he plans to further his development as a manager. His first year wasn’t without learning moments.
“Yeah, 162 is a lot of games,” he said. “When you’re living and dying with it every day, I really did realize the value of being patient with guys, not overreacting at times. I think along the way I earned our players’ trust and in showing a lot of faith in those guys.”
There were times when he second-guessed himself and his decisions. Nights get short when the thoughts of a pitching change here, a defensive shift there or a pinch runner at certain time fill your mind following losses. The first three innings for a manager are enjoyable, but the next six are racked with anxiety and anticipation of strategy that needs to be employed. It’s rarely about gut feelings.
“There’s usually a reason behind it and it’s usually supported by the numbers,” he said.
Servais uses the massive amount of data provided by the baseball operations staff to help cull his decisions.
“We’ve got a great group of guys upstairs in the front office that put the data together and the analytics and then getting them into my hands and seeing how I can take those numbers and put it in play in my decision-making throughout the course of the game,” he said. “It takes a while to come up with a system, things you look at and things you’re going to rely on. I think I got a lot better with that as the season wore on so I got more consistent in my decision-making.”
Servais will also have a much more versatile roster this season to be creative. He will have legitimate speed at the top of his lineup and in the No. 9 spot in Jarrod Dyson, Jean Segura and Leonys Martin to manufacture runs instead of waiting for homers from the middle of his order.
All of this has him expecting more this season.
“I’m looking at it a little bit differently this year,” he sad. “I think a lot of it has to do with our environment around our team. The team understands myself and the coaching staff expectation-wise, how we’re going to work, how we’re going to prepare. I think it makes it easier for the players. There’s less anxiety there. The fact that we’ve got a lot of players playing in the WBC, they should be in game shape and ready to go right out of the gate.”