Editor’s note: This is one in a weekly or semiweekly series called “Player Plan,” analyzing key Mariners players or prospects, looking back on their 2020 seasons and ahead to the offseason and 2021.

As part of the many changes that have been implemented since general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have taken over the Mariners, the use of “player plans” has become a common reference. They are written out individual plans to continually develop every player in the system. They are structured and monitored with a series of meetings throughout the course of the year, the two most notable being in spring training to prepare for the season and an exit meeting following the season to set up the offseason.

And while they don’t share specific plans, Servais and players often give an idea of the gist and focus moving forward.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto watches starting pitcher Marco Gonzales in the first inning against Texas, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. 214975
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This series starts with a player who probably didn’t need the structured plan provided by the Mariners: Marco Gonzales. Of all the players in the organization, there isn’t a player more driven to refine his craft and evolve as a player. There may be equals to Gonzales’ commitment, but it would be impossible to find anyone more dedicated to constant improvement. He’d already developed and implemented his own player plan before it was introduced to him.  

And even though he’s been the Mariners’ most consistent performer over the past two seasons, he’ll be the first to admit there is more work to do for 2021 and beyond, particularly if he wants to lead this young Mariners team into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

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“You should never be satisfied,” he said.

That’s why Dipoto signed him to a four-year, $30 million contract extension and Servais named him the opening-day starter before the 2019 season at age 27. Both believed he is the type of player and leader key to the current rebuild’s success.

Looking back at 2020

Gonzales was unanimously named the Mariners’ most valuable pitcher by the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA for obvious reasons. In the 60-game season and with the Mariners using a six-man rotation, he posted a 7-2 record with a 3.10 ERA in 11 starts. He pitched a total of 69 2/3 innings, striking out 64 batters and issuing just seven walks. He led American League starters in walks per nine innings (0.90) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.14). He tied for the second-most wins (seven) and finished third in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched, at 0.95).

He was one of four pitchers to rank in the top 10 in the AL in wins, innings pitched (seventh) and ERA (eighth), joining Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn.

“Marco’s been a solid above-average performer since playing his first full season here in 2018,” Dipoto said. “He got better in 2019, and this year, he took it to a whole new level and became something more than just a solid above-average performer. I think he took it personally that people (national writers) were looking at him not as an ace and as the Mariners’ No. 1, and how many references were made, especially at the trade deadline, about how we could move Marco Gonzales but he’s just the back of the rotation guy for a championship team, which, I’ll be honest, I think that’s laughable. If that’s what pitches at the back of championship rotations, I’m surprised. I’ve seen every World Series for the last 50 years.”

It may not seem possible, but Gonzales did just as much off the field for Seattle’s young starting staff that featured rookies Justus Sheffield (age 24) and Justin Dunn (25) and second-year pitcher Nick Margevicius (24).

 “You know what you’re going to get from Marco every time out,” Servais said. “His ability to make adjustments based on who we’re playing, what the game plan looks like, is as good as anyone we’ve got.”

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That’s something the Mariners wanted the young pitchers to grasp, to the point where each of them took turns sitting in on Gonzales’ game-preparation meetings on days he started.

“He’s as legit as they come,” Sheffield said. “It’s no surprise. Honestly, the work that he puts in on the field, off the field and scouting guys, his intellect of pitching and being able to get guys out and pitch to guys, it’s incredible. It’s something that in the future I want to strive to be able to do because it’s special. The way he game-plans and the way he knows the game and knows how to pitch those guys — you can tell that he does his work and he’s continuing to get better, game by game and year by year. Marco has been a great leader for the staff and for this team.”

Since being handed the role of leader, Gonzales has tried to embrace it, first leading by example and then becoming more vocal this season.

“I am proud of the fact that I came into every start the same way, stuck to my consistent approach, and just put my head down and went to work,” he said. “And I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the guys around me who just stepped up and followed that lead. They found themselves and really grew into big-league pitchers and big-league players. We’ve given them the confidence to go and be who they are, and go out and compete. And I’m really proud of that.”

Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales on the mound against Oakland on Sept. 14 at T-Mobile Park. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales on the mound against Oakland on Sept. 14 at T-Mobile Park. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Offseason focus

How does a guy who walks seven batters in 69 2/3 innings improve on such a preposterous stat? Carry over that rate for 190-plus innings and 30 starts. But it’s not about minimizing walks. It’s about getting outs with efficiency.

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“First and foremost, you’ve got to go after strike one, but it’s got to be a quality strike,” he said. “The thing that I’ve really leaned on is my ability to be unpredictable and change and adapt my game plan to every hitter that I face. And so after the first pitch, I really have five different weapons that I can come at you with, and that makes me dangerous. They know I’m going to be in the zone, they know I’m going to be attacking with every single pitch I have, so you have to swing the bat. And guys don’t want to get into a two-strike count, because we do have a lot of options to go to on both sides of the plate and up and down. I’ve really worked on trying to be efficient and go deep into a game. Really, I’m trying to get an out in less than two pitches after strike one.”

That unpredictability is noticeable in his usages. After using his changeup 23.9% of the time in 2019, he used it just 14.3% of the time in 2020. While his fastball usage was up from 39.3% to 45.3%, his cutter usage went up from 20.7% to 24.3%. The changeup was his best pitch in 2018 and 2019, but that didn’t mean it had to be in 2020.

Gonzales’ continued conditioning plan that made him one of the Mariners’ most-durable starters since 2018 will also continue this season. He’ll add and fine-tune it to help offset the start and stop and restart of 2020.

A look ahead to 2021

As of now, the Mariners plan to use a six-starter rotation in 2021, which Gonzales doesn’t necessarily love because he wants to pitch every five days so he can reach the hallowed 200-inning, 30-start marks that all starting pitchers covet and he achieved in 2019.

Can he raise his performance to another level? He isn’t someone that you think of as a perennial American League Cy Young candidate, but he’s really not that far off. Perhaps he’s overlooked because he doesn’t dominate with stuff, velocity or strikeouts.

But his role as mentor for this young staff will continue as more young arms make their way to the big leagues. That aspect will have to grow just as much. For the Mariners, they need Gonzales to perform, but they also need him to help Sheffield, Dunn, Kikuchi, Margevicius and eventually Logan Gilbert progress and grow at a rate that Gonzales has over the last few seasons.