The Seattle Mariners had a weird 2018 season, winning 89 games but producing a negative run differential and finishing third in the AL West, eight games back of the last Wild Card. The glass-half-full view on their season highlights the wins and the respectable jump they made up the league standings from 2017; the glass-half-empty view is that the Mariners were a middling team that over-performed both its run differential and its expected run differential, found itself in a playoff hunt where it otherwise had no real business, and got more or less what it deserved.
The team’s brass evidently took the glass-half-empty view, and made the decision to spend the winter breaking up the 2018 squad. Roughly six MLB teams directed resources toward improving their team from last season to this one, but the Mariners were very much not among that small group. Last season they had the 10th-highest total payroll in the majors, including injured reserve and non-roster money; and the sixth most expensive 25-man payroll. Between then and now they’ve slashed $20 million from their overall total, and $33 million—from $137 million to $104 million—from their roster, falling all the way to 18th in the majors. As the opportunity emerges, they’re expected to jettison the remaining well-paid veterans that remain on the roster. It would be fair, if a little blunt, to say they’ve gone in the tank; it would probably be generous to describe the slashing as “rebuilding”; it would be perfectly accurate to say they’ve decided being cheap is preferable to being good in the near-term. Here’s how that last description sounds if you translate it into swirly-eyed front office technobabble (emphasis added):
The Mariners have integrated most of the holistic concepts into the major league clubhouse as well, but with the franchise in a rebuilding phase—or, as one executive, using the Mariners’ preferred language, put it, “pushing pause on the major league winning continuum”—the emphasis is on building a foundation with the younger players who will populate the big league roster when the team is ready to contend again.
That gruesome line comes from this Washington Post story about the “holistic” and “new-age” approach the Mariners have taken to spring training specifically and player development more generally. Supplementing the time that the team spends on hard baseball skills—pitching, fielding, hitting, all the various measurable attributes that the organization decided not to pay for over the winter—are initiatives aimed at “finding advantage in creativity and human capital,” which Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto describes as “the next big thing.”
And how is this human capital, uh, mined? The Mariners are trying lots of different things, including “kale hash browns,” meditation, cooking classes, “a classroom lesson on social issues,” yoga, and a pitching machine hurling fastballs at catchers from atop a 30-foot tower:
“Okay,” [catching coordinator Tony Arnerich] explained. “We’ve just signed a 30-foot-tall pitcher, and now we’re going to see if you can catch him.”
As the catchers squatted and practiced catching fastballs from an angle — originating 30 feet above — that they had never had reason to contemplate and chased down the ones that got away, Arnerich explained that was precisely the point.
“We want them,” he said, “to be comfortable with chaos.”
The specific dimensions of this thing are fine. It’s all a little goofy and occasionally downright kooky, but a healthy diet and yoga and meditation are all fine, and some of this stuff—taking players to work in soup kitchens, or discussing domestic violence, or an exchange program swapping prospects between America and the Dominican Republic in hopes of deepening their understanding of those cultures—is actively good on its own and outside of any context. Where the project tips queasily in the direction of yucky Silicon Valley-scented neoliberal cynicism, though, is where it reduces personal development to an exploitable market inefficiency:
“I look at it as a duty to impact these guys and make them feel loved and cared about. And if you empower them to be the best version of themselves, and empower your staff to take ownership and give them a voice and platform, to bring great work to the surface, good things are going to happen.”
And where it tips all the way over into diseased capitalist aggression—and where the Post’s Dave Sheinin lets the Mariners totally off the hook—is when exploring the benefits of teaching minor leaguers a sturdy downward dog pose replaces paying good and useful veteran baseball players to go out and play good baseball. The Mariners slashed more than 20 percent of the payroll from an 89-win team, passed on making offers to two of the best players of this era on the free agent marketplace and then completely sat out the rest of free agency to boot, and now they wish it to be made known that this newfangled yoga stuff and all this talk about enlightenment—that word is spoken aloud multiple times by Seattle higher-ups in Sheinin’s story—is part of a sincere effort at positioning the team to win a championship:
As high-minded as some of the concepts may be, grounded as they are in the philosophy of wellness, the Mariners are in the business of winning, and they make no attempt to hide their ultimate motive. Yes, they want to create better, more complete, more empathetic humans.
“But we also think this will help the Mariners win baseball games,” McKay said, “and ultimately a championship.”
This is a useful reminder that “Moneyball”—the analytics revolution that introduced the extremely basic idea of market inefficiencies to baseball—was not an observation that getting on base is very important. Everyone already knew that. The novel part was about the observation that certain traits important to winning are undervalued, and that a cheap team can become good by emphasizing those traits and without paying players what is normally considered fair value for contributing to wins. The Mariners certainly seem to want to appear as if they’re hot on the trail of their own revolution, and are evidently fine sitting out at least this season while this new direction takes hold throughout their baseball program. Then, theoretically, it’s just a matter of waiting for all that enlightenment to percolate up through the system.
It’s hard to buy that anyone in that organization particularly believes that teaching the players to make quinoa enchiladas would be as helpful to the team in terms of wins and losses as, say, buying up Bryce Harper and Manny Machado for the next decade might have been. But faced with the choice, the Mariners would prefer to see if they can become competitive by asking a coach to lug a pitching machine up a 30-foot tower than by doing boring, old-fangled things like identifying and recruiting and paying the best baseball players. They had all winter to do the latter, and they spent it doing the former.