Mariners staff and players will set up a team-building competition using these targets, one of the “toys” manager Scott Servais has deployed at this season’s spring training, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
PEORIA, Ariz. — Just about the time when spring training begins to drag and gets a little monotonous, manager Scott Servais will break out a little friendly and fun competition for his players to enjoy.
He already has his now annual situational hitting contest set for Friday, which pits Robinson Cano’s team vs. Nelson Cruz’s team. It was something that he instituted last season that the players really enjoyed.
This latest incarnation will involve pitchers, pitching coaches and the general manager.
The plans are in the works for a group of selected pitchers to take on the team of former pitchers on staff, featuring Mel Stottlemyre and GM Jerry Dipoto in a contest of pitching fundamentals practice and throwing to the practice nets that Servais acquired this offseason after seeing longsnappers use them at Ole Miss football practice.
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“It will probably be mid-March, maybe the 12th or 13th,” Servais said.
How did this come about?
“One of our coaches, I won’t mention any names, but our pitching coach, made a comment the other day when players were throwing PFPs into the nets that ‘It’s so easy. I can’t believe we’re not better than that. I could do that in my sleep,’” Servais recalled.
It elicited this conversation.
Servais: “‘Don’t forget how hard the game is.”
Stottlemyre: “I could do that right now.”
Servais: “Oh Really?”
And from there a challenge was born. Dipoto was looped into it because, well, he wanted to be.
“They asked me and I said, ‘Of course, I’d love to compete,’” he said.
Dipoto even started playing catch with the coaches that same day in preparation. It’s a reason for the delay. According to Servais, the coaches on the team needs time to throw and get their arms ready. It caused the manager to roll his eyes slightly.
The nets have been an interesting addition to what can be mindless and boring fielding fundamental drills for players. Being forced to throw to inanimate object that can’t react to something being slightly offline has been an adjustment for pitchers. Results are also being kept for every pitcher and every pitching group.
“I mean it’s basically similar to where you have to hit the person in the chest area every time,” said James Paxton. “There’s no room for bad throws or medium throws. It makes you have to have really good throws. It looks like it would be easy because it’s a pretty big net, but there’s actually not a lot of room for error when you are throwing it over there.”
Per several relievers, switch-pitcher Pat Venditte has excelled at the drills with the nets, using both arms.
“I think the score sheet might have a different response to that,” he said. “That giant target when you are walking over there, it looks like the easiest thing you are ever going to do, but once you get going you find it isn’t.”
“I think your depth gets thrown off a little,” he said. “When you have a guy over there, he has moving parts, and in a stadium setting, it’s closed with a background. But out there, it’s nothing but open space behind it. It’s a good drill because you have to focus on it.”
The targets seem to shrink a little with each missed throw.
“They said the targets were going to be huge, but they weren’t as big as we thought,” said reliever Dan Altavilla. “Not seeing a guy over there and just seeing a net, it plays with your mind a little bit. It’s like a mental block when you see that target and then you miss.”
For Hisashi Iwakuma, this drill is a reminder of drills back to his playing days in Japan. The running joke being that if there is something that can be practiced in baseball, the Japanese have done it and for hours at a time. Iwakuma has always been one of the most fundamentally sound pitchers on the team in every aspects. He’s been outstanding at the drills.
“Kuma dotted the target in the net like five times in a row,” Paxton said.
So he has an advantage from past experience?
“I don’t know if that applies,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “It may look easy to your eyes, but it’s actually not when you are going through it. It’s easier obviously to throw at a guy. You don’t see a target nor netting, they can catch it. I think it’s a good drill for us. But it’s not easy.”
When told that many of his fellow pitchers believe he’s the best, Iwakuma shook his head in disagreement.
“I think they’re lying,” he said.
But it’s unlikely that Iwakuma or Yovani Gallardo, who is also really good at the drills, will participate in the contest. Servais said that Stottlemyre stipulated he can pick the pitchers that will participate against his team.
Beyond the contest and fun, Servais believes the nets have helped improve pitchers’ throws and focus. He’s noticed it when they’ve done their team fundamentals and bunt coverages.
“They may not agree with me,” Servais said. “But when you watch us throw, it’s there. With those nets, we are just trying to the narrow focus.”