Editor’s note: The Mariners have built one of the best pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. This is the first in a series of stories exploring how they’ve done it: what they value when presenting prospects, how they teach their core values, and who might be the next arm to come through their pipeline.
SEATTLE — As Scott Servais boarded the team bus about to depart the Oakland Coliseum, he sat down and texted the one person he thought deserved special recognition for the sudden rise of the new pitching sensation. the sailors.
“Just amazing job,” the manager wrote as part of his message to Max Weiner.
The message came late on May 2, shortly after 24-year-old Bryce Miller wrapped up his major league debut in near-flawless fashion with a win over the A’s.
Weiner, the Mariners’ 28-year-old pitching coordinator, was in Oakland that night, watching Miller’s start sitting in the bleachers behind home plate. Dizzying is the word he used to describe the feeling that surrounded Miller’s debut.
“Like an excited little kid,” Weiner said. “But I also felt very at peace watching Bryce, because I knew he was going to be Bryce. He was excited for the world to see who he is.”
A fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, Miller swept the minors in just 22 months, exceeding all reasonable expectations in his first weeks in the majors and becoming the most recent young arm to establish himself in the Mariners’ rotation. .
Want to know how the Mariners have produced so many top-level pitchers of late? How did Miller go from a pitcher with a Double-A 6.41 ERA in April to a bona fide major league starter in May?
Weiner’s presence offers a glimpse.
Weiner’s hiring in December 2018 marked a cultural shift in the club’s pitching priorities. Less than five years later, the Mariners have, by many measures, the best pitching staff in Major League Baseball, with three young starters — Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and, now, Miller — who the organization can hold up as treasured examples. of your draft and development system.
The series of elite young gun promos is unprecedented in franchise history.
“They have spoiled us,” Servais said. “We have been spoiled with Logan. We’ve been pampered with George…and I hope we’ll continue to be pampered.”
making a connection
The three right-handed youngsters each have their own style.
Gilbert, a 2018 first-round pick, comes close to presenting the way an archaeologist might go on a treasure hunt, mining every available resource for even the smallest nugget of information that might offer a clue in his never-ending quest. to improve. He’s curious and intentional with every pitch and every move he makes.
Kirby, a first-round pick in 2019, is as confident as any young pitcher you’ll find. He’s got great stuff, you know he’s got great stuff, and you don’t need to dig into the Statcast data to confirm it.
Miller has a mix of both. Like Kirby, he is super aggressive with a dominant fastball. And like Gilbert, he has invested in data and analysis of pitch shapes and movements. He is eager to learn, with his own relaxed and self-assured style.
Or as Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth cleverly framed Miller’s makeup: “He’s got that perfect balance of aggressive (expletive) and ‘I don’t give a (expletive)’. Like, ‘I really don’t give a (shit) what happens, I’m just going to beat (the shit) out of you.’ He has that, and that’s hard to teach.”
And that’s where Weiner comes in.
Weiner serves as a bridge in the Mariners’ player development program. He works with all aspects of the organization, from Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander in the front office, to the scouts who identify pitching potential, to the research department who identifies interesting qualities in pitches, to the pitching coaches at various affiliates, Woodworth and Trent. Blank on major league personnel, he pulls together all the information and tries to distill it into something digestible for every pitcher.
Weiner’s gift is his ability to connect the dots, bond with pitchers on a personal level, build a plan, build trust and build trust in that individual.
“He really understands his pitchers from a personality standpoint and from a competitive standpoint,” said Mark Lummus, a Mariners scout since 1999. “He’s very good at building relationships with these pitchers, and they can be the better version of themselves. for the time and investment he puts in. ”
A seldom-used pitcher at Florida International University, Weiner spent much of his time in college learning all he could about the art and science of pitching. He absorbed coaching books, became obsessed with pitchers’ biomechanics and asked endless questions of coaches and teammates.
That inspired him to start Arm Farm, his program to develop young pitchers. That caught the eye of the Cleveland Rangers, who hired him to be their minor league pitching coordinator in 2017. A year later, he was seduced by the Mariners.
“When Max came along,” Woodworth said, “it was a big change.”
Fearless is a word Weiner often uses to describe the mindset he wants Mariners pitchers to embody.
“We see a Mariners pitcher as someone who sees himself as a competitor rather than a pitcher, which means this person has more self-confidence than confidence in their abilities,” Weiner said. “They don’t care what comes out of their hands that day, they believe in themselves enough to be able to get the job done with what they have. And that value system only comes from really intentional practice and the monotony of really hard practice.”
More than anything else they ask of their pitchers, the Mariners want them to work up front. A pitcher’s ability to earn an 0-0 count and a 1-1 count are the biggest factors in whether they can get a hitter out.
“It’s not an exact science. I don’t think we have a magic sauce that anybody else has,” said Hollander, the Mariners’ general manager. “They’ve been talking about throwing the first strike since baseball was invented. The pitching of strikes win the day every day.”
What the Mariners do well, Hollander said, is communicate the importance of that core belief and continually try to give pitchers the tools to back it up.
“When you work ahead (on the count), the world is your oyster,” Hollander said. “’The count is the king.’ We talk about it all the time. We have all the t-shirts and all the slogans in the world. But it all comes down to dominating the strike zone… and the quality of the material allows us to do that without fear.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg. The mindset works to let pitchers know, ‘If I get him at white plate, the chances of something bad being done to me aren’t great. I’m just going to challenge them to beat me.’”
And it’s working. Heading into Friday’s games, the Mariners’ pitching staff led the majors with a 65.3% first-strike rate, on pace to break the MLB record of 64.2% set by the 2018 Dodgers. .
Miller could always feel that his fastball was different. Primarily an outfielder at New Braunfels (Texas) High School, he had some success on the mound because of that overwhelming fastball.
Lummus and the other Texas-based Mariners scouts recognized his potential, but he was raw. Miller pitched full-time for one season at nearby Blinn College, then transferred to Texas A&M. He relieved his first two seasons with the Aggies, but his fastball command was inconsistent at best.
“One of the things that gets overlooked with Bryce is that he’s really athletic, and we felt like that would bode well for his strike-throwing and everything else to improve,” Lummus said. “What he needed. He wasn’t much of a strike thrower at A&M.”
It wasn’t until the Mariners drafted him in 2021 that Miller knew how different his fastball was and how good it could be.
“In college, we never really dove into the analytical side,” Miller said. “Here, we’re extremely analytical about Seattle, and the first thing they showed me was that my fastball was a certain percentage (about 20%) better than the average Major League pitch.”
Five career major league starts, and Miller’s four-seam fastball has an average spin rate of 2,609 rpm, putting him in the top 2% of all MLB pitchers. Upfield movement has proven especially effective in his first month in the majors.
Armed with that data, Miller said he felt empowered. He was free to throw fastballs in the strike zone more aggressively; he didn’t need to nibble at corners or try to be perfect. That allowed him to hone his command, which was the main thing the Mariners told him he needed to improve to make it to the majors.
“I think that’s what makes Bryce Miller such a great story – it took everyone in our department to get him over the line,” Lummus said. “To make him this good punch thrower; he has been just phenomenal.”
Weiner added: “The synergy that we have is special.”
And it has helped unleash another special talent.
“When they drafted me, I didn’t think I’d be here so quickly,” said Miller, who is 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA in his first six starts for the Mariners, with 31 strikeouts and just three walks in 36 innings. .
He is scheduled to make his first major league start at home in Texas on Sunday against the AL West-leading Rangers, looking to bounce back from his first rough start on Monday night against the Yankees.
“It’s been fun so far,” he said. “Let’s keep it rolling.”