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McKay steering Mariners through new frontier

Sports psychologist melding analytics, mental approach to help players reach new heights

SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto has a reputation as one of the new-wave "analytics" guys, but the Mariners' general manager doesn't consider sabermetrics being all that cutting edge anymore. For Dipoto, there is another wave coming in baseball -- better mental training for players -- and he intends to get in front of it.

Which is why his eyes light up when asked about Andy McKay, a sports psychologist from the Rockies who will be Seattle's new director of player development.

Dipoto raised some eyebrows when he signed up Scott Servais, who has never managed or coached in the Majors, to be his first skipper. But it is McKay's addition as farm director that speaks loudest to Dipoto's willingness to challenge conventional thinking as he goes about restructuring the Mariners' front office.

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"Of all the hires we've made, I'm so excited about seeing what Andy can bring to the table and how he connects an organization from top to bottom," Dipoto said. "That's the next great frontier, understanding how to conquer the mind. Finding out how players are wired, how they tick and then giving them the best opportunity to not get in their own way."

Dipoto, who replaced Jack Zduriencik as GM in late September, had never met McKay until the two sat down a few weeks ago for what turned into a five-hour interview.

The Mariners haven't been very successful in recent years at cultivating a group of young players that came with high expectations. Dipoto has retained most of the scouting department that drafted those prospects, but he is looking to McKay to oversee a new approach in player development.

McKay believes that 10 percent of baseball prospects have the physical skills to separate themselves from the pack, but the other 90 percent need to master the mental side of the game in order to give themselves the best chance to succeed. And Dipoto envisions a Mariners system that incorporates that line of thinking from top to bottom.

"This is where the game goes next," Dipoto said. "We've tackled so many different frontiers in baseball, especially over these last two decades. Right now, even today after 20 years of analytics being a critical part of what happens in the game, we talk about it like it's the new frontier that we can't possibly cross over.

"There are 30 organizations that are in tune with the analytics of the game, and there are 30 organizations that are smart in how they carve up the numbers. Some do it better than others, clearly. I think what Andy brings to us is the next great frontier. Andy understands how to dial a player in. He understands how to get them over their own fears, how to tackle the nuances of playing every day."

Dipoto notes McKay is "one of the more well-respected sports psychologists in the country" as well as a highly successful former coach at Sacramento City College and with Team USA. McKay also coached a summer league program for college players in LaCrosse, Wis., and that is where the seeds of this Mariners relationship first took root.

While Dipoto hadn't met McKay until the recent hiring process, Servais met him years ago when his son -- a catcher at Princeton who now is in the Tigers' system -- hooked on with McKay's squad to get some playing time over a summer while staying with his grandparents in Wisconsin.

"My son called me about four days into it and said, 'Dad, you're going to really like this guy,'" Servais said. "'He's wired just like you.'"

The two stayed in touch and Servais tried to hire McKay four years ago when he was overseeing the Angels' farm system, but McKay chose to hook on with the Rockies instead. Dipoto was aware of that effort, however, and has kept McKay in mind.

"The Rockies created a program that was more specifically designed for him," Dipoto said. "But, over the last four years, we've followed him closely. I know a lot of people in the Rockies' system, including [former GM] Dan O'Dowd, who was my first farm director as a player. Dan spoke the world of him. I'd never felt more comfortable sitting down with a person I was meeting for the first time. After five hours together, it was pretty clear he was the right guy for the job."

McKay talks passionately about his belief that baseball is just touching the surfaces of improving mental approaches. He worked individually with players at all levels in the Rockies' organization and says he wasn't looking to leave that position when he received a call from Dipoto. But he quickly realized he'd found a kindred spirit and a general manager eager to embrace the possibility of creating a better culture for players to flourish.

"In my opinion, there's nobody that is doing it well," McKay said. "There's an enormous gap between where we are as an industry and where we can get to. I've never been satisfied with status quo, never satisfied that where we are today is where we'll be tomorrow. Even when doing something really well, there's a better way. I've always connected to people who share that thought process and have that intellectual curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking."

What that means specifically to the Mariners' system?

"Mental training, physical training, everything is constantly evolving," McKay said. "Whether it's analytics or how we're lifting weights, processing information, how we motivate or connect with athletes, the landscape of baseball is always changing."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast.
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