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Servais' strategic use of pitchers has a purpose

@DKramer_
March 8, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Like every manager across the Majors, Scott Servais and his staff are continuing to strategically prepare for the three-batter minimum rule that will be installed for the 2020 regular season. Opposed to Spring Trainings past, the Mariners are occasionally lining up their relievers based on the number

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Like every manager across the Majors, Scott Servais and his staff are continuing to strategically prepare for the three-batter minimum rule that will be installed for the 2020 regular season.

Opposed to Spring Trainings past, the Mariners are occasionally lining up their relievers based on the number of outs they’re asking for, instead of a standard inning-by-inning change. They’ve also at times let relievers throw more extended outings, but in a conservative fashion to account for pitch count. The objective is to prepare relievers for the demands of seeking more than one out, and those tactics will ramp up further this week as roster decisions come into clearer scope.

“A lot of it will be driven just to get guys in more games more frequently and also extending relievers,” Servais said. “Instead of in Spring Training, ‘Ah, you're going to get your inning today,' [it’s] ‘You know what, be ready to go, because we want to get five outs from you today, so you're going to face four or five guys, six guys, whatever.’ That's changed more -- the preparation there and how they're actually used in-game.”

These are notable changes for a pitching staff that is putting more of a premium than ever on leverage. The Mariners say that they won’t have a closer, at least for now, meaning that they plan to bring in their most effective arms for their most paramount outs -- be it tied with two on and two out in the seventh, or a standard save situation in the ninth.

That could dictate a reliever facing anywhere from one to six batters, or maybe more, depending on personnel availability on that given day.

“It definitely is going to be fishier with the strategy behind it, but you kind of just go out there and compete, and when they pull you, they pull you,” righty Sam Tuivailala said. “The specialist part is out the window. Lefty, right, it doesn’t really matter. You have matchups that you like in certain situations. Other than that, you kind of just go out there whenever you’re called on.”

The three-batter minimum was established to address the game’s overall pace of play. It requires relievers to either face at least three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions for injuries, and it didn’t exactly come without foresight. It was installed in the Minor Leagues in 2019, which essentially signaled that it’d reached the Majors sooner than later.

A drastic proliferation of one- to two-out specialists in recent years helped contribute to the change, though the Mariners weren’t the most notable culprits. Seattle had 44 cases last year of using a pitcher for two batters or less -- including 10 in September when rosters expanded -- but that mark was the fourth lowest in the Majors (and well behind the MLB high 122 by the Cubs).

“I think it changed up the focus on being able to get the opposite handed batter out,” righty Matt Magill said. “I mean, if they would’ve normally pulled you for a lefty coming up, you have to learn how to be better at getting righties out if you’re a left-handed pitcher. That’s changed a little bit, but I mean, our focus should just be on getting outs anyway.”

Sim game surplus
Seattle still has 30 pitchers in camp after 14 Cactus League games and 18 to go, meaning that there aren’t enough live innings to go around for everyone -- particularly given that many roles remain up for grabs, even beyond the big league roster. In order to account for their personnel surplus, the club has scheduled more simulated games on the Peoria backfields to ensure everyone who needs to get stretched out will.

Up next
The Mariners will finally get their first game-action look at big right-hander Taijuan Walker, who returned last month to the club that drafted him in the first round in 2010. Other than one inning of work on the final day of last season, Walker hasn’t pitched in a game since April 14, 2018, after which he underwent Tommy John surgery as a member of the D-backs. Walker is vying for the Mariners’ fifth rotation spot, and he’ll need to build his workload to be ready for the first time through the rotation in two weeks.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.