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Dipoto's Delightfully Insane Front Office

Jerry Dipoto more or less locked in his whole front office this week (manager included!) A few weeks back I had a list of people who did not know their fates. Those fates are now known. Let's start there:

The remaining unknowns:
  • Tom Allison (pro scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Roger Hansen (assistant to the GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Jeff Kingston (assistant GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tim Kissner (international scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tom McNamara (amateur scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
I find this non-news rather remarkable news in itself. Dipoto did not come in and blow up the leadership. Only Hansen pre-dates Jack Zduriencik, so it isn't like any of these people are lifers within the Mariners franchise. They were Zduriencik hires and now they remain. This will not get enough attention because the lazy narrative has already been written: New GM comes in, fires manager, cleans house. Dipoto let Lloyd McClendon go over differences in approach, which seemed like a convenient euphemism for "I'm not dealing with another Mike Scioscia situation."

However, given how many people Dipoto kept on from the Zduriencik regime, it sure seems like Dipoto legitimately talked with McClendon and took time to discern whether he and McClendon could work together. Dipoto clearly gave everyone in the front office some time and thought, and ended up deciding their vision fits with his.

However, Jerry Dipoto made one splash, and it looks significant. He hired Andy McKay as the new farm director. McKay replaces Chris Gwynn, who resigned - though, now that we can see the whole picture a bit more clearly, he was likely either going to choose to leave or be told to leave.

Nobody knows how McKay will do as farm director, McKay included. He was the "peak performance coordinator" in Colorado when Dipoto reached out to him about the M's opening. He was a mental coach of sorts.

Dipoto and McKay did not know each other before McKay's interview with the Mariners, though Dipoto knew of McKay. Apparently Dipoto reached out about a position with the Angels a few years back, but one way or another an interview never happened.

McKay seems to have some strong opinions on how teams develop players, especially mentally. He went as far as saying no team does a good job developing the mental side of the game. McKay added that he has developed a program for mental training. Seems pretty obvious that the 2016 Mariners will be his first real guinea pigs.

I knew nothing about Andy McKay until roughly Wednesday of this week, but I am convinced this is a huge hire. The idea of Andy McKay is what's so powerful. None of us know how this move will work out, but I love the theory and there is only one way to find out if the theory actually works - put it into practice and see what happens.

Sports psychology has been a big topic rumbling around the back of my head for a few years, probably thanks to where my research as a high school teacher has led me. I say with some confidence that I think about student metacognition on math problems more than 99% of baseball bloggers, but every now and then those thoughts drift perilously close to baseball.

For instance, one of the most powerful ideas I've ever read about is Carol Dweck's research on mindsets.* Her research suggests that human beings approach contexts with either fixed or growth mindsets. The basic notion is that people with fixed mindsets believe they are permanently only so good or so bad at something. Meanwhile, people with growth mindsets believe that their abilities change over time depending on what they do and experience.

*I also say with some confidence that I am among, I don't know, 1-5% of baseball bloggers who could quote research from Carol Dweck in a baseball post? I know you've all been waiting for some educational research to show up on the Musings! #Shocktober

Theoretically, two people with identical pre-requisite skills and knowledge could approach a situation with different mindsets. What Dweck's research has shown is that these two theoretical people, over time, will end up in different places. The person with a growth mindset is more likely to grapple with challenges, persist, and ultimately get better. A person with a fixed mindset is more likely to feel threatened by a challenge and avoid it, which results in a skill plateauing or possibly even fading.

It's not that mindset is everything, but it is clearly something. Moreover, there are ways to frame communication and rephrase feedback which promotes growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Mindsets can be cultivated, or in sports terms, be coached. There are moves I make which research suggests push my students towards growth mindset in math. Sometimes I've paused and wondered if similar moves could be used in a minor league system. It seems like something that would generalize quickly and easily.

I don't know what McKay's program entails, but I thought about things like mindset. They matter, they have been shown through scientific research to make a difference, and sports have been more blind to them than just about anything else that could impact performance. This is why sports psychology has struck me as a field for potentially massive growth, and I've wondered who would be the first team to make an aggressive push into the field.

Answer: the Seattle Mariners. Shocktober!

Of course, there is a reasonable chance many (or all) teams are doing something with sports psychology. However, nobody with McKay's background has held such a significant leadership position, with the power and responsibility that such a position entails.

McKay is a bold hire, and if he works out like Dipoto hopes, the Mariners will enjoy a significant advantage over everyone else for a few years before other teams catch on. If he doesn't work out - oh well. The Mariners player development has been a disaster for several years now. It is the most logical explanation for why the team cannot develop MLB talent despite high draft picks that are consistently praised as good picks across baseball. The draft is a crapshoot, but it's not nearly as bad of a crapshoot as the M's player development track record suggests.

It is also interesting to see how surgical and open-minded Jerry Dipoto is. He kept Zduriencik's leadership in tact except for two key places, farm director and manager. Adam McKay brings a revolutionary approach to player development, and new manager Scott Servais comes from a background in player development. It's very obvious now that Jerry Dipoto believes the main (if not only) problem with the Mariners under Jack Zduriencik was player development.

Dipoto now has a manager who has never managed and a farm director who has never directed anything in a front office that he had never met until a week or two ago. These are the men charged with fixing the Mariners, especially given that nobody else changed. How could this possibly go wrong?

The plan has a self-evident disaster factor, but the Mariners player development was already a disaster. There is nothing to lose. This is an obvious situation worth taking a wild risk in with hopes of a massive reward. I kind of like this Dipoto guy.