SEATTLE – 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 so: What they value in pitching prospects, how they teach their core values and who might be the next arm coming through their pipeline.
As he boarded the team bus about to depart the Oakland Coliseum, Scott Servais sat down and typed up a text message to the one person he believed deserved a special nod for the sudden rise of the Mariners’ newest pitching sensation.
“Just an unbelievable job,” the manager wrote as part of his message to Max Weiner.
The message arrived late on May 2, shortly after 24-year-old Bryce Miller wrapped up his major league debut in near-flawless fashion in a victory over the Athletics.
Weiner, the Mariners’ 28-year-old pitching coordinator, was in Oakland that evening, taking in Miller’s start sitting in the stands behind home plate. Giddy is the word he used to describe the feeling surrounding Miller’s debut.
“Like, little-kid excited,” Weiner said. “But I also felt very at peace watching Bryce, because I knew he was going to be Bryce. I was excited for the world to get to see who he is.”
Miller, a fourth-round draft pick in 2021, tore through the minors in just 22 months, blowing away all reasonable expectations in his first few weeks in the big leagues and becoming the latest young arm to establish himself in the Mariners’ rotation.
Want to know how the Mariners have churned out so much high-end pitching lately? How Miller went from a pitcher with a Double-A ERA of 6.41 in April to a bona fide major league starter in May?
Weiner’s presence offers a glimpse.
Hiring Weiner in December 2018 signaled a cultural change in the club’s pitching priorities. Less than five years later, the Mariners have, by a number of measurements, the best pitching staff in the major leagues, with three young starters – Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and, now, Miller – who the organization can hold up as prized examples of their draft-and-develop system.
The string of promotions of elite young arms is unprecedented in franchise history.
“We’ve been spoiled,” Servais said. “We’ve been spoiled with Logan. We’ve been spoiled with George … and I hope we continue to get spoiled.”
Making a connection
The three young right-handers each have their own style.
Gilbert, a first-round pick in 2018, approaches pitching the way an archaeologist might take on a treasure hunt, mining every available resource for even the smallest nugget of information that could offer a clue in his never-ending quest to improve. He’s curious and intentional with every pitch and every movement he makes.
Kirby, a first-round pick in 2019, is as confident as any young pitcher you’ll find. He has great stuff, he knows he has great stuff, and he doesn’t need a deep dive into Statcast data to confirm that.
Miller has a mixture of both. Much like Kirby, he’s aggressive with a dominant fastball. And like Gilbert, he’s invested in the data and analytics of pitch shapes and movements. He’s eager to learn, with his own laid-back, self-assured manner
Weiner serves as a bridge in the Mariners’ player-development program. He works with every aspect of the organization – from Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander in the front office, to the scouts who identify pitchers with potential, to the analytics department that identifies interesting pitch qualities, to pitching coaches at various affiliates, to Pete Woodworth and Trent Blank on the major league staff – and pulls all the information together and tries to distill it down into something digestible for each pitcher.
Weiner’s gift is his ability to connect the dots, to bond with pitchers on a personal level, build a plan, build trust and build belief 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 so good at creating relationships with these pitchers, and they’re able to be the best version of themselves because of the time and investment he puts in.”
A little-used pitcher at Florida International University, Weiner spent much of his time in college learning everything he could about the art and science of pitching. He absorbed books on coaching, obsessed over pitchers’ biomechanics and asked endless questions of coaches and teammates.
That inspired him to start the Arm Farm, his program to develop young pitchers. That caught the attention of the Cleveland Guardians, who hired him to be their minor league pitching coordinator in 2017. A year later, the Mariners lured him away.
“When Max came in,” Woodworth said, “it was a big shift.”
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 views themselves as a competitor before a pitcher, meaning this person is self-confident more than they are skill confident,” Weiner said. “They don’t care what’s coming out of their hand that day, they believe in themselves enough that they can still get the job done with whatever they have. And that value system only comes from really intentional practice and the monotony of really difficult practice.”
More than anything else they ask of their pitchers, the Mariners want them to work ahead. A pitcher’s ability to win 0-0 and 1-1 counts are the biggest factors in getting whether they can get a hitter out.
“It’s not rocket science. I don’t think we have magical sauce that nobody else has,” said Hollander, the Mariners general manager. “They’ve been talking about throwing strike one since baseball was invented. Strike-throwing wins 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 (in the count), the world is your oyster,” Hollander said. “‘The count is king.’ We talk about that all the time. We have every T-shirt and every slogan in the world. But it all goes back to dominating the strike zone … and the quality of stuff allows us to do that without fear.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg. The mindset works to allow pitchers to know: ‘If I get it over the white dish, the odds of them doing something bad for me aren’t great. I’m just going to challenge them to beat me.’ ”
And it’s working. The Mariners’ pitching staff leads the majors with a first-strike rate of 65.3%, on pace to break the MLB record of 64.2% set by the 2018 Dodgers.
Miller could always sense his fastball was different. Primarily an outfielder at New Braunfels (Texas) High School, he had some success on the mound because of that overpowering fastball.
Lummus and the Mariners’ other Texas-based scouts recognized his potential, but it was raw. Miller turned to pitching full time for one season at nearby Blinn College, then transferred to Texas A&M. He was a reliever his first two seasons with the Aggies, but his fastball command was, at best, inconsistent.
“One of the things that gets overlooked with Bryce is he’s really athletic, and we felt like that would bode well for his strike-throwing and everything else to uptick,” Lummus said. “Which it needed to. He wasn’t a great strike-thrower at A&M.”
It wasn’t until the Mariners drafted him in 2021 that Miller learned just how different his fastball was – and how good it could be.
“In college, we never dove into the analytics side,” Miller said. “Here, we are extremely analytic with Seattle, and the first thing they showed me was my fastball was a certain percentage (roughly 20%) better than the average major league pitch.”
Five starts into his major league career, 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. The vertical movement on the pitch has proved 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 on the corners or try to be perfect. That allowed him to hone in on his command, which was the No. 1 thing the Mariners told him was the No. 1 thing he needed to improve to reach the majors.
“I think that’s what makes Bryce Miller such a cool story – it took everyone in our department to get him to the finish line,” Lummus said. “To make him into this good strike-thrower; it’s been just phenomenal.”
“The synergy we have, it’s special,” Weiner said.
And it’s helped unleash another special talent.
“When I got drafted, I didn’t think I’d be here this quick,” 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’s scheduled to make his first big league start back home in Texas on Sunday against the AL West-leading Rangers, looking to rebound from his first rough outing Monday night against the Yankees.
“It’s been fun so far,” he said. “Let’s just keep it rolling.”