PEORIA, Ariz. — When Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders wanted to improve his hitting, he headed to the batting cages with a private hitting guru in Colorado.
Blake Beavan did the same this winter when he hooked up with a college pitching coach in his native state of Texas.
Justin Smoak didn’t need to look very far to find his private hitting tutor, taking lessons from his agent, a former college star.
With bigger money than ever at stake, players no longer limit themselves to coaches affiliated with their clubs. More players now receive specific winter instruction and training regimens from private individuals, leaving teams scrambling in some cases to keep up.
“I think we’ve always tried to keep things centered where our (coaching) guys have their say-so,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Sometimes, it can be a fine line between tweaking and a complete overhaul, which I don’t think any of us wants to have happen without us knowing about it.”
In the case of Saunders, he gave former Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss a few telephone details about his work with Denver-area hitting instructor Mike Bard ahead of 2012 spring training. Chambliss said the work was a general continuation of themes he and Saunders had discussed, even though the approach taken — Saunders wrapping himself in rubber bands and wielding a 52-ounce bat in the cage — was unorthodox.
This year, Saunders kept new Seattle hitting coach Dave Hansen apprised of his continued work with Bard. The team had seen positive results with Saunders last year, so his arrival this spring with a “noodle” more common in wading pools than baseball fields didn’t faze the Mariners.
That wasn’t the case with prized infield prospect Nick Franklin, whose 6,500-calorie-per-day diet was news to the Mariners when they read about it in the newspaper last week. Franklin, 6 feet 1, arrived in camp 34 pounds heavier than the 162 pounds he finished last season with, an intentional gain done with the help of private trainer Jeff Higuera at a Florida complex.
The Mariners were initially pleased with Franklin’s increased bulk, until they realized he did it by loading up in pasta restaurants and fast-food joints without their knowledge. After several terse phone calls, Franklin was called in for a chat with team officials — including Zduriencik — about the pros and cons of his approach.
“The matter has been dealt with and I think we’re all clear on where things stand,” Zduriencik said, adding they spoke about health concerns and the fact Franklin hadn’t told team officials of his radical diet ahead of time.
Dealing with such issues isn’t always easy. As Zduriencik points out, there are hundreds of players in the Mariners system and it’s impossible to keep tabs on every one at all times.
In other cases, he added, players have special relationships with coaches or trainers that go back years. Franklin’s trainer Higuera has known him since he was 17 and designed the eating regimen specifically with his client’s age and physique in mind and monitored his body to make sure he was putting on muscle and not just fat.
Smoak has known agent Hunter Bledsoe and his brother Dustin — who run the Bledsoe Brothers agency — since he was a high-school teenager. Hunter Bledsoe was once was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at Vanderbilt and spent years studying the mental and physical aspects of hitting to help clients.
Bledsoe said his work with Smoak was a continuation of things the Mariners began with him late last season.
“I think we have to realize that we’re all on the same team here,” Bledsoe said. “At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for the player and we can’t let things like ego get in the way of that.”
The growing impact of agents in the offseason routines of clients is impossible to ignore. The agents have a financial stake in year-to-year improvement of players.
The game’s biggest agent, Scott Boras, has operated a training facility in California the past decade and recently announced plans to open one in Florida. He offers his clients free access to top coaching and conditioning.
“I think what you’re seeing with a lot of these higher-end agencies is they understand this is a way to protect their investment in a player,” Bledsoe said. “They see that you can get those seven- or eight-year contracts.”
The teams themselves, he said, usually don’t give players more than a generic checklist of things they should work on. And that’s rarely enough to make them elite.
“You don’t become special by doing what everybody else is doing,” Bledsoe said. “That’s how you get run out of the game.”
Bledsoe said his agency has a team of people who can work with players at baseball-skills training as well as conditioning. The two sets of coaches stay in constant contact so that they all work toward the same baseball goals.
The agency, in the end, sticks to what the team has asked the player to do.
“The object isn’t to step on anybody’s toes,” Bledsoe said.
In Beavan’s case, his agent suggested he call University of Texas assistant coach Skip Johnson and arrange for tutoring sessions. Beavan spent three days per week for one month working directly with Johnson on revamping his delivery.
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said he’d spoken with Beavan since the middle of last season about generating more of a downward angle on his pitches. So, when Beavan phoned this winter and told him he and Johnson were working on just that, Willis was pleased.
“It is a significant change and it’s great he put the work into it,” Willis said.
Zduriencik said a good coach is flexible and can incorporate his own teachings into what players do on their own.
“In the end,” he said, “you can’t shove something down a player’s throat.”
Players have always leaned on trusted coaches, friends or advisers for advice, the Seattle GM said. What has changed is the onslaught of modern regimens and techniques that can veer toward the highly unorthodox.
The best way to handle that, Zduriencik said, is better communication with players so that coaches know when training goes too far outside the team’s general guidelines.
“In the end, it’s always got to fall under the guise of the team,” he said. “We’re the ones with the biggest investment. In the end, the player has to perform for you.”