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Firing Scott Servais would be bad process and a worse idea

Seattle Mariners v. Baltimore Orioles
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Sacrificial lambs are sooooo seventh century

After the Mariners’ spirit-crushing loss to the Angels over the weekend (Deadgar Weekend Redux, anyone?), certain rumbles that have gotten louder and louder grew to a fever pitch, with Mariners fans flocking to Twitter to demand the firing of Scott Servais—so much so that “Servais” was trending on Twitter an hour or so after gametime, probably for the first time ever. While I’ve long learned to disregard the bloodthirsty rumblings of the dissatisfied horde after a Mariners loss, it seemed to pick up on a common thread we’ve heard from the beat writers this weekend, both regarding actual moves that have to be made (the demoting/DFA’ing of someone from the bullpen, for example, to fit MLB’s new 13-pitcher limit) and vague suggestions of big changes coming, with many pointing the finger either overtly or implicitly at a managerial change. After all, that’s what struggling teams do, right? Just this season, the Angels did it with Joe Maddon, and the Phillies with Joe Girardi.

But do we really want the Mariners to take a page out of the book of the Angels or Phillies, two teams legendary for their ham-fisted incompetence and failure to produce despite being gifted seemingly limitless resources in both payroll and generational talents?

First of all, let’s back up and look at the psychological term known as “displacement.” The most famous example of displacement goes like this: Something big goes wrong. The boss yells at an underling, who in turn yells at the person they supervise. That person goes home and yells at their spouse, who in turn yells at the older sibling, who then yells at their younger sibling, who completes the cycle by being mean to the dog. A more concise, yet crasser, summation of this phenomenon is “$%!# runs downhill.” The poor dog didn’t do anything wrong except exist at the bottom of this chain of power, yet suffered the consequences for the boss’s bad day. Probably none of you need this explained to you, because you have experienced it in the past or are experiencing it now, but the handy word for it is “displacement.”

Managerial firings are just another example of displacement. Historically, only about a quarter of mid-season managerial changes have resulted in a team turning things around to perform well (above .500), and an even smaller percentage—about 6%—have turned things around enough to reach the playoffs. Mid-season manager firings had actually been relatively rare over the past half-decade until this year, due to an overall shift to data analysis becoming a more prevalent part of front offices, which meant managers might set the lineup and call for pitching changes but under heavy guidance from the GM and analytics staff. And yet calls for firing the manager are still among the first you hear when the team is underperforming, followed closely by calls for firing the GM. Curiously, no one ever seems to call for the head of the analytics department or player development.

What are people unhappy with about Servais? He’s not “motivating” the team enough? That didn’t seem to be a problem last year when the team was winning decisive one-run games and Servais was talked about as a Manager of the Year candidate. People don’t like his bullpen decisions? He’s choosing between the husk of Sergio Romo, a LOOGY who can’t be a LOOGY anymore because his job got eliminated, and some guys who got drafted in rounds that don’t exist anymore. Too much playing time for Toro? If you think Scott Servais alone has control over what the lineup looks like, please tell us what it’s like in 1988; are you able to afford a house there? Also, who replaces Toro in the lineup? Sam Haggerty? Luis Torrens, playing out of position? Like the bullpen, there are just no good options. And that is not Scott Servais’s fault.

Scott Servais didn’t lowball free agents this off-season or make Seattle an undesirable location to sign in or set the free agent budget. He didn’t crash into Kyle Lewis as a minor-league catcher and set him up for a career struggling with injury, twist Mitch Haniger’s ankle as he was running down the baseline, rip off Ken Giles’s thumb, or break Casey Sadler’s arm. He didn’t identify and acquire Abraham Toro, Jesse Winker, Adam Frazier, or Andrés Muñoz as trade targets. There are fingers to point about all of these things, and virtually none of them lead back to Scott Servais. Instead, what Servais has done is the best with what he’s been given, just like he did last year, when he was a Manager of the Year dark horse favorite.

What Scott Servais has done, over the years, is attempt to form a connection with his players. He’s traveled to the DR to visit players in their homes there, leveraging the experience he has as a director of player development to make meaningful connections with his players. He’s been quick in the dugout to offer a hug to a player who’s gone above and beyond, or a firm handshake if that’s more their style. He’s done goofy stuff, too, like get his hair cut like Edwin Díaz’s, or offer to dye his hair if Eugenio Suárez broke the 50-home run mark (maybe he didn’t offer this specifically, but you know he would have done it). He’s also used his platform to encourage players to get vaccinated, and speak on social issues that impact not just his players, but all people, like racial justice and gun control.

And while there are some rumblers who think Servais’s decision to pitch to Trout deserves the boot immediately, it’s important to note that when Mike Salk of 710 asked in a Twitter poll what the Big Issue is with the 2022 Mariners, the answer that came up most frequently in the nearly 500 (!) responses was “roster construction” and specifically, lack of depth (Winker and Frazier’s underperformance was also frequently mentioned). Again, though, Servais didn’t construct this roster. Roster construction issues raise the scrutiny to the next level up: Jerry Dipoto and beyond that, John Stanton. Only one of these three men have to stand up after every game and answer questions from the media, and spoiler alert, it’s not those two.

The Mariners have prided themselves on being a team that makes solid, data-based decisions that aren’t reactionary or knee-jerk. They have talked about the importance of establishing a process and sticking with it even when the product doesn’t look good. If they fall for the fallacy of displacement and fire Servais, that’s not good process. What really needs to happen is a hard look at all the other systems that got us to this place and some radical truth-telling among the higher-ups. What doesn’t need to happen is kicking the dog.

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