PEORIA, Ariz. – Take four veteran infielders – say, Casey Kotchman, Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez and Jack Wilson – and ask them to take a thousand ground balls over the course of spring training, and a little boredom might sneak in.
Mike Brumley’s job? Make sure it doesn’t.
The Seattle Mariners made only one coaching change after the 2009 season, and it was to bring in Brumley, a one-time utility infielder who spent 12 years coaching and managing in the minor leagues after retiring.
“He might be the best at what he does in baseball,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said.
Brumley, who will be the Mariners’ third-base coach, has innovative drills that both condition and teach fielding. And what about battling through the tedium of a six-week camp?
“You’re out there taking 50 ground balls, the technique and rhythm can break down,” Brumley said. “But you say, ‘This ball is worth 100 grand. If you catch it and throw it to first, it’s worth $100,000. How would you make it?’
“It changes how they think. They’ll say, ‘I guarantee I won’t lay back and let the ball come to me and shoot it from my back hip. It’s not worth (losing) 100 grand.’ ”
And once they’ve considered how they’d play that money-ball, Brumley said, it occurs to most of them that it’s how they should field every ball hit their way.
Brumley has spent 26 years in professional baseball, either fielding or watching someone field – appearing in 295 major league games and 1,135 minor league games.
“I’ve been so curious as a coach about, not so much trying to re-invent the wheel, but finding a better way to present things and get guys on a routine program that they trust and they believe in,” he said.
“I’ve put together a program for guys to find where their weaknesses are – in their balance, their transfer, those types of things. I’m convinced that 90 percent of the throwing errors from an infield standpoint are due to the catch position.
“You’ll see a guy catch a ball awkwardly, and even though he catches it, everything breaks down in the throw.”
When one Mariners infielder showed a tendency to field a ball off his right hip, Brumley made a simple suggestion.
“I told him to keep his left eye directly above the ball as he fielded it,” Brumley said. “Now, he’s not thinking footwork, he’s not worried about his glove, he’s simply catching the ball more centered, then going right into the throw.”
Similarly, Chone Figgins began taking ground balls at second base and wasn’t comfortable his first day or two making feeds to the shortstop on potential double plays.
“His catch position the first couple of days wasn’t in rhythm,” Brumley said. “I told him, ‘That’s why you’re getting out of balance, and that’s why the feeds aren’t as consistent as you want them.’ ”
Brumley thinks simple fielding drills in practice carry over into games.
“I equate it to hitting” he said. “You’ll see a guy work off a tee, you’ll see the short toss (drills), all these things leading into batting practice. If a guy can start making a good swing on a tee, then he starts making a good swing on a soft toss, he starts making better swings in BP, then it should show up in the game at some point. I look at it the same way defensively.
“Good center balance and controlling the head are the biggest things for me. Controlling the head is the main thing. There’s a reason why they put a headstall on a horse – if you can control his head, you can control his body.
“Every part of our game really comes from the head position.”
No matter what player he’s working with, Brumley looks for flaws, saying that most players are more than willing to work on their strengths.
“Every play has its own flaw. A lot of times, where you can fix the most dominant flaw in a play, everything else kind of cleans up behind it,” Brumley said. “Not every drill works for one guy, because their flaws are different.
“After you watch guys for a while, you can see where it breaks down, so you give them something to change their mind-set and make them aware of it.”
All the years he spent on the bench or the field, he observed styles – and why some worked and others did not.
“I’ve always watched players intently in what they do well. (Omar) Vizquel is always good on the backhand. Why? Because his glove is in an early preparation all the time. That’s why he’s good.
“Then you watch a guy who doesn’t do that play well, and I just watch the glove. I’ll see that he’s a little late (with the glove) and that’s why he’s having trouble,” Brumley said. “Then I’ll put him in a drill, like the short-hop series we’re doing today, that will force him into that position earlier.”
Brumley can also be unorthodox, such as when he urges infielders to make plays with one hand in drills, not two.
“I ask guys, ‘How many great plays did you see last year? How many of those plays were (made) one-handed? They’re all one-handed. So I said, ‘What’s wrong with us creating a lot more confidence in making the one-handed play?’ ”
How about fielding with your bare hands?
“I’ve had guys take ground balls without a glove to try and control their heads. You hope you don’t knock a guy’s fingernail off,” he said.
Left-hander Cliff Lee did not throw a second bullpen session, held back as a precaution after missing 10 days because of foot surgery. Still, the team insists both he and Felix Hernandez will get their innings in this spring and be ready for the regular season. … Right-hander Danny Cortes, acquired from Kansas City last year in the Yuniesky Betancourt trade, is being called a “physical specimen” after squatting 400 pounds here. “Working my legs has increased my velocity,” Cortes said, “and gotten me deeper into games. People talked about it, but until I did it and saw results, I wasn’t really convinced. Now, I’m convinced.” … Former Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner will be in camp in mid-March working with young Mariners, but he was here Friday wearing another cap – that of salesman. Buhner is helping the Baden company, based in Federal Way, pitch a new bat, one with a knob shaped like an ax handle instead of rounded. Major League Baseball has approved the bat, and Buhner is showing it to players in camp.