White Cementing Role With Mariners
June 24, 2009
By Jeremy Cothran
SEATTLE - When Sean White arrived in Peoria, Ariz., last February for Spring Training, he did so without the guarantee of a job in the bullpen, much less a spot in the Seattle Mariners organization. At 28 years old, his career was approaching limbo. It's the reality of life as a non-roster invitee in baseball, where every day is an audition.
But now White is one of the most important pieces in a re-assembled, highly effective relief corps. He's a power arm in the back of the bullpen for a surprising Mariners team that is making noise in the American League West. As of June 23, White had a 1-0 record with a sparkling 1.83 ERA in 27 appearances. White has been so effective lately that manager Don Wakamatsu has occasionally entrusted him with the most important role a non-closer can occupy - the eighth inning. As the Mariners transition from a rebuilding club to one who can compete annually for division titles, White's name has also entered into the club's long-term thinking.
'He's a local guy, that's great for the fans, great for him and his family, and I tip my hat for what he did to get here.'
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik
White's rise to fame has a local appeal, as the soft-spoken righty is Pacific Northwest through and through. Born in Pullman, Wash., but raised primarily in Seattle, his family eventually settled on Mercer Island. White shined as a prep star there before he caught the eye of former Washington coach Ken Knutson while pitching for summer league powerhouse Chaffey Baseball Club. After his eligibility at UW exhausted in 2003, the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the eighth round.
Seven years later, White is pitching for his hometown Mariners, the same team he rooted hard for when they turned Seattle upside down in delirium during euphoric playoff runs in 1995 and 2001.
'He's a local guy, that's great for the fans, great for him and his family, and I tip my hat for what he did to get here,' said general manager Jack Zduriencik. 'And we're all hoping that he's here for the long term.'
White had a lot to prove to Zduriencik at first, but he had the added bonus of working with a clean slate. After a disastrous 2008 season, which saw the Mariners become the first team with a $100-plus million payroll lose 100 games, the team cleaned house and handed the keys to Zduriencik. The new GM brought fresh eyes and a different philosophy to the Mariners, while White brought renewed control with his sinker and more intestinal fortitude to Spring Training.
Right away, he attracted attention. Zduriencik and his staff liked White's physical makeup (6-4, 210 pounds) and his power sinker. At times, White's sinker has clocked in at 95 mph and has chewed up more than its fair share of bats.
Despite an eye-opening spring, White didn't make the club out of camp, but displayed enough positives to the brain trust to merit future consideration. That came on April 16, when the Mariners called him up from Triple-A Tacoma and added White to the 40-man roster.
White knew he had to make an impression in the spring, but didn't torture himself mentally about it. He always had a strong arm, but a lack of controlling pitches sabotaged his first major-league chance with the Mariners. This came at the end of the 2007 season. White spent all of 2008 with Tacoma as a starter, where he struggled with a 6-11 record and a 5.47 ERA and spent the last month of the season injured. The Mariners weren't convinced enough in White as a prospect to keep him on the roster, but tendered him a non-roster invite at the start of spring training. But this meant White wouldn't be allowed the normal luxuries that secure major-league ballplayers have during camp, such as the freedom to tinker with a new pitch without having to worry about the results.
'I did know that I had to come in and prove something to the organization,' White said. 'So I spent some time last season working mechanically and get mentally stronger as well. It wasn't a big pressure thing, but I knew I had to show them that I could help out the team.'
White worked during the offseason to refine his mechanics. He strengthened his legs to provide greater stability, which in effect helped him direct the ball better. Once White had a better handle on his sinker, he had to convince himself not to be afraid to pitch to contact. The best sinkerball pitchers throw strikes, which in turn produce a lot of early swings and cheap groundball outs. Catcher Rob Johnson, who served as White's battery mate in Tacoma last year, reminded White to place some trust in his No. 1 pitch.
'It starts with his sinker. His sinker is as good as anyone's in the game,' Johnson said. 'Last year, he was having trouble with it. But this year he can throw it when he wants, anywhere he wants, and it just makes his other pitches that much better.'
Zduriencik believes that physical maturity also played a role in White's development. Scouts fall in love with size, but coordination isn't always an accompanying attribute. The GM compared White to another big reliever on the Mariners roster, David Aardsma, a 6-foot-5 power arm that bounced around with several teams because of control issues. Eventually, Aardsma harnessed his fastball and became the Mariners closer.
The fraternal, Animal House nature of the Mariners bullpen has been another breeding ground for success. Bullpen coach John Wetteland has fostered a competitive, fun-loving atmosphere, which has allowed the relievers to relax and not panic about failure. One bullpen theme this year has been their obsession with the movie '300,' a pulp film based on Greek history and a graphic novel. The theme is Sparta's heroic defense of Thermopylae, despite having just 300 soldiers and facing an opposition of 10,000. A quick tour of the Mariners clubhouse points out several gladiator/Spartan helmets in some of the relievers' lockers.
'That's just kind of our little thing,' White said. 'We just watched the movie one day and we all liked the movie, and kind of rolled with it.'
Despite have sustained a modicum of success, White hasn't let go of the novelty that he's pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Neither has his family, who White admitted are still a bit shell-shocked at the notion. It makes for a great story, one the Mariners and White would like to see continue.
'It's awesome. Obviously, he went to school here, grew up here and now he gets to play for the Mariners, the team he grew up watching,' Johnson said. 'That's just great for him. I'm really happy for him.'