Scott Servais wouldn’t reveal his source, even after prodding. He’d only provide a code name: “A wise man.”
This character apparently offered some sage words about Ben Gamel.
“He said he should play like he looks,” Servais said a couple of weeks ago. “He looks like he doesn’t care, but he doesn’t play that way.”
That was among the issues plaguing Gamel to start the season. Not his long, flowing hair that made for a comical Seattle Mariners commercial alongside bald Kyle Seager, but his effort. He was trying too hard.
Gamel was batting .128 by May 4 after missing the first three weeks of the season because of a strained oblique suffered in spring training, and one of the reasons the Mariners acquired outfielder Denard Span with reliever Alex Colome not long after was to make Gamel more of a roving outfielder.
But look at the numbers between that outfield roulette of Gamel, Span and Guillermo Heredia since Span arrived on May 28:
— Guillermo Heredia: .169 average/.200 on-base percentage/.211 slugging percentage. He’s started 21 games and appeared in all 26 because of his defensive prowess.
— Denard Span: .294/.338/.441, 19 starts, 21 games.
— Ben Gamel: .326/.392/.457, 12 starts, 17 games.
In case you’re wondering, Mitch Haniger is hitting .242/.318/.434 in that time since Span arrived, appearing and starting in all 26 games.
Gamel is hitting .361 since May 16, basically a month since he had been activated off of the disabled list. But Servais thought Gamel’s turnaround really began following a sit-down conversation in Minnesota on May 14.
“We had that meeting and sat down and he’s been great, kind of relaxed a little bit,” Servais said. “I just wanted him to be who he is. He’s put a little pressure on himself and he’s doing too much to get it going.”
What’s most important for Gamel hitting the way he has for more than a month now is he’s proved his blazing start in his call-up from Triple-A Tacoma last season was not an outlier. He’s proved he’s capable of adjusting back to the adjustments pitchers made to him.
The second year in the big leagues can be a turning point for players and Gamel had to prove if he could still hit against pitchers who had a far more complete scouting report against him than his start to last year with the Mariners, when he hit .316 in May and .393 in June. From when he joined the team on April 26 until the end of June, he was hitting .348. From then on, he hit .219.
“I think it’s being more familiar with my opponents,” Gamel said. “And you learn the right questions to ask the veteran players. It’s definitely a big part. Having the veterans we have in this clubhouse has been huge for me and just the way they approach the game and at-bats.”
He frequently talks to Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager about hitting, he said. He sat at his clubhouse stall at Safeco Field on Sunday, the final day before the Mariners embarked on an 10-game road trip to New York, Boston and Baltimore, and it appeared as if Span spent about 15 minutes preaching to Gamel.
“And for me it doesn’t necessarily have to come from one person,” Gamel said. “You talk to people who get pitches similarly to you and learn how they are going to attack you and stuff like that. I think I’m using my resources a little better this year.”
He also made a mechanical adjustment.
In a game that’s increasingly seen players turn to big leg kicks and upwards swings, Gamel went the other way. He toned down his leg kick, which he feels helped sink his hands.
“I felt like I was losing my barrel,” Gamel said. “So tone that down and just try to sit back and see the ball and hit ball.”
What impressed hitting coach Edgar Martinez the most is Gamel’s ability to get contact and use the whole field.
“He had the high leg kick and he didn’t have a full spring training, either,” Martinez said. “So he started the season behind. Then he made the adjustment with his leg kick, staying compact and staying short with his swing and not over-striding. He’s put in the work and it was his own choice. He went to that and he’s sticking with it and it’s working for him.”
So much so that the Mariners went from saying Span would be an everyday player to them splitting time in left field about 50-50, even though Span has been hitting well since joining the Mariners, too.
“Ben can hit,” Servais said. “He does some things with his swing that allows him to hit. Ben has an ability with the way his swing plays out to stay with a lot of pitches, and having to do that, he’s always going to hit.
“How much power and impact, I don’t know. But he’s always going to give himself a chance. That’s why he’s so valuable for us going forward.”
Gamel’s also spent time before games taking ground balls at first base. He switched from right field to first base in the Mariners’ loss to the Yankees on Thursday, despite not having played first base since grade school, Gamel said.
But what that versatility does is allow the Mariners to use Span, Heredia, Haniger and Gamel in the game at the same time, especially with a short bench and if the Mariners want to replace regular first baseman Ryon Healy with a pinch-runner late in games.
“Just gives us options late in games,” Servais said. “We have a tendency to play tight games, so having the options available always helps.”
Gamel, a 10th-round draft of the Yankees in 2010, only recently turned 26 years old. His brother, Mat Gamel, played five seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2008-12.
The Mariners traded minor leaguers Juan De Paula and Jio Orozco for him in August of 2016 after he made his debut with the Yankees, starting two games for them that season.
But it’s clear returning from that spring-training oblique injury was more trying than he realized.
“You work all offseason to be ready for camp and it’s hard – I’ve never really had to deal with an injury in spring training like that,” Gamel said. “I had to go back into getting to play with it again and you’re kind of hesitant at first. But you know, once you have faith in it again, then you’re good.”