Unlocking the Talent Blockers

How many players have left the Pirates over the years and upon being interviewed at their new home have mentioned some small tweak as being responsible for helping them reach new territory in their success?

When the issues are mechanical, the onus falls squarely on the coaching staff. They have to identify and correct those issues and for some players it takes more than one coat to cover the wall. For others the issue appears to be more mental and players like this used to almost have to seek out their own sports therapy to work toward improvement.

When the Pirates hired John Baker as the director of Training and Development, it shouldn’t have escaped anyone that his former focus with the Chicago Cubs was as a mental skills coordinator. So, in the early going of the 2021 season, it would seem some players are showing a need for the remedies he used to be in charge of providing.

Mitch Keller is the first name on my mind.

His stuff is great. Not good, not ok, great. He has a bit of a control issue with his high fastball where it naturally wants to finish high, aside from that, it appears to be a willingness issue. The shape of the pitches is right, the action on the pitches is right, the willingness to throw it in the zone isn’t.

Hiring a guy like Baker said to me that the mental side of the game was going to be part of the overall training and development plan for this franchise, and I’m sure it is, but two weeks isn’t a long time to even discover the need, let alone address it.

Anthony Alford is another player who doesn’t look like he has anything solid to stand on. Nothing has worked at the plate and by reading his expression when he steps to the plate, let’s just say we aren’t the only ones who expect failure.

On the other hand, players with fewer tools are succeeding, that has to be even more mentally challenging for the very gifted players who just can’t get out of their own way.

Baseball isn’t an easy game, I mean failing 7 out of 10 times could get you into the Hall of Fame after all. So it stands to reason learning to embrace failure would be rather important.

Joe Musgrove actually alluded to that very fact when reflecting on his time in Pittsburgh, noting that he learned how to deal with failure while here.

I get that, but if the Pirates ever want to compete, they’re going to have to start cracking the code while guys are here and young, not in year 3 or 4 where the progress will benefit the next team far more.

We have no idea what John Baker’s system will look like, I mean we haven’t seen any MiLB baseball since 2019, but you have to figure hammering out some of these types of issues will be part of it.

As with the overall philosophy for development, we should also assume that won’t stop once a player reaches MLB. In other words the future should look more like called up players are mentally prepared for the jump but not expected to need no maintenance once they do.

The mental fortitude is there with Keller. He shows you that by the time he fights through an inning or two. Yesterday he pitched 3.1 innings and this follows his acceptable step forward start versus Chicago where he went 5 and got the win.

He came out Thursday throwing pitches in the zone and got hit hard, then he pulled back, stopped following the glove and then came the walks and missing spots. When the 3rd inning rolled around he was back to where he started and the control and efficiency returned.

It’s in there. Someone just needs to help him figure out what makes it come and what makes it go.

Some guys need to pitch angry and we saw that just last night with Brubaker. Some need to be emotionless, others still respond to the moment. Whatever it is that makes Mitch mentally change the game plan, they need to identify and help him work through it.

Oscar Marin will rightly have the spotlight on him with Mitch Keller, but when the issues aren’t mechanical in nature, I’m inclined to watch how Mr. Baker and his expertise help mold this young player.

He has star stuff, and if we’re to truly believe the Pirates are on a better path a huge part of that story is going to be more players that should contribute to the cause, actually taking that final step from AAA to MLB.

Look at Derek Shelton’s usage of Luis Oviedo. The announcers, twitter fans, facebook fans and even Shelton himself openly question his usage. Everyone understands he’s a rule 5 pick and everyone understands what that means, but the club is clearly not afraid of this kid’s mental makeup. They’re pushing him, they’re challenging him, they’re not afraid to have him fail, and not overly overt when he succeeds. They just expect, and I think we’ve seen, him to press through it.

To his credit, he has, and he looks mature far beyond his 21 years, but that isn’t how this works for everyone. What works for Oviedo, maybe won’t for Keller. What works for Moran, maybe doesn’t for Alford. This is the individualized training that has been talked to since day one of Ben Cherington’s regime and echoed by Shelton repeatedly.

I’m not the type to pretend I have all the answers here, but when you watch a baseball manager handle different guys in different ways it always makes me think he himself is being coached. Derek Shelton himself is learning how to handle players in different stages of development.

For instance, Gregory Polanco goes into an awful stretch at the plate and he sits for a couple days and does cage work. Kevin Newman does the same and plays through it. Greg came back and had a great game, so the assumption is Newman should do the same. Maybe, maybe not.

I’m putting this out because the concern over Mitch Keller has become about more than just evaluating the play of a pitcher. It’s now become a series of armatures psycho analyzing him on social media. Thinking back to his impressive starts at the end of 2020 I remember telling all of you I was very concerned about the walk numbers even while he was no hitting lineups.

Look, I know what I saw when I looked at his face before he threw a pitch against the Padres, and I certainly have an opinion as to how to handle it, the difference is I know enough to know my answer might not be right.

I think the Pirates have no choice but to keep pressing forward, even if the progress they see doesn’t show itself in results, I’d like to believe they know what they’re doing. One thing is for sure, there is more riding on this player for some of the coaching staff than any one other underperforming player.

Step one to being a franchise on the rise instead of the whipping boy for the league is getting more prospects to not just survive that last step but instead thrive through it.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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