It was July 27th, 2020, and the Pirates were playing the Milwaukee Brewers in game four of a 60 game abomination we called a baseball season. The Pirates were 1-2 after opening the series against the Cardinals so the sky hadn’t fallen yet.
For many of the reasons the current team was expected to be historically bad, last year’s squad was expected to perform at least a little better than they eventually would.
So when we got into the second series and the Pirates had an early chance to get back to .500 by taking the Brewers to extra innings it felt like a slap in the face of every fan to see Derek Shelton bring in Dovydas Neverauskas to pitch the 11th.
Of course the Pirates lost. You probably gathered that by the mere mention of Dovy and the fact that when discussing last season it’s a good bet.
I didn’t come right out and hammer Derek, after all we were 4 games into a season and I was much more miffed at the bats faltering than I was at the coach for pushing the wrong buttons. Ok, so I started to wonder what he was doing with the lineup everyday.
After the game Shelton said the same things he always did, he was evaluating everyone. Seeing if Dovy could handle that situation. Seeing which players fit in where in the lineup.
I think, speaking only for me, I follow the team so closely that swallowing a need to figure out what you have fell on deaf ears. I knew Neverauskas couldn’t handle that situation because I had 3 years of watching this team pretend he had MLB stuff under my belt.
I knew Jacob Stallings wasn’t a number five hitter, no not even against left handed pitching.
I knew Josh Bell changing his stance and approach mid at bat would happen all season long.
And when the season really came off the rails, I grew increasingly irritated that Derek Shelton somehow wasn’t seeing some of these basic truths.
In other words, I understood the need to evaluate, I guess I just supposed some of that should have been educated by what some of these players did before these guys got here.
Certainly the stated goal of making the players we had already better wasn’t playing out on the field as the season went on.
I closed out the 2020 season feeling pretty iffy about whether the Pirates chose the right guy to coach this ballclub. So many of his moves made no sense to me as a fan. It felt at times the approaches at the plate were screaming to me “This guy thinks he’s still coaching the power blessed Twins”.
Fast forward to this Spring.
The team made a flurry of moves. Sending out some big names for a bunch of prospects and bringing in a new approach across the board.
The team all looked like they had a unified approach at the plate. The Pitchers were going after hitters for the most part. The youngsters, the veterans. Guys Ben and crew brought in as well as guys who were retained from before.
Now with a clearly lesser roster than many teams they’ve faced, Derek Shelton seems to push all the right buttons. Man a good bullpen can really make a manager look smart, let’s not discount that.
But the lineups have been fairly consistent, he hasn’t felt the need to rest players every other day. He also hasn’t been too tolerant with players taking bad at bats. It’s not results based as much as approach based. Alford wasn’t benched or DFA’d because he had bad results, instead because he was completely lost at the plate and wasn’t absorbing whatever they were trying to get through to him, same with Fowler.
Bottom line, almost everything I had an issue with last year, Shelton has shined at this year.
Look, we’re 22 games into a 162 game marathon, I haven’t lost sight of that and clearly there is a long way to go. I’m simply saying very quickly here, Derek Shelton has shown me he has better answers this year and much like the young players improving, the coach has too.
The very reason I never went nuclear on Shelton last season happened to be an effort to live up to the mantra of our website, “Fair Pirates Coverage”. And trust me, Craig had to talk me down a couple times. Those former catchers stick together you know.
22 games in he has his ballclub 8 wins shy of his win total in 2020 and at least on the surface he’s done it with less talent, at least in the everyday lineup and starting rotation. If you had strong feelings about the job he did last season, at the very least he’s earned a clean slate to view him through this season.
I’m certainly not ready to call him Leyland or Tanner, but I’m ready to stop judging him by how he handled 2020.