How Does the Pirates Coaching Look Heading Into 2022?

8-10-21 – By Gary Morgan – garymo2007 on Twitter

As I started writing the forecast for 2022 on Sunday, I realized this couldn’t be done without touching on the coaching staff. I mean the pitching and hitting was one thing, but there was just no way any of you were going to let me stop without talking to the coaching.

Now, this one isn’t going to be quite the same as those other write ups. These aren’t as simple as picking up expiring control levels or focusing on areas of need. Instead I need to talk about this more academically.

This isn’t a witch hunt, and it certainly isn’t going to be about calling names, it’s going to be an evaluation of performance vs expectation. Predicting how these will turn out is a fool’s errand, but I’ll still make suggestions, don’t confuse the two.

I’d also like to touch on something I’m nearly positive will be brought up, the players have to take the lion’s share of responsibility for performance, not the coaches. This is surely correct, and I’ll not be misplacing that message. That doesn’t mean I have to avoid criticizing the coaches however, because at the end of the day, making players better is part of the gig.

I’m not going to waste space on the Bench Coach or position coaches. I’m not even sure how to judge them. Hard to get on Cora, they’ve barely crossed third this year and I have no idea what Don Kelley really does beside the scheduling stuff that has been disclosed. Besides, Kelley will undoubtedly get calls for interviews this off season and I just as soon let that play out. If anything since the fielding has improved drastically this season I’d almost have to give Cora kudos.

The Pitching Coaches

Oscar Marin and Justin Meccage, these things are usually package deals. If you remove the head of a department, you typically don’t keep anyone, so I’ll not be trying to decipher which one contributed what to the proceedings, instead we’ll just try to talk to the overall body of work.

Now, there’s no real way to do this without talking about the players.

Who Got Better?
Clay Holmes, Sam Howard, Richard Rodriguez and maybe David Bednar. I say maybe on Bednar because if I’m honest, most of the successful pitchers this team has were brought in after someone else developed them. David is not exception. He has been really good this season and certainly better than his cup of coffee with San Diego, but being as he looked that way from his first pitch this Spring, I’m just not sure how much credit goes to this staff. Doesn’t mean that answer is none, but I have a hard time giving them all the credit too.

Who Should Have Improved?
I phrase this one like this because honestly, I can’t blame this coaching staff for failing to turn water into wine. Mitch Keller is the obvious choice here, his pedigree and stuff should have found a way to the surface, but it’s hard to say he’s done anything more than exist. Here’s one I’m not sure most of you will agree with, Luis Oviedo. Here’s a guy who was clearly not supposed to be in MLB, so I wasn’t expecting him to look unhittable, but he started better than he finished. They went from a guy with great stuff that needed to learn how to manage it, to a guy they literally felt the need to hide all season.

Ideally this would have counted as Oviedo’s AA year, learning on the job, being used sparingly, but progressing. That hasn’t happened, and because of it he’ll likely go to AA next year and giving him a 40-man spot is going to be a tough ask. In other words, they may end up having wasted a spot this entire season on a guy they aren’t likely to keep.

Of course we also have to factor in that the pitching plan for the entire organization is coming from Marin, and there has very much so been improvement throughout the system on the mound.

Can we take from this that the plan is good but the execution at least at the MLB level isn’t?

Mitigating Factors
Nobody can account for the COVID effect in full. What I’m trying to say here is how can I know that the way they’ve managed this pitching staff was an answer to missing 2020 for many players versus how they’d like to manage the pitchers?

I also can’t pretend they’ve had thoroughbreds to work with. When I come up with a list of two guys who should have improved and one of them is iffy, it becomes difficult to really pin blame entirely.

Prognosis
They likely stay put, but one thing they need to consider is the likelihood that Joel Hanrahan is going to get interest from other teams. He’s been used as a pitching whisperer to a degree in spring and at instructs so it’s plausible he is seen as a potential upgrade over Meccage the current Bullpen Coach, or they could even simply add him as a special assistant. If the club values his input, I’d think a promotion is in order, especially if they aren’t willing to make a bigger change.

If you read my pitching piece (linked earlier in this piece) you probably can see there won’t be an earth shattering improvement in the talent level on the mound, but there will be a ton of youth. Youth with some degree of pedigree, if there is no improvement there, I’m not sure how you continue with this group. If they’re able to prove they can unlock some talent perhaps that’s enough, either way 2022 is huge for these coaches, if they choose to give them another go.

The Hitting Coaches

Rick Eckstein and Christian Marrero. Eckstein has thrived in this organization and remains one of the very few holdovers from the Hurdle regime. Now, he thrived when he had Jacob Cruz as his assistant back in 2019. Cruz is currently the assistant hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.

After Bob Nutting purged the management team almost entirely the players formed a group and stood up for their hitting coach. It worked, against what must have been long odds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a new manager brought in who used to be a hitting coach himself and have him retain the existing coach.

Hard to argue the success he and Cruz had in 2019, this team looked like they had at least figured some things out on the offensive side of the ball, but the results fell off the face of the earth in 2020. Well, maybe with the exception of Ke’Bryan Hayes and many attribute his early success to work at the Altoona training site with Jon Nunnally the current Indianapolis Indians hitting coach.

Who Got Better?
Um, Bryan Reynolds? I mean he looks even better than he did in 2019 and more power has emerged than most imagined was in there. I’m certainly not gong to take credit away from the coaches for this but Reynolds is a special player. Part of me feels like saying coaching helped him improve would be like giving Mike Sullivan credit for Sidney Crosby improving at faceoffs.

Adam Frazier was certainly more consistent than we’ve ever seen him. Colin Moran was taking a much better approach shooting for opposite field but he sacrificed some power to do so. One more here, because Jacob Stallings has probably been the best example of overall improvement. He’s added power and a knack for contact in key situations.

Who Should Have Improved?
Well, Hayes we should have expected a bit of a drop off if I’m honest, but watching him struggle with the same thing since his return from the IL has been frustrating. Everyone and their mother loves to reference Kevin Newman‘s secondary stats in 2019, but after a roaring Spring in which he clearly adopted some changes to his batting stance and approach (attributed to Nunnally too by the way) he was allowed to play 4 full months drilling balls into the ground before finally making the adjustment just as July ramped up. He’s slowly improving but potentially cost himself a real shot at staking a more permanent claim on Short Stop.

Mitigating Factors
I mean, lack of talent really. How can I blame anyone for Ka’ai Tom, Dustin Fowler, Erik Gonzalez, Phillip Evans or Anthony Alford?

Prognosis
Obviously I can’t say what they’ll do, but I’d move on from Eckstein. First of all, it’s clear dating all the way back to 2020 that when a player is really struggling Derek Shelton takes on the project personally. He did so with Josh Bell in 2020, even interrupting a session with Eckstein to change what was being instructed. And after Hayes struggled after his return, Derek took him aside and personally instructed him as well, probably coincidence that he hit a homerun that night, right?

My main beef with Eckstein is the fact that players like Hayes and Newman were showing real signs of progress with Nunnally then upon regressing with the MLB club were left to die on the vine. To the point even average fans saw the difference. First, it’s completely understandable that two coaches would have different opinions or methods, but it shouldn’t take nearly as long to recognize. Of course Newman takes responsibility for his own failures, but after watching him drive the ball all Spring and clearly change his stance almost as soon as the season began I struggle to understand why this wasn’t altered back to what brought him success before mid July.

Want an off the wall example, how about Anthony Alford who raked all Spring with Nunnally, failed early on with Eckstein, went back to AAA and found his way with Nunnally again. Now he’s back, does Eckstein keep him rolling or does he regress again? One thing Alford has shown us, if he regresses, it won’t just be a little.

Eckstein’s approach at the plate is to shrink the strike zone. In other words, identify a smaller segment of the zone and make that the strike zone.

When you’re watching a player take a strike right over the plate and barely flinch, you’re first thought is what in the actual hell is he doing, right? Well, what he’s doing is listening to his coach. He’s picked a quadrant and when the pitch wasn’t there he let it go.

I’m not guessing at this. This is the stated approach, and numerous players have mentioned it as the reason they kept the bat on their shoulder. The team itself has even acknowledged it will lead to more strikeouts at times but the method is also supposed to lead to more hard contact.

It’s fair to say it works for some players better than others, but is it working for enough?

This is way too early, but if I’m the Pirates I either show ultimate trust in Shelton and let him choose a new coach, or I promote Nunnally. If I were to look outside, perhaps a good move would be to consider a bridge for loyalists to Eckstein and try to woo Jacob Cruz back to Pittsburgh.

Something has to change here in my mind.

The Manager

Derek Shelton will be entering his third year as the Pirates Manager. Yup, I’m that confident.

I think we can pick his performance apart and I’m certainly going to do that here, but I also can’t imagine the team is ready to move on. They simply haven’t given him much to work with and on top of that many of his optically disgusting moves are more organizational than his personal philosophies.

This in no way should be taken as a statement that I believe in Shelton, or that I think he’ll be the guy to lead this team back to the promised land, but I’m quite certain he’ll get another crack at it at least.

What Got Better?
Well, the defense. It was a stated goal, and they absolutely nailed it. A few hiccups in the outfield but those were more personnel driven than poor usage. Honestly, that’s about all I can find.

What Should Have Improved?
The pitching staff as a whole was in my mind misused and mismanaged from the jump this season. Now, I’ve already mentioned that none of us can truly know the extent to which COVID created this mess of a plan, but I can say with confidence this was an organizational approach.

I understand the caution, but what they’ve done here prevented anyone from really establishing themselves. Pulling starters with low pitch counts in the fifth by way of preserving arms that in all reality hadn’t shown enough to warrant concern did nothing but beat to death a bullpen that could hardly afford it in the first place.

Again, this wasn’t Shelton alone, but at some point if you’re being asked to do things that don’t work, don’t you at some point have to stand up and push back? Maybe he did and was told to sit down and do as he was asked, regardless as an overall philosophy I hated just about everything about how the pitching was handled.

Organizationally I don’t really care for it either. 6 man rotations and tightly held pitch counts well below league standard smells a whole lot like trying to be the smartest guys in the room, and I watched plenty of that with the last group.

Another thing that has been odd is the refusal up until recently to use young players called up. Jared Oliva was scarcely used, Geoff Hartleib was called up 3 times and used once. Nick Mears was called up multiple times and out of necessity is finally getting time. Even Rodolfo Castro sat on the bench until he took it upon himself to go on a power binge.

I’m pleased to see he’s starting to evolve, but fearful he needed his options removed before doing so. He shouldn’t need told that in a season like this gaining experience is important.

Prognosis
Shelton stays, and it’s really not even a question. Next year, I hope to see better options in the bullpen for him to call from but I can’t sit here and tell you it looks like it’s on the horizon.

I will say this though, Derek Shelton waited too long to step in when watching Hayes struggle. Never did anything about Kevin Newman and continually refused to use pitching reinforcements that were called up for him to use.

He’s a young coach, and he’s allowed to get better to, thing is we need to start seeing signs of that come next year or this team is going to join the chorus line of rebuilding teams that replaced their starter coach with a seasoned manager when it came time to compete.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

3 thoughts on “How Does the Pirates Coaching Look Heading Into 2022?

  1. I think the statement “preserving arms that in all reality hadn’t shown enough to warrant concern” is cold, uncaring and bad business. They appear to be building a culture that shows their care for the players. It can be seen in this as well prolonged opportunities right now and even how the treat the minor league players going above and beyond by providing housing and paying them last season when many teams did not. Things like that will be important when negotiating extensions and pursuing FA.

    Liked by 1 person

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