Changes Need to Come, but Not Just on the Field

8-3-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I don’t know when every move is coming, but I’m sure later today someone like Tucapita Marcano will replace someone like Yoshi Tsutsugo or Josh VanMeter on the roster. That’ll of course be welcomed by everyone with open arms, if not frustration that it took so long, but it’s also not the change that this team needs most.

Today, I’d like to take a look at some things that simply have to be addressed, specifically beyond players, because the easiest thing in sports is to simply say get better players. Of course that’s true, but making sure those improved talents will have a place to thrive as well as play needs to bubble to the surface.

The Hitting Program

The Pirates have been an offensive mess for the vast majority of Derek Shelton’s tenure here in Pittsburgh. Now, that of course can’t be said without acknowledging exactly what I said we’d avoid, the improvement of the talent, but it’s bigger than that.

Derek Shelton came up as a hitting coach, and he has input over the entire hitting plan here in Pittsburgh as the Manager. Maybe that’s why it was so strange to me that when he got here they decided to retain Rick Eckstein.

Not because Eckstein was someone I thought was a poor coach, as much as I couldn’t fathom Shelton wouldn’t want to put his own stamp on it.

Well, turns out, he did in fact want to own the process a bit. Hiring Mike Rabelo to be the Assistant Hitting Coach afforded the newly constructed staff to bridge the span. The 2019 Pirates weren’t good, but they did hit, so it made some sense to keep someone like Eckstein around for consistency.

Well, in the shortened season of 2020, they performed awfully, but 60 games was hardly enough to decide anything so even after moving Josh Bell, one of the main reasons for keeping that consistency around, they decided to hold steady into 2021.

By the end of that season, it was clear that the two weren’t speaking from the same pulpit any longer. So the Pirates removed Eckstein and allowed Derek Shelton to create a “staff” to fill the role for the last stages of the season. The offense experienced a bit of an uptick.

Enter Andy Haines.

He was an assistant hitting coach in Milwaukee, and that offense did little more than hit homeruns or strikeout, sound familiar?

2022 has been a mortal struggle. Rookies have come up and experienced success, but it’s rarely been sustainable. They’ve looked much different on day one than they did right before being sent back down.

The stars have struggled periodically, the rookies have just about all regressed, and adjustments seem to be daily.

If I had to guess right now, Haines won’t be here in 2023.

Recently, I had opportunity to discuss the hitting instruction with players, and for understandable reasons, they’d like to remain in the shadows.

“He changes everything, wants me to make a smaller move, says I should use a heavier bat, game plan and approach changes and wants us to hunt outside of our strengths”

Tweaks are well within the purview of any hitting coach folks, but some of this constitutes wholesale change. The Pirates promote a “hitting plan” and it’s intended to be organizational. Meaning, when guys come up from AAA they shouldn’t require massive changes because they should be instructed in the same manner as they’re working through the system.

Here’s some more.

“It’s operation overload here with information and it floods us.”

Anyone who’s ever hit baseballs at any level will tell you thinking too much is kryptonite in the box.

Listen, when guys are struggling at the plate, they’re going to not be pleased with many aspects of everything around them, up to and including their socks. I get it.

One thing I can honestly say as someone who watches guys in the minors and MLB, I can physically see the change in approach these guys are trying to employ as early as 2 or 3 days after being called up.

That shouldn’t happen. Stance changes, swing changes, where a hitter stands in the box, that’s formative stuff, not tweak at the MLB level stuff. Ask Chad Hermansen what that sort of coaching does to a kid.

Someone needs to grab hold of this program and reinvent it. Maybe the way they addressed the pitching disconnect from Marin to the minor leagues by adding Dewey Robinson.

All I know is when your entire franchise is depending on developing talent, you best be better than this.

Public Relations

This is an area I have professional experience in so I’ll try real hard not to get too deep in the weeds.

The first thing to acknowledge is really that PR isn’t going to save you from selling a bad product. At some point people just aren’t going to accept what you say if they see the same bad play game after game.

Way back in 2019 when I first started covering the Pirates for Sports Illustrated, my second article was about needing to find a GM and team President who could effectively communicate with the fans. So far, that’s been an epic failure.

Here’s why. You can’t continue to go to the we’re getting better well when it’s painfully apparent you aren’t getting better. If you constantly talk about bringing in more talent yet refuse to bring up said talent and or refuse to cut failed veterans to make room for them, fans aren’t going to buy it.

The Brewers put on a master class recently after trading Josh Hader their All Star closer while leading the division at the deadline.

First, lets start at the top. The Brewers have earned this by providing their fan base with winning baseball. They’ve also physically tried, putting just about every red cent they could into payroll.

That’s not PR, but it makes PR much easier.

I asked people on Twitter who were praising this to try to craft something similar for the Pirates to explain their “state of the franchise”, or at least why they moved a guy like Quintana.

See to me, I don’t need that explanation, I knew from the minute he was signed if he performed even decent he was going to be traded. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, but how could the Pirates do better here?

Transparency.

“Get Better” is vague. It means something, but it means something different to everyone who hears it. More importantly it means something different depending on outcome from he who spoke it. If the Pirates finish this season with 2 more wins than in 2021, did they “get better”?

Sure, technically they got better. But realistically, or in any meaningful way, probably not.

Do they maybe have a more exciting group of young talent to build on? Sure that’s probably fair, but that too isn’t what the team tells us. Instead they focus on the need to keep bringing in more talent, and simply get better.

3 years of that isn’t going to age well, especially when you’re set to finish in the bottom 10 at least for the 4th straight campaign.

PR can also be unspoken.

Extend Ke’Bryan Hayes for 7 years and fans think “OK, here we go, now we start to lock some of our talent down”

Follow it up by taking Bryan Reynolds to arbitration before your owner steps in and forces you to abandon that idea and fans think “In what way does this make sense next to extending Hayes?”

Look, fans aren’t collectively as stupid as you see represented on social media daily. Most fans understand what the Pirates are trying to do, even if they have a healthy understanding of how near impossible it would be should they never spend money in the effort.

I’m not saying they have to throw a dollar figure out there for their maximum budget, but as a Pirates fan, wouldn’t it be easier to understand the plan if you knew 150 million was their ceiling. Wouldn’t it be easier to digest trades if you knew the bottoming out of payroll isn’t in an effort to stay there but instead an effort to build the system and remake the entire team with youth?

As a GM, the last thing you like to do is speak in absolutes. If you say you don’t plan to bottom out again, before you know it you’re Neal Huntington trying like hell to use super glue and twigs in 2018 to try to recapture the magic you let slip through your fingers instead of properly rebuilding. Or, you do it anyway and accept the moniker of liar seeing your words printed everywhere you go.

Already Cherington slipped, and I have to believe that’s what it was, and said the Pirates would be “good earlier than most expect”. A dangerous comment because it’s the wrong kind of vague. To me that may mean 2024, to Joe in Glassport that may mean 2023.

When/if they don’t sign anyone of note this offseason, Joe is going to be fit to be tied, and I’ll still feel ok with Cherington’s statement.

Point is, PR is hard, and it’s possibly the hardest job there is when you have little positive to sell. It’s why they spend so much time talking about Pirates Charities or the Miracle League fields. Great stuff on its own, but fans know it’s not the positivity they seek.

They want more than “We’ll have the payroll when the time is right”. Because again, to Joe or I that time could probably be right now damnit!

Fans want a real commitment. Actually tangibly admitting that not enough was done in the past, and a vision for how to not have the same mistakes repeated. Fans simply aren’t going to trust that Nutting is spending this time, they need to see it. This fan base needs a signing. A message that things are different.

We got one with Hayes signing a record setting deal, but it was a backhanded record. If anything the very fact that 70 million over 8 years set a record is embarrassing on its face.

Not to sound ungrateful, I’m thrilled they did it, but I’m also nowhere near willing to pretend fans should now believe the game has unquestionably changed and we can now expect the trajectory to point upward in perpetuity.

This past off season the team had more than a few giant holes. They addressed them to a degree. Signing Jose Quintana for 2 million to provide a veteran starter, Yoshi Tsutsugo for first base at around 4 million. Daniel Vogelbach for what amounted to 800K, and Roberto Perez at catcher for 5 million.

None of those raised an eyebrow, some of them really performed. Others clearly didn’t. It’s not that they won’t spend anything, it’s that they rarely will spend on someone who won’t be leaving after the All Star Break.

Roberto’s injury prevented us from likely seeing his name at least being a constant rumor. If Yoshi had managed to do anything at all he’d have gotten some attention I’m sure. Now as it would turn out, Quintana was probably the only one of those who you’d have liked to see much longer. Had they signed him preseason for say 3 years, I’ll be honest, at the time I’d have questioned the sanity of every single one of the Pirates Management team.

That’s still what they need though. The Pirates need to find someone of value, and sign him to a meaningful deal. One where fans can feel reasonably assured they can bother vesting in the player, caring about what he does and for once not through a lens of what he may fetch come time to trade him. That’s gonna take years, likely 3, and even at that, it’s just a start.

Keep extending, keep improving.

All of that is going to mean a hell of a lot more than words, even if it’ll need followed up with those too.

As it stands, fans are starting to disbelieve in the plan, and how could you blame them, when the plan has never been uttered publicly, instead being left to observers to guess and estimate for themselves.

The realities of MLB’s economic system are nebulous at best. It doesn’t really matter by how much you believe Nutting underspends, as much as recognizing his top end is still short at least of directly competing with the biggest of big spenders.

Fans don’t expect that, even the dumbest of them. They do expect you to try though, and if you aren’t going to for 2 or 3 years, you do owe them telling you when you will. Better yet, show them.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Changes Need to Come, but Not Just on the Field

  1. Great post. And here many of us (including me) thought the PR couldn’t get worse than it was at the worst of blunders under NH. Dead wrong, oh man.

    The hitting results speak for themselves. Apart from the small samples–such as Newman and Delay–the Pirates have precisely one hitter on the roster with a triple-digit OPS+. That’s of course Reynolds, who leads in all three slash categories: SLG at .457 (24th among NL qualifiers), OBP at .337 (30th among NL qualifiers), and AVG at .255 (37th among NL qualifiers). If we take the average of those three rankings–30–that means there are two *qualified* hitters per NL foe better than the Pirates’ best. Bump it down from qualifiers to minimum 200 PAs and Reynolds falls to 58th in AVG, 44th in OBP, and 33rd in SLG.

    In short: Literally every Pirate but Reynolds can be easily classified as a subpar to awful MLB hitter, Delay’s tiny sample aside. These aren’t the Bronx Bombers, but holy mackerel, they’re not the 1890 Alleghenys either. That has to be on the coaches, 100%, especially given the extreme changes they’re making to guys who *succeeded* in the high minors.

    Anyway, aside from my piling on, how many hitting coaches does a *hitting-based* manager get to go through before the club pins it on him? I have to think Shelton won’t outlast a third hitting coach–if he outlasts the second.

    Liked by 1 person

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