8-15-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
An awful road trip wrapped up and for some reason this time, fans didn’t ignore it. I’ve been following this team far longer than I’ve been covering them, so let’s just say I’ve seen my share of bad baseball teams. When a really bad team heads off on a West Coast trip, usually they just get ignored. Sure, people look at the box scores, maybe they check the rankings, but folks had detailed points of anger this time.
Meaning fans paid attention, and were rewarded with a team that refuses to roster 5 starters for their rotation. They were given the continual mind F that is Josh VanMeter having a roster spot, couple that with the same player making a poor throw to Oneil Cruz to negate a routine double play.
The Pirates have added talent to the pool, yet they refuse to let some of it swim. This isn’t likely to be a pleasant read today, but it is necessary.
Let’s do it.
1. Philosophy Over Result
The Pirates have a vision of a “great” at bat. It’s what Daniel Vogelbach did here in fact. Here’s the outline. 1. If you’re going to swing, look to do damage. (meaning swing hard) 2. You get 3 strikes, every at bat should be around there minimally. (meaning see pitches) 3. Situational hitting is not an excuse to stop seeking damage or seeing pitches.
Andy Haines is the hitting coach, and yes, he believes in this philosophy. A philosophy that probably works for some players, but most, as we’re clearly seeing, it just sets most of their at bats behind the 8 ball.
This is an organizational concept. Meaning it comes from higher up than anyone who lives in the dugout. The Pirates believe that creating selective hitters maximizes talent offensively and helps to minimize the effect that opposition starting pitchers have on the outcome of games.
Rick Eckstein the previous hitting coach had his own philosophy and as you’ll recall, I was a proponent of removing him from his position. The reasons were different. Rick taught players to hunt “their zone” meaning ALL of the above, but he wanted to see his hitters select 1 quadrant of the strike zone. Well, opposing teams are smart, anytime you do something that produces a pattern, guess what’s going to happen? Right. The pattern will be turned on it’s head.
A team discovers that Bryan Reynolds’ zone is middle in as a lefty hitter? Guess what he won’t see unless it’s a mistake?
Fast forward to Haines. No zone to narrow things, but if you’re an opposing pitcher you know I can probably just throw two strikes. You know also that a hitter could still swing if you make one of them a fatty, but it’s still not a given.
This isn’t all about Haines though. The Milwaukee Brewers moved on from both Haines and Vogelbach after last season. They removed Haines along with his star pupil, and the Pirates gripped up both. There isn’t much more you need to see to understand what they do IS in fact the team philosophy.
When Eckstein was removed, there were players who weren’t very happy. Some guys were actually really good at the approach he preached. As we sit here, I have yet to hear anything more than Haines is a nice guy. Well, at least if you want a positive take.
I’m sure he is. But it’s time to go. One season is typically not a fair amount of time but even if they’re wrong the Pirates are going to return Chavis, Reynolds, Hayes, Cruz, Suwinski, Marcano, Oh I could go on and on. That’s where the control levels are, and more than anything, they believe in the talent. Well, you can’t allow them to keep beating their heads against the wall for another year.
I’ll leave you with this as an example of how this philosophy plays out.
Oneil Cruz comes up here from AAA locked in and filled with exuberance. Within a week he starts looking unsure about his approach. Taking pitches he’d have probably dented a car in the lot with back in Indy, flailing at pitches with 2 outs just to try and stay alive. He’s still been fairly successful but not comfortable.
Sure some of that is the league pushing back, most of it is the team philosophy being pushed. He was a hitter, with a penchant for punishing pitches, now he’s a hitter, with a penchant for punishing pitches, after making sure he’s worked the count into a “great” at bat, even if that often looks like a 3 pitch strikeout.
This frustrates the kid. He pushes back a little and finds a few less at bats for a week. Wanting to play and be in good graces, he tries to adapt, does what he’s told to the best of his ability, even while his vision of doing the right thing at the plate doesn’t match.
This is where the team’s hitting philosophy doesn’t match their overriding philosophy, at least the stated one. Uniform approach cannot coexist with player centric. More than anything, Player centric can’t be the overriding theme from Single A through AAA then switch as soon as they get to the majors.
We’ve now seen Tucupita Marcano twice come up here as a ball of fire, only to rather quickly be extinguished. Bligh Madris, killing balls in AAA, bring him up, fill his head with information and pat him on the ass, see what happens.
All the acquired talent is great, but none of it matters if you coach them into average talents by forcing them to play with one arm tied behind their backs.
Cherington either adjusts course like he did with the pitching instruction or he dooms himself and this franchise to yet another failed rebuild. Think Christian Yelich is upset Haines is gone?
2. Piling On VanMeter
At best he’s a poster boy for futility, at worst he’s a shining example of a stubborn leadership, incapable of pivoting, even as the end at its very best could never justify the means.
Thing is, Josh VanMeter is just the symptom, not the disease. He’s a nice guy, the locker room loves him, but that doesn’t mean he’s to be afforded a spot on a roster with waiting prospects who deserve an opportunity. Both for their development, and in fact the team’s development.
The acquisition of VanMeter never made sense. They acquired a borderline major league bench player. A borderline major league player so borderline that Arizona, at team only marginally better than the Pirates DFA’d him. Brought in to play on a team that themselves at the time had Diego Castillo, Tucupita Marcano, Kevin Newman, Oneil Cruz, Hoy Park, Ji-hwan Bae, Rodolfo Castro and that’s just if you wanted to talk about expected to contribute youngsters and veterans.
Bringing in a middle infielder who matters or would be a sure fire upgrade to stem the tide, fans probably would have accepted it with open arms. Bringing in what amounted to another prospect, this one with enough MLB history on his ledger to feel reasonably sure of what he was, well, not so much.
That’s really the crux. Some people decided he was the symbol of what kept Oneil Cruz from playing, but in reality, he’s always been stopping someone, it really needn’t matter whom. Point is, there were countless better options out there if they felt they needed to acquire one not believing in their internal options. There was also ample reason to believe in their internal options, after all, many of them were brought in by Cherington himself, chosen to occupy precious 40-man spots.
Fans feel that he has played in seemingly every game, in reality, he’s played in 63 games, 180 plate appearances to the tune of a .189 batting average and a pathetic OPS of .568. In just those very few games he’s managed a -0.8 WAR.
Folks, this isn’t rocket science, and it’s not some grudge. It’s not hating on a guy, it’s not pretending he’s the sole root of all the losing. No, all it really is happens to be common sense.
If fans can’t count on something that fundamental, how can you expect them to believe in a vague and at least hard to define as anything other than a stalled rebuild?
Nobody credible has ever predicted this whole thing would work, but if it is going to, if indeed it has a chance to, it’s going to have to come from brilliant management. Let’s just say you never get to brilliant if you can’t first display common sense. Oh and of course money too, but first and foremost, brilliance.
3. Directness Could Go Miles
Before Travis Williams, Ben Cherington or anyone associated with this new management team were brought on board I asked that this team focus on one thing above all. Directness and transparency.
It hasn’t happened really.
People often get confused about what is being suggested here. I’m not asking that they tell us their every move before it happens. It isn’t about making grand statements that we can all rub in their faces later.
It’s really just about being clear and honest with fans.
Stop using platitudes to describe the next steps. Refrain from claiming your goal is to get better even while you roster players capable of doing the opposite. If what you really meant was that through time and training some of these players would become good players, AKA get better, maybe say that.
Continuing to lay out no timeline, no real milestones for fans to look to, no signs a fan could grab onto. No commitment to sign someone even as foundational as Bryan Reynolds leads many to believe nothing has changed.
Extending Hayes and then doing nothing further to secure the services of meaningful players, makes the extension seem more like placating a fan base far too accustomed to such offerings.
Bob Nutting, himself, needs to come to the fan base, talk about how he plans to show you how it’ll be different and more than anything, explain to fans that not spending now is Cherington’s choice, not his.
Even more preferably, something like that would actually be true. I certainly can’t tell you that’s the case, nobody can. Even if he did, half of you wouldn’t believe it, hell, I probably wouldn’t. He made his bed in that regard, but at the very least he’d take the focus back on himself alone and off his GM.
Its not a good situation, and it’s likely he could never truly spend enough for everyone, but not trying and expecting fans to just blindly follow along, trying to find breadcrumbs of hope isn’t working. All it’s done is created a few different faces to call liars. Even while they don’t speak enough to be honest or untruthful.
4. Derek Shelton Cloaks Issues
I often see people blame Derek Shelton for just about everything. I get it, he’s the face of management sitting in that dugout. Rarely ever pushing the right buttons. Shepherding a team toward supposed improvement yet constantly making decisions that tend to achieve the opposite.
Shelton may very well not be the right man for the job, but blaming him for his roster is letting Cherington off the hook.
It ignores that Cherington has the final say on roster decisions. It ignores that he also dictates, yes, yes with Shelton’s opinions I’m quite sure taken into account, the amount he expects to see some of these guys play.
I’m not telling you to believe in him, but perpetually blaming him for things happening above his head by way of calling for his, well, it’s just wasted breath. He certainly doesn’t seem to make the best choices with what he does have but I wonder….
Part of me wonders if I were in Shelton’s position, if I might umm, shall we say, follow my boss’ instructions to the tee. I’m to be given no actual starter to replace Quintana, ok, don’t expect me to go out of my way to make it work.
Force me to keep Josh VanMeter on my roster, ok, but he’s gonna play Mr. Cherington.
Even if I’m wrong, and I’m sure I am, I’m not going to run cover for Cherington because Shelton is lower hanging fruit. He doesn’t control when Roansy get’s called up. He’s not in charge of deciding who get’s manipulated and who doesn’t. He doesn’t make contract decisions.
It’s not his choice to have two lefties, neither of which are fit to pitch the back end of the bullpen.
Lineups, yup, that’s him, at least to a degree. Rotation, yup, all Shelton, well, except who makes it up.
Be mad at the right person for the right things.
5. All That Being Said…
The Pirates are still a very young team. That can provide excitement, it can provide complete and utter failure.
Some of these kids will become good, even if they look awful right now. The younger they are with tons of control the more likely they are to get the opportunity.
This team has work to do, and that goes for the players and the management. They need to acquire more players. They need to develop some of what they already have, More than anything, they need to start using the best of what they have.
Enough of this constant in and out of scrap. If they don’t matter they don’t matter. If they aren’t an emergency acquisition or an overt improvement that can play a role for a year or three, avoid it.
I expect rookies to play like rookies. Especially without veteran leadership. I also expect players to progress. If this coaching staff can’t help that to happen, I expect the GM to take action and find one who will.
If this GM can’t accomplish that, I expect one who can to be brought in to replace him.
It’s easy to get mad at Nutting for not spending, but I’ve always had more distain for the overt lack of accountability on this team.
Get Better either becomes get better visually, and soon or they need to take action.