Ronny Cedeno is at the plate in an important situation. Already in a two-strike count, he waves at a pitch that bounces a foot in front of home plate and six inches outside. Inning over. Somewhere on the internet, a message board commenter wonders exactly what hitting coach Don Long is teaching his players.
Lastings Milledge is on second base after leading off an inning with a double, and the Pirates appear to have something cooking. The next batter hits a two-hopper directly to the shortstop and Milledge takes off for third. He is easily thrown out. After the game, an exasperated fan calls the local radio station and asserts that John Russell has clearly lost this team.
Jeff Karstens starts an at-bat by throwing back-to-back strikes. His third pitch drifts over the middle of the plate and is hammered into the right field bleachers for a solo home run. Somewhere in Pittsburgh, somebody blames Joe Kerrigan.
Jose Tabata reaches base by way of an infield single in the eighth inning of a game at PNC Park. The Pirates trail 4-3 as I watch from my seat in section 105. A pitch bounces in front of Neil Walker and skips a few feet away from the catcher. Tabata immediately breaks a few steps toward second, stops, hesitates, thinks again about running and finally dives back to first. The ball is waiting for him, and he is tagged out. The loud, know-it-all fan sitting a few rows behind me shouts at first base coach Carlos Garcia, “What are you doing, Garcia?!”
If only Long had told Cedeno not to swing at pitches in the dirt.
If only Russell had told Milledge to hold on a ground ball in front of him.
If only Kerrigan had told Karstens not to groove a pitch in an 0-2 count.
If only Garcia had instructed Tabata not to get out.
We have moved past the point in which we judge pitchers by their win-loss record. It has become obvious that there are too many variables in play, too much statistical noise. In order to win games, a starting pitcher needs strong defense behind him, an offense that will provide some run production and a bullpen that can finish games that he starts. Those things are all out of the pitcher’s control. The same type of argument goes for evaluating managers and coaches by using the standings or the number of mental mistakes a team makes. All a coach can do is assist a player. All a manager can do is put a player in the best position to succeed. They cannot go out on the field and perform for the player. At some point, it is up to the players to perform. Maybe Milledge just has lousy baseball instincts. Maybe Cedeno has poor pitch recognition. Maybe Karstens has below average stuff. Maybe Tabata just turned 22 and has only been in the majors for a few months.
Over the course of 162 games every player will make mistakes and every manager will make bad decisions. But, we have gotten to the point where the Pirates players’ approach to the game and John Russell’s lineup construction and in-game managing decisions are unacceptable. The list of examples of fundamental, teachable mistakes the Pirates have made this year goes into the hundreds. The fact that Ronny Cedeno does not know that he has to swing the bat in that situation, that Lastings Milledge makes the third out of an inning at third base before a runner crosses home plate, that Andy LaRoche doesn’t know what to do when two players occupy the same base, that Ryan Doumit constantly tags players at chest level on plays at the plate, that multiple players can’t execute a sacrifice bunt, that no pitcher on the staff effectively holds runners on base…the list is only just starting. These are things the coaching staff has to correct. It hasn’t happened. There is no reason to believe it will happen.
Just to be clear, I think this is an excellent, well thought-out post by Dave. He makes plenty of great points that support the opinion that Russell should be fired and, while I think Russell may deserve more credit than many give him, I have trouble mounting much of an argument against Dave’s main point. But blaming the coaching staff for the team’s numerous mental mistakes is misguided, in my opinion. There are only so many times that a player can be told not make stupid mistakes. Eventually, the player has to figure things out for himself.
Check out Carlos Garcia’s reaction as Milledge aimlessly wandered around the basepaths on Sunday. What more can he do at this point?