Jim Benedict joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in October 2008 as a special assistant to General Manager Neal Huntington, after working as a scout in the Cleveland Indians organization during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, previously working as a scout for six years in the New York Yankees organization, and working as the Minor League Pitching Coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1998-2000) and the Montreal Expos (1994-1998). Benedict was named the Pirates’ Minor League Pitching Coordinator in 2010, and carries that role today.
I spoke with Jim in a lengthy interview while I was down in Bradenton last month for Spring Training. I’ve been wanting to post the interview over the last two weeks, but it took some time to transcribe. Because of the length of the interview, I’m breaking it up in to two parts. Part one will cover the duties of a pitching coordinator, as well as some philosophy questions. Part two will focus more on individual players, and will run tomorrow.
Describe the your daily routine as pitching coordinator during Spring Training.
Spring Training, I get here probably about 4:30 in the morning. A couple of the pitching coaches, I have an assistant pitching coordinator, Scott Mitchell, we’ll come in and we’ll break down video and put the day together. Try to project out the next few days. Make sure the major league needs are taken care of, with minor league pitchers that go up there. If things get ugly, they might get in up there. So there’s a lot of that type of thing. Putting two games together at home, two games together on the road. Then we also play an extended Spring game. So you’re putting all of these together, making sure the starters are getting built up, along with using that as development time. It’s also time for competition between each other on who’s going to make the teams and go north. And just make the decision developmentally on who we need to take longer time with, or they have a set back, whether it be a sore arm because you come in from home and all of a sudden you’re pitching, and it’s hard to have everybody gauged out. So we take time, we have an early camp as well to give us as much time as we can to make the right decisions.
How early do you figure out where certain pitchers are going to end up?
Well there’s an ideal projection, we’ll do that last year for this year, based on last year. We had the draft, the major league team kind of gets formed. That trickles down all the way down to the Gulf Coast Leagues, in a lot of cases. You try to put what’s best for the player, and try to develop a rate of speed for their advancement all the way through the minor leagues through the big leagues. So it’s done early, and then the human element enters in to it. That will slow it down, speed it up, some guys surprise you, some guys take longer. And then there’s a certain criteria, not for everybody, but there’s certain rate of speed criterias that have to be met, or at least close to, to put them in the right spot.
Is it more set in stone as players get established and move up the levels to AA and AAA?
No. You like to think that if a guy goes to high-A last year, pitches well, he’s going to AA. It’s not always the case. Depends on your numbers. Sometimes his stuff, his approach, or his durability is not going to work at the next level, maybe he’ll start at the high-A level, with the idea that he’s going to Altoona at some point during the year. Say like Bryan Morris last year, he went to Bradenton early. He hadn’t been built up in big league camp, we didn’t have time in minor league camp to get his pitches all the way, so we sent him over to the Florida State League, got him about 40 innings, there was kind of a target date for him, and moved him up. And he was put in the position to pitch in the upper levels for a certain amount of innings, and then his season was over, and they won the championship, and there’s an off-season, and then he comes back in to camp. So everyone has a scenario similar to that.
The popular saying is that if you have the talent to make it at the AA level, you have the talent to make it at the major league level. Do you agree with that stance, and if so, what are the adjustments that a pitcher would have to make from the AA level to the majors to apply that talent in the majors?
That used to be the case. I don’t see it that way. Double-A is the new A-ball. It’s the new high-A ball really. A lot of organizations rush their position players to the big leagues, so the hitting isn’t what it was. So the competition can be forgiving. It’s hard to find position players, it’s hard to find hitting. So when clubs get them they push them up and have them grow up in the big leagues. That being said, they don’t last. If you can really hit, they push you. They push you up as far as they can, so it depends. Say all nine hitters on the big league team are good, and you go to AAA, say six of the nine are tough outs. You go to AA, maybe four of the nine were tough outs. It just works that way. In my experience the last three years, AAA and AA are huge separations in the minor leagues, where low-A and high-A are not as big a separation, high-A and AA are not as big a separation. But the AA to the big leagues is a big separation. You can see, if you look at the bios of the players that are in AAA, you’ll see a significant years played, where in the AA, you’ll see a minimal A-ball, and a minimal AA. So in other words there’s experience, and it’s all about that, it’s all about grown men, experienced players in AAA, and more of a youthful player in AA and down.
Once the regular season gets underway, what will your normal routine be?
I’ll spend time here in extended Spring. I’ll get this situated, cause I have 30-some guys here. Guys who weren’t ready to break, or major league rehab like Donald Veal. We’ll have him here. And I’ll (work with) him for probably, I’ll probably stick five, ten days here. Then I’ll probably go north and depending on the priorities at that time, I’ll go to all of the affiliates. The order that I go to them will depend on who needs what, when. Whether it be a coaching thing, or just evaluating. Then I’ll go to Pittsburgh, I spend a significant amount of time in Pittsburgh as well. That’s kind of what I’ll do. I don’t have a set schedule, I go bounce around. I try to do five at each affiliate, so I can see the rotation. And with the rotation you usually see all of the relievers in that five days, at every place.
How do you work with the coaches at each level to determine when a player is ready to make the jump to the next level, and how often are you in touch with the coaches to find out how a player is progressing along and what he is working on?
We talk everyday. I talk with every pitching coach everyday. Also the managers, Kyle Stark is involved heavily. There’s a lot of eyes, and a lot of things that go in to where the guy was, where he is now, and what he needs to do to go to the next level. So as these games go, we work on those things to get it all together, and when those things are met, and nailed for the most part, they are looked at as a possible promotion. If it’s a starting pitcher prospect, he’s going to go to the next level there’s got to be a starting pitching opening. And usually we’ll create them, if that guys pushing it, we’ll create that when it’s his time. If it’s not his time, for whatever reason – could be fatigue, could be anything, he’s just elevating the ball or getting out of his delivery, it could be anything that does this – we’ll slow the process down.
But it’s an art. It’s not like “this has to happen” and “you nail these things, you go”. It’s really not. It’s one of those things that has a lot of psychology involved, obviously the physical part, but just the idea where a guy is at right now. And then the rate of speed to the big leagues. Is it going to help him get there quicker? And when he gets there is he going to stay and be effective? Or just rushing him there are hoping? These are factors that are done in the industry, and I know with us we’re trying to lay solid foundations, because when things go poorly, when adversity hits, you’ve got the foundation built, that you can always reach down and fix those things. And a lot of the guys, if you see some of our guys in big league camp, we got them, former first rounders and what not, we got them because they were rushed. They were available, and waived. A guy like Aaron Thompson. He was available to us, really because he was rushed. He didn’t have a foundation, so when things went poorly for him, he didn’t have anything to go to. So we’re trying to rebuild the foundation there as quickly as we can.
Another philosophy or routine that has gotten a lot of attention lately with Tim Alderson is the 120 throwing program, and how you guys don’t do long toss. Do you let particular players do long toss, and escape from the 120 if they request it, and how would you deicide which players is right for which system?
We are big believers in long toss. All the way back to when I was in Montreal in the middle 90s. We threw long toss every day. I couldn’t be a bigger proponent of long toss. In a camp environment, if you have guys doing all different things, all the time, it gets a little crazy. So what we do, we go to 120, and then we isolate the longer distances. We have guys going 150, 180, 220. I have a guy going 280 right now. It’s individual. That would be a drill for us. There’s a reason for long toss to that extension point. There’s a destruction on certain mechanics with certain people, if they push or elevate, or throw it too high, things like that, that works against you. We try to keep the extension full, no matter the distance. We are huge proponents, and you see the velocities in our camp. We have numerous guys going from 92 to 97, 98, and it’s because of long toss, because of our weight work, because we throw four seamers, our velocities are up, and that’s the reason.
So many players have been drafted the last few years with the so-called “projectable frames”, tall, lean pitchers. How often do those players see an increase in velocity going from the high-80s to 90s MPH range that guys like Bryton Trepagnier and Logan Pevny are at, to getting in the mid-90s and higher?
These guys’ arm actions, they’re physical guys, their diet, their way of work is all ten thousand times better than when I played. For that reason alone their velocities will go up. Their deliveries, getting in to the backside where the power is, having them throw downhill plane, and putting a pull motion in versus a push. All of these things will predicate velocity, but velocity, we like velocity, it’s a nice value. But really you get paid for velocity once, and that’s at the amateur draft. The rest of it, it doesn’t matter. It’s about locating, downhill plane, being able to pitch in and out, being able to do it aggressively. That’s when it becomes more important, and then if you add the velocity to that, you’ve got a pretty good guy.
So much is made about the fastball command. What are the step by step levels? Obviously commanding the fastball is the end result, but what is the step by step to get to that?
I’m not as hard on that as a lot of people. I think you go down before in and out. In and out before up. Everybody’s different. You can’t say “you need to command one or both sides of the plate to get moved up”. There’s changeups, there’s things you can do to take pressure off of extreme command, where you have to dot it, where you have to nail it, that’s not command. Command to me is being able to throw balls on purpose, expanding the zone off the plate, that’s command as well, not just strikes. It’s quality strikes. When a guy has confidence he can pitch from the stretch with his fastball, he can pitch from the windup. Nobody on, nobody out. He can throw a strike anytime he wants. Like I said, throwing balls is command as well, as long as you have intent. Intent is the huge thing. If I’ve got a guy set up, and there’s the glove, and I can hit it on purpose, that’s command, regardless of where that glove is. So if that’s the case, you can build on that. And you can have that be level specific. But there’s no nailed down “you’ve got to do this to go to low-A”, there’s a lot of factors besides fastball command. I’m not as pounding as a lot of other guys on that.