First Pitch: The Day Huntington and Stark Lost Their Jobs?
When I read Dejan Kovacevic’s column on the Navy SEAL training last night, my initial reaction was “someone is getting fired”. Between the team’s horrible play at the major league level, and now this news coming out complete with Kyle Stark’s e-mail, it was the perfect recipe for a full day of “Look at how the Pirates have collapsed in the second half…and while we’re at it, take a look at the joke they are in the minors.”
That’s pretty much what happened today. Yahoo picked up the story. Then Deadspin, CBS, and other outlets. If you Google “Hell’s Angels”, the fifth article that comes up is about this situation. All of the articles were pretty much the same. It was a regurgitation of Kovacevic’s original article, with their own “this is crazy!” input added between the quotes. Only Jeff Passan in the Yahoo link added more to the story, most notably when he mentioned that Jameson Taillon had previously been injured in a similar extreme training drill (we’ll get to that later).
I wanted to take my time and think about this whole topic. I wanted to think about the things I’ve seen at Pirate City, and the things I’ve heard, keeping in mind a lot of what was said today. I wanted to consider what other organizations and players do. I didn’t want to just give my initial reaction of “this sounds crazy, and it’s probably going to lead to someone getting fired”. That’s kind of a lazy reaction, and it’s a typical reaction any time you hear of a team doing things differently.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out the articles that Charlie and Pat wrote about this subject. I usually don’t read others before I write, but I wanted to see what they had to say on the subject while I was thinking about it today. They both brought up some good points, some of which you’ll see me touch on below.
The biggest thing for me out of all of this was the training. I spend most of my focus on this site following how individual players are developing. So Kyle Stark sending a motivational e-mail to his staff which comes off a bit crazy isn’t really a big deal to me. I’m more concerned with the direct impact on the players.
Kovacevic wrote about the Navy SEAL’s training last week, and it wasn’t a topic I was interested in. The Pirates sent their minor league players to instructs three days early to go through Navy SEAL training. The basis of the argument boiled down to “this is ridiculous that they’d focus on this while the whole system struggles with fundamentals”. The latter is a valid complaint, but I don’t see how three extra days of intense training and team building exercises relates.
The recent articles detailed some of those intense workouts. Quoting the list from Kovacevic:
So let’s start with the SEALS activity list I was texted. And bear in mind, these are baseball players:
• Wake up at 5 a.m.
• Organize room/locker
• Pushups and sit-ups
• Serpentine on the grass
• Crab walk
• Running along the beach with a telephone-type pole, carried by five or six players
• Pushing a truck tire through the outfield for 90 feet, then flipping it
• Being sprayed by a hose
• Diving into a sand pile
All with a drill sergeant barking orders throughout.
Some of those sound pretty extreme, such as pushing a truck tire around, or running along the beach with a telephone poll. Jeff Passan added to that, saying that Jameson Taillon had injured his knee in a previous year after hand-to-hand combat. When I spoke to Taillon prior to the 2011 season he said he had a minor knee injury. I didn’t think to ask “did this happen in hand-to-hand combat?” The knee injury wasn’t serious, and didn’t restrict Taillon. But it gets you thinking “what if the injury had been serious?” Then you start to think about other injuries. For example, Jeff Inman missed Spring Training and the early part of the season with an ankle injury. A relief pitcher suffering an ankle injury sounds strange, but it is Jeff Inman, who has been injury prone the last few years. Looking back with this information, you start to wonder if it was because of the extreme training. I don’t know if it was or wasn’t, but proof might not matter. If the Pirates continue these extreme training courses, every single injury that comes up will have people wondering “is this because of the Navy SEAL style training?”, even if the training had nothing to do with it.
That’s pretty much the case with every extreme training style. While the above is extreme, I can’t really fault the Pirates for doing things differently. That seemed to be the general complaint today — the Pirates were doing things differently and writers, anonymous American League scouts, and some people in the organization didn’t like it. The main complaint is the risk of injury. That was my first concern, but then I started thinking a bit more. This is how every extreme workout gets viewed. Look at all of the attention paid to guys like Trevor Bauer or Dylan Bundy for their extreme pre-game workouts, and extreme training methods. And it’s not just them. Athletes go to API, which is the “boot camp of baseball training facilities”, where they wake up at 6 AM and go through two rigorous training sessions per day. There’s always the “this is different, and it could lead to an injury” reaction to those exercises. Unless they lead to success. Then, like API, they’re innovative and more people start practicing the extreme methods.
The Navy SEAL training might be a bit more extreme, but is that a problem? I’d say yes and no. There are some parts which probably bring too much injury risk. For example, carrying a pole on a beach just sounds like potential injuries waiting to happen. It also sounds like a team building exercise. In this case, I’m not sure if the team building out-weighs the potential for risk.
I’ve seen some pretty intense team building drills at Pirate City. Last year during instructs I watched an infield throwing drill where, if the baseball got past a player while it was being thrown wildly around the diamond, the entire team had to run to the center field wall and back to home plate. And that’s not just the guys on the field. That’s the entire team, even guys standing around watching. The players had to throw one-hops intentionally, which is going to lead to some passed balls. Sure enough, the team ran a lot that day, including catchers in full catchers gear. If you thought the Navy SEAL training sounded extreme, try watching Jin-De Jhang running from home plate to the center field wall and back — over 800 feet total — over and over in full catching gear in the Florida heat and humidity in September.
That drill was meant to be a team building exercise, with the message that if one player makes a mistake, it hurts the whole team. It was a pretty extreme workout, but there was never any threat of injuries. So while some of the Navy SEAL training methods could be seen as the next step in pushing for more extreme and innovative workouts, I think it’s possible to achieve the same thing while removing the risk of injury.
Overall I’m not overly concerned with the workouts. It’s one of those things that is different, which means people will automatically criticize it. But that doesn’t make it a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of those extreme/innovative things that people would copy if the farm system started producing a lot of success.
Kyle Stark’s E-Mail
That brings me to the farm system, and to Stark’s e-mail. The e-mail sounded like a motivational e-mail that went a bit over the top. I will point out that if you read the entire e-mail, you’ll see that Stark didn’t come up with the whole “hippies, boy scouts, and Hells Angels” comment. He was quoting Olympian Mac Wilkins. While Stark didn’t come up with the saying, he certainly adopted the quote, far beyond the normal “how can we apply this approach to us”. I don’t think the e-mail would sound as strange if he dropped the continued “Hells Angels” references and just said what the focus needs to be on developing young players.
The reaction to the e-mail was similar to the reaction to the SEAL training. It was a lot of piling on in a “this is strange, so therefore it’s bad” way. But I think a lot of loose connections were made between the e-mail and things that had nothing to do with the e-mail. In almost a “Chewbacca Defense” kind of way, everyone talked about how crazy the e-mail sounded, and then pointed out their problems with the farm system and the major league team. Those are totally separate issues from the e-mail, where the only fault is that it went a bit over-the-top with the analogies.
There are concerns to be had. The major league team is free-falling, getting embarrassed by some of the worst teams in baseball in the process. But that doesn’t have to do with fundamentals or anything taught in the farm system. A big reason the team is struggling in the second half is that the pitching has fallen off the last two months. There’s also been some horrible offensive displays, but even when the offense shows up, the pitching blows the game. That’s not really on Stark. That would be more on Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle, since they’ve got more influence on this team.
In the minors, there are definitely questions about the drafting and development of players. I pointed out the other day that the 2009 draft is lacking an impact player, and is looking bad right now, at a time where we should be seeing results. I wouldn’t say the 2008 draft looks bad. Pedro Alvarez is playing well in the majors this year, and 6th round pick Robbie Grossman was the top piece in the Wandy Rodriguez trade. You’re typically looking for three players out of every draft, and the Pirates have more or less secured two as a result of that draft. But I think if you look at the overall results of those first two drafts, and if you don’t take a black and white approach, then you’ll see that the results aren’t horrible, but aren’t close to ideal at this point.
The big question is hard to answer: is this a scouting issue, or a development issue? Are the Pirates drafting bad players, or are they drafting good players and failing to develop them? It’s hard to say that it’s a drafting issue. All of the drafts were praised at the time, and a lot of the players were considered top talents, not just by the Pirates, but by national outlets. That would lead us to development. But the development hasn’t been universally bad. Top names like Zack Von Rosenberg and Stetson Allie have struggled, but guys like Robbie Grossman, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham have taken some positive steps in the system.
Then there’s the “who gets credit for which player?” Two of the biggest success stories this year have been Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco. With any international signing, I give credit to Rene Gayo and his team of scouts in Latin America for adding the player. It doesn’t matter who the GM is at the time, it’s those guys doing the scouting and finding the players. But what about the development? I’ve watched Gregory Polanco the last few years. I’ve loved his upside, but until this year he’s never lived up to his potential. Gayo and his team get the credit for adding Polanco, but who gets the credit for developing him?
The Pirates have developed players under Stark, whether those players were acquired by Dave Littlefield, Neal Huntington, or signed by the international scouts. Starling Marte was almost fully developed by this group. Kyle McPherson and Rudy Owens both turned their careers around after going through the “fastball academy”. Alex Presley went from a guy who looked like he would never reach Double-A, to a guy who looks like a good fourth outfielder in the majors. And let’s not forget that Neil Walker was struggling and looked on his way to being a utility player until he broke out in 2010 in his fourth try at the Triple-A level.
Who gets the credit for this type of stuff? A lot of it is written off as “well, they were already here, so they don’t count”. But if a player’s development came under a specific farm director, it would be hard to say that director didn’t play any role in the development simply because he wasn’t here when the player was acquired. And I think we need to consider another thing. Most of these guys were acquired in 2006-2007, and they’re just now making it to the majors. That’s a pretty standard pace for most players. Yet you see a lot of people questioning why the 2008-2012 draft classes haven’t produced much major league talent yet.
Pointing out a few success stories doesn’t mean they’re doing a remarkable job. It just means that they have something to show for their work. At the same time, things don’t look good for the 2009 draft, where their strategy to go signability in the first round definitely put a lot of weight on not only their ability to scout and develop players. That was their first opportunity to not only find good players, but take those raw high school talents and turn them in to impact players. And so far the results don’t look good.
When we break down what could be going wrong with the development, we get to the theories and philosophies. We’ve talked about how the Pirates ignore the running game all throughout the system. That’s not a huge problem, but it is a problem. It also doesn’t make sense in that they don’t feel it is important to prevent people from stealing, but they feel it is important to try and risk outs on the bases by sending their own guys in an attempt to steal. And every time a Pirate is thrown out on the base paths, it serves as a frustrating reminder that the Pirates have so many fast players, and almost all of them have horrible base running fundamentals.
Some of the philosophies get made in to a big deal when they actually aren’t. The “fastball academy”, for example, isn’t a big deal. It was a big deal because the Pirates didn’t focus that much on fastball command prior to this group taking over. But it’s not an approach that is unique to the Pirates. It was just new to the Pirates.
Perhaps the biggest philosophy could be the way the Pirates promote players. I get comments all the time that the Pirates are slow to promote their players. I’ve pointed out that this isn’t true. There are a ton of examples where the Pirates are aggressive. They might not have ultra-aggressive approaches like Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy in the majors at 19, but that doesn’t mean they’re slow. There is one area where they could be considered slow, and that’s holding a player back when he’s ready for a promotion, all to produce adversity. The Pirates have a theory that it is better for a player to experience adversity in the minors than in the majors. In a lot of cases they’ll delay promoting a player to try and create some adversity. Teach the player to only focus on things he can control, and forget about the things he can’t control, such as when will he be promoted? But I’m not sure that prepares players for adversity.
Adversity in the majors comes when a player reaches the majors and gets hit around, gets overmatched by hitters, or fails to adjust to an adjustment. That’s not something you can create by holding a player back from a promotion when he’s ready. That approach does allow the player to deal with adversity, but only by making him wonder “why haven’t I been promoted?” That’s not the same adversity as “why can’t I pitch in to the fifth inning” in the majors. It seems the best way to get that adversity would be to go ultra-aggressive in promoting players, such as what we’ve seen with Machado, Bundy, or Bryce Harper. Send them to a level above their current talent level. If they succeed, keep pushing them. If they struggle, you’ve got your adversity, which is a closer match to major league adversity than just holding a player back from a promotion a few weeks.
When it comes to discussions of evaluating the Pirates personnel, and deciding if they should continue, I feel it’s best to wait until after the season. Any analysis now is usually filled with guesses on what could happen over the final two weeks, and “what if” analysis based on those predictions. I’d rather just wait and see what happens, then react to all of the information we have. But it’s impossible to avoid the subject with all of the discussions on the topic going around the last few weeks.
I said in the opening that I could see someone getting fired over this, and that someone would probably be Kyle Stark. But I think that Stark would be going down as a scapegoat here. It’s not that Stark has been perfect. I’ve mentioned a few concerns with the development and philosophy of players. I’ve also mentioned a few success stories, but just because there are some success stories doesn’t mean a person is doing a good job. Dave Littlefield had a few success stories.
All of this news is being tied in to the horrible play by the Pirates. As a result, it’s being presented as “the entire organization is a joke”, with the reaction to Kyle Stark’s e-mail making him the poster child. I don’t necessarily agree with that, as I think that makes him the scapegoat, rather than focusing on the problems throughout the organization. I don’t think there’s much of a problem with an innovative/extreme workout or a motivational e-mail that sounds crazy. I think there are other problems to focus on, such as the continued struggles of the major league club, as well as questions about the development and philosophies in the minors. The SEAL training and the e-mail have nothing to do with those issues.
I said a few weeks ago that I don’t think Neal Huntington should be fired. At this point it seems like it would take a miracle for the team to finish above .500 this year. But if that happened, can you imagine firing the General Manager who ended the losing streak, right after he ended the streak? Ending the losing streak shouldn’t be the goal, but it does show progress. That progress would be enough for me to see one more year out of Huntington and company, with the expectations that next year it is playoffs or bust.
There’s a difference between my opinion of what should happen, and what will happen. After thinking about it today, it wouldn’t surprise me if the house was cleaned after this season. That’s not just Stark, but Huntington as well, and maybe more (I don’t think you can clean house and keep Clint Hurdle around for a new GM). I think that’s hard to avoid when you combine the horrible play over the last two months with the potential for losing season number 20, and mix in the national black eye that this situation has created. It’s hard to see people keeping their jobs if the Pirates go from 16 games over .500, to finishing below .500, and in the process every outlet cites sources around the industry mocking their development approach.
This probably isn’t something that garners much attention if the team is winning. But the team isn’t winning. I’ve previously said Huntington shouldn’t be fired. But every loss to the Astros or Cubs, and every no-name pitcher that dominates the offense chips away at that belief. When I said Huntington shouldn’t be fired, it was with the belief that the team wouldn’t look overmatched against the Astros and Cubs, and would finish with a record near .500. It’s getting harder to believe that will happen, especially with losses like tonight.
If the team finishes this collapse to the season, then I think Huntington might be gone. It would be hard to say that’s not justified if that happens. You can’t finish a season like this, all while being embarrassed by the local and national media for your development approach, and keep your job. I think there’s some good things this management team has done. I think the team is heading in the right direction. I do have concerns with some of their philosophies and theories, and I don’t think all of the results are great. And I think that while the team is doing well and they seem to be heading in the right direction, you can ask if they’re doing well enough, and ask if someone else might have them further along.
What I think the most is that in a few weeks we might be looking back at today and saying “that was the day Neal Huntington and/or Kyle Stark lost their job(s)”. Between the continued horrible play in the second half, the national embarrassment of today’s story, and the fact that there are some concerning questions in the farm system, I would feel that’s more justified than I felt it would have been a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s .500 or bust at this point for this management group.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost to the Astros 7-1.