The big focus this past off-season was on A.J. Burnett. The right-hander played a big role in the Pittsburgh rotation the previous two years, then after having his status up in the air for several months, he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. There was another person who the Phillies tried to sign away from the Pirates (not Marlon Byrd, who they did sign away), and that person’s importance to the Pirates was much bigger than Burnett or any other pitcher. This person turned down the Phillies and stayed with the Pirates. His name is Jim Benedict.
The Phillies interviewed Benedict for their open pitching coach position, and came away impressed. Eventually, he turned them down, and remained in Pittsburgh as a special assistant to the General Manager, with his most important role being the work he does with pitchers in both the majors and minors.
I was thinking about Benedict on Sunday after Vance Worley’s start. As Ryan Palencer reported earlier in the season, Worley spent the first month in extended Spring Training, working with Benedict to get his mechanics back on track. It’s still early, but based on everything we’ve seen in Triple-A and his start on Sunday, Worley might be “back”, and capable of putting up numbers similar to his 2011-12 seasons. That would be a huge steal for the Pirates, since they’d control him through the 2018 season, and got him for nothing.
If Benedict was in part responsible for Worley’s turnaround, then it wouldn’t be anything new. Ray Searage gets a ton of the credit for the success with reclamation projects, but Benedict is a big part of this as well. He’s had a hand in almost every pitcher’s development in the current rotation.
The biggest one was Charlie Morton, who worked with Benedict on overhauling his game, becoming the sinkerball pitcher he is right now. Morton still works with Benedict on further adjustments, adding new pitches and working on refining old pitches. The result this year is that Morton has the best numbers in the rotation, and is looking like a solid number three starter.
Jeff Locke was a guy struggling with his command, when Benedict worked with him on adding a turn to his delivery. Since that adjustment, Locke has made the jump to the majors, and while he’s struggled at times, he still looks like he has a future in a Major League rotation. That’s a big jump from before the adjustment.
Benedict has worked with reclamation projects like Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano, helping Ray Searage to make certain adjustments. Every time I watched Volquez in Spring Training, Benedict was right beside him, watching him and offering advice at the end of the bullpen session. After one session, Benedict yelled out “that was your best one yet”. It was at that point (also after seeing his curve and changeup) that I started thinking Volquez might work out.
Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both were hard throwers who had fastballs that were too easy to hit. Benedict worked with both guys from day one, focusing on making their fastballs harder to hit. Cole has seen success with this approach in the majors so far. Taillon has also done a much better job of throwing at the knees.
Big name pitchers are always going to get the attention. When there’s a reclamation project, a big portion of the success will go to the player, as it should. The same goes for a prospect working out. But the guys who have a hand in all of this are invaluable to a small market team like the Pirates. Benedict has a hand in Charlie Morton’s overhaul, Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke reaching the majors, the reclamation projects of Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and others, and possibly the Vance Worley complete turnaround. When he decided to remain in Pittsburgh, that was the best thing to happen to the Pirates this past off-season. And that would have been true, no matter who they signed.
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