The year 2010 was a much darker time for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, and the organization as a whole. The team was coming off a 99 loss season, and heading into a 105 loss season. Andrew McCutchen was good, but no one expected him to be an MVP at that point. There were some top prospects set to arrive, but the team was still far from contending, and the losing streak left many thinking they never would contend. There was no ace on the horizon, and at that time a guy with Charlie Morton’s numbers over the last few years would have been considered the staff ace. Nowadays, those same numbers (3.96 ERA/3.89 xFIP since 2011) get a response that the player shouldn’t even be in the majors.

One of the lone bright spots coming off the 2009 season was Perry Hill. The Pirates had the infield guru as their infield coach in 2009, in an effort to upgrade their defense at the major league level. It was the start of an approach — eventually expanded by defensive shifts — that led to the team eventually competing. But the organization was so bad that Hill walked away in 2010, sitting out of baseball for a year and voiding his contract, rather than returning to work for the Pirates.

At the time it was considered a huge loss for a team that had very little going right. Hill’s teaching methods were unique, and helped make him such a great coach. The idea was that the Pirates couldn’t replace him, and would lose the advantage that his defensive teaching would bring.

The Hill move at the time was widely reported. What doesn’t get reported at all is that the Pirates still use his teaching method in the minors. Current minor league infield coordinator Gary Green, who was the manager of the West Virginia Power in 2009 and 2010, before moving to his current role in 2011, adopted Hill’s teaching methods. Those include the simple approach of having fielders take hand thrown ground balls from their knees, before advancing to hand thrown ground balls from their feet, and finally taking balls of the bat. It’s an approach that is geared to work on the glove work first, before moving on and adding range and routes to the mix.

It’s hard to credit any approach with specific results, unless you start seeing those results over and over. But the Pirates have had good results with their infield defense in the minors since Hill left the organization. Jordy Mercer was always seen as an offense-first shortstop in his early pro days, and now he’s seen as a defense-first shortstop. That’s not all minor league teaching, as Clint Barmes played a big role here. But Mercer spent a lot of development time under Green.

Another success story is Gift Ngoepe, who didn’t have a strong baseball background from South Africa, but turned into the best defensive shortstop in the organization. Once again, it’s hard to say how much of this can be attributed to Green and the teaching methods that he adopted from Hill, but the bulk of Gift’s career has been under Green, and I know that in this case, he has spent a lot of time working with Green on improving his defense.

There’s also the current approach that the Pirates have of drafting athletic outfielders and moving them to the infield, which is the opposite of the type of move a player normally makes. The early results look promising, with JaCoby Jones showing some big improvements at the shortstop position in his year and a half with the Pirates, before being traded away this summer. In his time with Bradenton, I saw great range from Jones, but poor glove work and routes. Those eventually improved, and I learned during the season that Jones was doing the usual work with Green to improve those issues.

It doesn’t always work out. Alen Hanson, for example, struggled at shortstop for years before moving to second base, where his defense saw big improvements. And I know that Green spent a lot of time with Hanson at shortstop, including some specific one-on-one work when Hanson was in Bradenton in 2013. But the key here is that the Pirates lost a great coach, but kept his teaching methods in the organization to be used by other talented coaches.

I bring all of this up because the Pirates lost another great coach yesterday when Jim Benedict left to become the Vice President of Pitching with the Miami Marlins. Yesterday I broke down the type of impact Benedict had on the organization. He played big roles in the development of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, plus the many Pirates reclamation projects the last few years. And now the Pirates will be left with a similar problem they faced when Perry Hill departed: How can they replace such a great coach?

The truth in both cases is that you can’t fully replace the coach. You can try to continue the same teachings. You can focus on finding other talented coaches to replace the coach that left. But if it was that easy to replace the coach that left, he wouldn’t have been a great coach to begin with.

In Benedict’s case, he has a way of relating to pitchers that is rare. Take it from Clayton Richard, who worked with Benedict this Spring while he was with the Pirates’ organization. I broke down earlier in the year how Benedict rebuilt Richard’s mechanics using his football throwing motion from his days as a quarterback at Michigan. That allowed Richard to get back to the majors, where he put up a 3.83 ERA and a 3.43 xFIP in 42.1 innings with the Cubs in the second half.

“He’s pretty special in what he does. And that’s probably an understatement,” Richard said about Benedict. “The work he does through film and through his research, being able to understand people. And I think the biggest thing is he’s able to connect the mentality and the mental process to the physical mechanics and process. That’s a huge aid for me and I know for a lot of guys.”

The Pirates aren’t going to be able to replace that. What they can do is continue the same organizational philosophies, and try to find other talented coaches to step up and replace Benedict. As for the guys currently in the system, it’s hard to evaluate individual success stories with individual pitching coaches, as they don’t have the direct impact that a guy like Benedict has, since Benedict worked more as a special project type coach. Here are three guys who stand out in the current system, based on the roles they’ve had in the organization.

Scott Mitchell – He’s the Minor League Pitching Coordinator, so he has a had in the development of everyone in the system. The relationship between Mitchell and Benedict spans back a long way. He was a pitcher in the Expos system in the mid-90s when Benedict was the Minor League Pitching Coordinator of the organization. He was the Assistant Pitching Coordinator in 2011 with the Pirates under Benedict, until taking over for him in 2011. He’s worked closely with Benedict on developing pitchers since then, and has probably picked up a lot of techniques over the years that Benedict used. In comparison, it’s probably far beyond what the Pirates could have adopted from Hill’s one year in the organization.

Tom Filer – He was the pitching coach in Morgantown this year, but had coached Indianapolis from 2011-14, and Altoona before that. He’s been a pitching coach since 1994, working with the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Phillies. Prior to the Morgantown season starting, Filer worked with Jameson Taillon during his rehab appearances. I wouldn’t read much into the move from Indianapolis to Morgantown, as the Pirates don’t treat coaching assignments the same way they treat player assignments, instead sending coaches where they are needed and keeping them with specific groups of players.

Justin Meccage – In the last few years, Meccage has been getting an increased role in the organization. He moved from short-season to High-A, and then to Altoona this year. As I noted above, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a promotion for coaches in the Pirates’ system. However, in this case the move coincided with Tyler Glasnow’s development and a lot of other interesting prospects. Meccage moved up to Altoona this year with Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, and a lot of other emerging prospects in the system, and has done well working with that group the last 2-3 years. He also works closely with Mitchell, served as the Altoona manager this year when Tom Prince had to leave the team briefly, and was sent to the AFL as the pitching coach for the Glendale Desert Dogs, where he works with Steven Brault, Cody Dickson, Tyler Eppler, and Brett McKinney. From an outside perspective, it seems like he’s getting a push in the organization to a bigger role, and the results of the pitchers under him the last few years would justify that kind of push.

In each of these cases, it’s hard to determine how the pitching coaches could replace Benedict’s impact. They’d have to get an increased role and start to show results with individual work, just like Benedict had in the last few years with reclamation projects. But each of these guys are candidates to receive those increased roles in the future, to possibly try and replace Benedict’s impact.

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49 COMMENTS

  1. Fun article, but the comparison of Benedict to Hill strikes me as similar to saying the Pirates will be fine losing Cutch because things worked out well after trading Nate McClouth.

      • Tim, what about A. J. Burnett? What are his plans in retirement? Wouldn’t he be a good pitching coach and mentor?

      • The A & O is exactly what I thought about the reference to Hill in an article about a valued pitching instructor.

        • Both cases are similar. You’re losing a very talented coach who is hard to replace. They’re not going to replace what makes the coach great, but they can continue his methods and try to add further talent to make up for the loss.

          • Oh, and that Andrew McCutchen guy wasn’t any sort of talent making up for the loss of McClouth? Of course he was.

            Point being that Benedict’s value is much, much greater than Hill’s, as Cutch’s will be to McClouth’s.

            These things scale. I really enjoyed the article, no other place is listing descriptions of minor league pitching coaches, but Perry Hill certainly makes me feel no better about the ability to make up for a far more valuable loss.

            • I’m not even getting into the McCutchen/McLouth aspect that you brought up, which has no relevance here, and makes no sense in this discussion.

              The part about Hill shows their approach to replace a coach who is one of a kind. They’re going to need to do the same thing with Benedict — try to keep his methods and try to find other talented coaches who can emerge and teach those methods while connecting with players.

              • Sure, Tim. Not at all relevant to compare the actual scales at which an organizational asset can and have been replaced.

                If you truly believed that then there would be absolutely no point in including the post-Hill “success” stories you yourself gave in your own article.

                But there was, which is why you included that in the discussion.

                • Hill – Great coach. They lost him, but continued teaching his methods with good personnel.

                  Benedict – Great coach. They lost him, and I suggested they could do the same as Hill, trying to teach his methods with good personnel.

                  Now your comparison:

                  McLouth – Had a career year in 2008. Pirates had one of the best prospects in baseball at his position behind him, and sold high in a trade.

                  McCutchen – MVP calibre player. Still with the team. Hypothetical is that the Pirates could move on because they moved on from McLouth, despite different situations and different values.

                  Sorry, this comparison just does not work. Hill isn’t to McLouth what Benedict is to McCutchen. And once you get past that loose attempt at a comparison, the wheels fall off this argument.

                  • My goodness.

                    Now you’re truthfully trying to convince *anybody*, let alone yourself, that Perry Hill provided similar value to the Pirates as Jim Benedict?

                    Laughably wrong.

                    • No one ever compared Hill’s value to Benedict. That’s a strawman that you’re trying to force into this discussion for some reason. I’m just pointing out their approach in replacing good coaches.

                  • Love the analogies – makes me feel as if I’m taking the SAT again. Take it all with a grain of salt Tim. It is a good article – thought provoking. And I agree with your assessment; any successful business organization takes the same approach.
                    BTW: my employer wants to speak with you. They feel as if I spend too much time on this site rather than working.

  2. I’m hoping we hire a VP of Randomness. Because if there’s one area where the Pirates need to do better, that’s it. Getting tired of randomness kicking our butt in October.

  3. I know the article is about Benedict, but I did not see any mention of Ray Searage.

    Were there any pitchers who did not adhere to the Benedict/Searage methods, and never got any better?

      • Are you suggesting pitchers that were drafted and didn’t pan out are proof of a lack of something on the part of Benedict and Searage?

          • Apart from the random snide comment about blanket statements on a site chalked full of in depth analysis, I think that’s wholly unfair to how good Benedict and Ray are.

            It’d be like focusing on each time Cutch got out as proof he misses a lot. It’s true, but every player fails more than succeeds and that’s not the point.

            Much like in this scenario, every team misses on moat of their pitching prospects and draftees. But most teams haven’t been able to do what PGH had in developing arms both from within and with reclamation projects. The best pitching mind ever will miss on a lot of players drafted over a 5 year span, that’s not the point.

            • Just don’t let me catch you bitching about the lack of young pitching. And no its not all Benedicts fault. But the majority of his success was rehabilitating veterans.

              And the funny part it is, because our young pitching is still not ready, they AGAIN have to go out and get someone else.

              • When you draft a ton of HS arms, it’s your fault if you expect them to be ML ready in 3 years…even 4.

                It takes longer to develop a high school arm, but fans don’t care for that context. It was always going to take guys like Taillon and Glasgow longer, even before injury. Acting like them not being here by now is failure is a failure of your expectations of a HS arm.

                Our young pitching is largely due to the success of Benedict and Co in developing those raw talented arms into usable pitchers.

                  • The 2010 draft that gave them Taillon, Kingham, Cumpton, and Sadler? Depth the last three years, and two starters who project to be in Pittsburgh as starters in the future? What’s wrong with that draft, other than injuries delaying Taillon and Kingham?

                    • The title of your headline was “How Can the Pirates Replace Jim Benedict’s Impact When Developing Pitchers”.

                      Other than Cole, who is developed? All four of the guys you named have spent significant time on the DL. Cumpton and Salder are the only ones to make ML starts (16) and have a combined ERA north of 5 with a below average WHIP.

                      (clap,clap,clap) Yay, for the Buccos they developed a bunch of back of the rotation starters. Where’s Luke with the participation trophy?

                      Again, Benedict and Searage deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done with fixing veteran pitchers. But dont sit here and rattle off injured prospects and tell me everything is okay.

                    • Keep my name out of yours posts if all you care to do is insult me for no reason in a post not directed at me. I enjoy arguing about merits of the ideas and arguing passionately, but im not arguing with other people and childishly insulting you for fun while doing so.

                      We can disagree and not continually act like the other is worthy of mocking.

                      We disagree on what “development success” means and where success/failure lies in that process. I, and others, dont see the current development standpoint of guys like Taillon/Glasnow/Cumpton as lacking just because they arent aces. You disagree.

                    • “guys like Taillon/Glasnow/Cumpton as lacking just because they arent aces”

                      Never said they were or had to be aces. What I want them to be is exactly what the Pirates need right now, and thats viable #3’s. Something the Piratesare on the free agent market for right now, because (again) they arent ready.

                      Dont give the Pirates credit because Baseball America says Glasnows a good prospect or Harold Ramirez could be a player. Give them credit when those guys actually turn into something. THATS where I disagree with you and Tim.

                    • Thats fair. But the issue for me (wont speak for others) is that that isnt my definition of development overall. I dont say “these coaches lack in developing players” if they take a HS boom or bust arm and turn him into a seriously talented guy able to pitch rather than just throw. Even “just” being in AAA points to success in development. Not the ultimate success, but this isnt black or white for me.

                      For me, taking a HS arm and in 3-4 years having him at AAA widely considered one of the best arms in the minors is a development plus. Because many arms, even 1st rounders, out of HS struggle to fit that timeline.

                    • One of the things that concerns me about the Benedict departure, which Steve Z kind of brought up…The Marlins are basically going to be targeting these reclamation projects too. Along with other teams.

                    • I think teams are already doing that. Thats a worry, but personally i see the success of the FA reclamations as just as much about Searage as Benedict. Those guys dont spend as much time with Benedict after ST, and during ST its both Benedict and Searage attacking their needs.

                      As far as the reclamation projects go, the team still has the strong ability of going after certain guys it feels confident have the tools needed, and still has Searage to bring them in and (hopefully) get them to buy into tweaks needed. I think the biggest worry in losing Benedict comes in the minors.

                    • It depends on your definition of “developed”.

                      You seem to think that we can only look at what has happened in the majors so far.

                      Cumpton was a 9th round pick that played a huge depth role in 2013/2014, and actually has a career 4.02 ERA, not north of 5 like you said. You get “north of 5” when you add in Sadler’s 15 innings, most of which were garbage work in 2014. He made a nice start this year before going down with an injury. But the fact that they got this from a 25th round JuCo guy (and could get more depth going forward) is good development.

                      Cole had top of the rotation potential, but Benedict helped turn that into a top of the rotation pitcher. This gets undervalued because he was drafted first overall, but you have to actually develop these guys. They don’t just spend X amount of time at each level and one day flip a switch.

                      Taillon has also seen huge developments in the minors. That just hasn’t shown up in the majors. The same can be said for Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and plenty of other prospects in the system.

                      The 2009 draft had horrible results. It’s still too early to expect results from anything after that. The guys who were supposed to be up this year — Taillon and Kingham — had Tommy John surgery. That’s no reason to fault the development.

              • If Tommy John didn’t derail them, we may be talking about Kingham and Taillon as our numbers 3 and 4 going into next year. It’s tough to blame them not being in the show on the organization.

                  • So instead of “if”, you just want to blame it on poor development… 2009 was just a terrible draft year starting with 2 beers Sanchez, but to have a possible 4 pitchers making an impact at the MLB level in the 2010 draft I would say is successful.

                    • “making an impact”…What is your definition of making an impact? 4 ER,5 IP Spot starts or 15 to 20 quality starts a season?

                  • You seem to no longer be arguing about development but about how quickly they arrived in the majors/developed. For some, a HS arm not showing up on 3-4 years is a failure. For others, a few of those HS arms being top 100 prospects in AAA is a giant win from a development standpoint.

                    To each their own, but from a pure development standpoint its a plus on the part of the team that they got those arms to be so close to the majors and to be such unanimously considered top 100 prospects. Because even a 1st round pick takes a ton of development out of HS.

    • Sanchez was the biggest one reportedly not super wanting to change a ton when he showed up, and didn’t really improve.

    • Perry Hill spent one year with the Pirates, then sat out a year rather than work here. He’s now on his second tour of duty with the Marlins, the current one now going into its sixth year.

      I’m guessing Perry has a different take on things than you. And you can presume Benedict talked to Perry before accepting the Marlins’ offer.

      • Baseball people say the Marlins compensate their people very well. Just saw this mentioned again last week in relation to Mattingly.

        • I was thinking about your comment. What his hiring does, is it creates another competitor for the pitchers the Pirates target.

          Can you imagine when Florida outbids them on someone? Will the Marlins target Happ? Someone else they like? Another interesting thing to follow.

      • still too bad that Perry didn’t stick around long enough for things to get Good around here. Then he might have had a different take on things, too.

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