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.