BRADENTON, Fl. – “Ray Searage will fix him.”
That’s the line you’ve heard after pretty much every signing this off-season. Sometimes it was in the optimistic form of liking a move because of what Ray Searage could do with a player. Sometimes it was searching for the silver lining, trying to find hope for a move that didn’t look good.
But this approach and high praise for Searage wasn’t just among the Pirates fan base. It existed around the league. Every new pitcher I’ve talked with so far has issued some sort of high praise for the work Searage has done with pitchers in the last few years. Some of this was just a simple reaction to his track record, while others asked around and got great reviews from pitchers who used to be coached by Searage.
Ryan Vogelsong was in the Pirates’ system when Searage was on the minor league side of things, so he didn’t need to ask around for opinions. He’s also a guy who is looking to bounce back from a bad season. He put up a 4.67 ERA and 4.55 xFIP last year with the Giants, after posting a 4.00 ERA/3.96 xFIP in 2014 over 184.2 innings. His numbers in 2011 and 2012 were very similar to the 2014 season.
“You have to be excited about what he’s done with the guys,” Vogelsong said. “He’s done a great job, and I’ve known Ray for a long time. He was here when I was here the last time in the minor leagues. I always enjoyed talking to him and being around him.”
In fact, Vogelsong kept the relationship going, always making it a point to say hi to Searage when the two crossed paths, such as when the Giants would play the Pirates the last few years.
“I’m excited to work with him. His track record with turning some guys around has been amazing,” Vogelsong said. “I’m always trying to get better everyday, and I feel like that’s one of the things that’s kept me around the game this long. You need to try and improve something everyday you’re out here. I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say, and trying new things, and at the same time, just try and execute what I know. From my experience, what it comes down to is making pitches, hitting the glove, hitting locations, and really it comes down to making as many good pitches as you can. If he can help me do that more consistently, I’m all for it.”
Jon Niese is another guy who could use a bounce back. He had a 4.13 ERA/4.11 xFIP in 2015, but was a 2.0+ WAR pitcher every year from 2011-14, posting a 3.60-3.84 xFIP in most years during that stretch (along with a 3.28 xFIP in 2011). This is a case where it doesn’t seem like it would take much to get Niese back to his former self, rather than the cases in the past where the Pirates have been hoping to get players back to their one good season that happened many years ago.
“His reputation is pretty remarkable from what I’ve heard from a lot of different guys,” Niese said. “It seems like he knows his stuff. He takes his craft pretty seriously. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Then there are the more extreme projects. Cory Luebke had a great stretch from 2010-2012, combining for a 3.25 ERA/3.21 xFIP. He has since missed the last three seasons after undergoing two Tommy John surgeries and a nerve setback last year. So this off-season, Luebke said that the Pirates were one of the first teams he brought up to his agent, after hearing advice from 2015 reclamation project Clayton Richard.
“We had some discussions on why are the Pirates doing so well getting guys that are coming off some injuries, and guys that are rejuvenating their career a little bit,” Luebke said of his talks with Richard. “What are they doing? Clayton said it’s a lot of good minds, good staff, good structure. So definitely, in my situation, that was kind of exactly what I was looking for.”
The fact that Richard had good things to say about the entire organization is a positive, since Richard did a lot of work with Jim Benedict last year, and had high praise for the work that Benedict did. It’s nice to see that this praise extended beyond just Benedict.
Then there’s Eric O’Flaherty, who used to be one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball, but suffered a few injury and mechanical issues the last few years, and had a down year in 2015. O’Flaherty said that working with Searage was a big draw to him joining the organization, after hearing about him from Jesse Chavez and Justin Wilson, with the latter coming via Brian McCann.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys that kind of hit a little bump in the road and smooth things out here,” O’Flaherty said. “That was definitely a big draw, getting a chance to work with Ray. Actually, this is one of the teams I didn’t know too many guys on, but I called around to a few guys who had come through here and worked with them. And everyone said the same thing. They said he was amazing. There wasn’t one guy who said he’s okay. Everybody said great things.”
Those aren’t the only guys who are looking for a bounce back from Searage. Juan Nicasio had a solid season in relief last year for the Dodgers, and the Pirates are most likely using him as a reliever. However, if they need early season starting depth, Nicasio is a guy they will turn to, and he hasn’t had the best results in the starting role in the past. That’s another example of Searage needing to find a way to potentially fix someone.
All of these guys eventually add up, and it makes you wonder if there’s a limit to how much Searage can do. But part of that thinking assumes Searage would be starting from scratch with each guy. As Clint Hurdle points out, the Pirates usually saw something they liked with each of the guys they bring in.
“I don’t know if there’s a limit,” Hurdle said. “I think we look at the individuals, and we believe they have a chance to bounce back. Guys we bring back we think can pop, we can help pop again. Depending on the roles that they’re in, one in the starting rotation, you might take one or two in the bullpen, and then you get some other guys to compete for opportunities. So it’s never going to be you’re going to bring in four starters hoping four are going to pop back for your rotation. I don’t think that would ever be an occasion we would look to try to fall into.”
Neal Huntington noted there is a limit, but also said it’s not just Ray Searage doing the work, while repeating the idea that the Pirates saw something indicating a bounce back.
“We’re not an 18 car garage, where we’re trying to rebuild a bunch of engines and do some body work,” Huntington said. “We need to be cognizant, and that’s where it is not just Ray. It is Ray, it’s [Euclides Rojas], it’s Scott Mitchell, it’s Stan Kyles, it’s Justin Meccage, and now Scott Elarton. But then we also need to be cognizant of taxing our performance team too much. We need to be aware of it. In each one of those cases, we believe there are strong indicators that they would have better seasons in ’16 than ’15.”
But what about the man himself? How does Ray Searage feel about having so many guys in camp who are either coming off a down year, or a few down years, or much bigger projects?
“It’s not a burden whatsoever, because this is basically what we do anyway as pitching coaches when you’re in the minor leagues,” Searage said. “You’re trying to build good deliveries, sound deliveries to make them the best pitcher they can possibly be. It doesn’t change at the Major League level.”
That’s an interesting point, and one I didn’t really consider before. Searage was a pitching coach in the minors for a long period of time, and in that role he has an entire rotation and an entire bullpen to try and develop. And that’s not counting situations like Spring Training, where you’re helping players all throughout the organization. So why would it be difficult to work with two rotation members, a few bullpen guys, and trying to squeeze something out of the non-roster invitees, especially when he has all of the minor league coaches helping out?
One misconception is that it takes a lot of time for an individual reclamation project. The fact is that Searage takes an approach where he doesn’t need to spend a lot of time with each guy.
“The amount of information that you give them, you can’t overload them, because they’ll shut you off,” Searage said. “You try to keep one or two keys. You also try to have conversations with them. But the biggest thing is building those relationships, and building that trust, and then you have an open door to make suggestions. And then they’ll try something, if they don’t like it, then they’ll move on.”
I asked Searage whether he just has quick conversations with guys, or has a longer sit-down while watching videos.
“A combination of both,” Searage said. “They’re quick conversations, but they’re also quick sitdowns. Unless there’s something that’s really dire, it shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to pull up a video and say this is what I’ve seen, this is what you were doing.”
As an example, Searage might see a pitcher’s video from 2012, notice something they’re not doing now, and compare the difference with the pitcher. A lot of the development process just involves studying up on the player.
“That’s basically what it is,” Searage said. “You do your homework. Do your homework as a coach to help this guy out.”
As for whether he has to change his approach with different pitchers, Searage feels that the best way is to keep a consistent approach, so that players know where he’s coming from.
“If you’re steady, you keep your same approach. And then they see what you’re all about,” Searage said. “If you keep on trying to change with different personalities, then all of a sudden they’re not going to get a good read on you. But if you’re steady about yourself and be yourself — when I first got this job, they said ‘Just be you’, and that’s stuck on my head like an iron, and that’s what I try to do.”
Ray Searage has a busy workload this spring. But the Pirates believe that the players they brought in are on the verge of a bounce back. Searage also isn’t alone, with a lot of talented pitching coaches helping out in the organization. And a busy workload of pitchers who need development is not a foreign concept to a guy who coached minor league ball from 1994 to 2010. Most importantly, Searage genuinely doesn’t seem concerned about the amount of work he has to do, and from an outside perspective, it looks like he’s got the short meeting approach down. Now we’ll see if he can do his magic once again, as the 2016 rotation and bullpen might be his biggest challenge yet.
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