Ray Searage was on 93.7 The Fan before Saturday night’s game, and during his interview, made some comments about the Pirates’ approach.
Searage said that the team is not pitching to contact, sending out a message to Pirates fans that this approach “happened way back when.” A later comment also seemed to be directed at the fans.
“It gets frustrating when you have to defend yourself or your pitchers because people are starting to say that the pitching is this or the pitching is that. Okay, so be it. You’ve got that opportunity to sit in the stands, be judgmental and critical of what we do out here. But you don’t know the inside part of the game, the game within the game. That’s where you need to get a little bit better.”
Those two quotes got the most attention from what I saw right after the interview. And rightfully so. They sound pretty bad on their own, and they don’t get much better with additional comments. I went looking for those additional quotes, and Jason Mackey of the Post Gazette had a few more quotes from the interview.
Before I get to what I felt was the most relevant quote, I want to quickly discuss those two comments from above.
First, I’m not sure what Searage is referring to when he discusses the pitch to contact approach that happened way back when. There were certain extreme aspects of that approach which happened a long time ago. One of the most extreme was the 2008-2009 State College Spikes throwing almost nothing but fastballs. When the Pirates saw that the “fastball academy” wasn’t working, they moved on to something else.
I could never fault this. If you’re going to be innovative, you’re going to run into some strategies that just didn’t work out. The “fastball every pitch” approach didn’t work, but other strategies that started first in the minors — extreme defensive shifts, for example — carried over to MLB success.
And the Pirates had success with a similar approach from 2013-15, going for quick outs, with pitchers focusing on recording those outs in three pitches or less. That’s a pitch to contact approach no matter what alternate name or definition you give it. A strikeout requires at least three pitches. If you’re developing your pitchers to record an out in three pitches or less, then you’re telling them to avoid pitching for strikeouts.
Searage repeated this weekend that the team is focused on getting outs. It might not be the extreme method of the past, but it’s not far off.
On the surface, it looks like the Pirates have made some changes in recent years. Their contact rate against was 76.7% last year. Their whiff rate was 11.2%. Their strikeout percentage was 22.4%. All of these are the best marks since Searage took over. So you’d think there might be something to that change in numbers.
There is something to the change: League changes. Across MLB, the contact rate, whiff rate, and strikeout rate are all at highs during the Searage era. And the Pirates have only improved as much as the league has improved. They’ve been around average each year in those categories, showing that there’s no real improvement from the results of their approach from then to now.
I don’t want to make it seem like you can only do well if you succeed in contact rate, whiff rate, and strikeout rate. But I do want to point out that the success with that approach was much easier in 2015 and earlier, compared to the last four years.
MLB saw a change in their approach. Hitters were focusing on leverage and optimizing lift with their swing, while pitchers were adjusting to those new swings with more breaking pitches and smarter pitch tunneling. You can see the results on both sides. Hitters are seeing more power (especially recently with the juiced balls), while pitchers are seeing many more strikeouts.
The strikeout rate was pretty stagnant from 2011 to 2015. It went from 19.1% to 20.7% in five seasons. After four more seasons, it has jumped to 23.1%.
The Pirates haven’t seen the same trend. They had around average strikeout numbers from 2013-15, during their best years. In fact, they were above average in 2013 and 2015. Then, the league took off with their focus on strikeouts and they dropped to below average each year after 2015. If the Pirates aren’t pitching to contact now, they might want to go back to that approach, since their swing and miss rates were better in comparison to the rest of the league.
But what about that other comment? The “game within the game.” I’m not going to go into how ridiculous that sounds on the surface. I’m not going to point out how it sounds even worse when discussing a team that has some of the worst pitching results in the game this year (bottom third of the league in ERA, FIP, and xFIP). I’m going to give Searage the benefit of the doubt and think that this comment is more important (h/t Mackey):
“The biggest thing that we’re not doing is executing pitches when we need to, especially in high-leverage situations. We try too hard. We try to enhance the pitch instead of execute the pitch. The way the ball is flying now, they’re going to try and throw the fastball. And they’re going to try and make the breaking ball even sharper. Ultimately, those lead to mistakes.”
I don’t care about the approach the Pirates have. I don’t care about the “game within the game”, whatever that is. I think it’s everything you see in that quote above. The execution of pitches, especially in high-leverage situations. Trying too hard, getting outside your game, and not executing pitches.
The approach doesn’t matter, and the theory doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the Pirates aren’t executing this year. They haven’t been executing the last few years. They ranked 4th in xFIP during the 2013-15 seasons. They’ve been 17th from 2016 through the current season.
Unfortunately for Searage, his comments made the best and most succinct argument for replacing him as the Pirates pitching coach.
Searage broke down what the pitchers were doing wrong. They’re trying to make the breaking pitch sharper. They’re trying to enhance the pitches, rather than executing, as if those two things can’t be combined. And when trying all of this, the Pirates are making mistakes.
Meanwhile, some of the best pitching teams in the league right now are having no problem with these same approaches. They’ve found ways to make the breaking pitches sharper. They’ve been able to execute, while still enhancing their pitches.
By the end of the 2015 season, I would have trusted the Pirates to sign any pitcher because of the work with Ray Searage. And don’t re-write history, he did some amazing work in the majors, and some of that continued beyond 2015. But the league has clearly changed, the Pirates haven’t changed with it, and the areas where Searage says they’re making mistakes are the same areas where the top teams are thriving.
All of that falls on Searage. This is no longer 2013-15. I don’t want to say the exact opposite from that 2013-15 time, that I don’t trust Searage at all, because that’s too extreme and not true. The more accurate thing is that I don’t trust Searage right now to make the Pirates a top pitching staff again.
We’re now in year four of the Pirates having a middle of the pack pitching staff at best, and now down to a bottom-third team. They’re clearly not embracing the trends and methods that have led to success elsewhere around the league right now. To continue forward with a pitching coach who has seen those results, and who doesn’t seem open to adjusting the team approach, would just be throwing in the towel on future seasons.
Indianapolis has 22 games left. They trail by nine games in the division and 8.5 games in the wild card.
Altoona has 21 games left. They trail by 13 in the division.
Bradenton has 20 games left. They trail by 9.5 games in the division.
Greensboro has 22 games left. They trail by five in the division and they are a 1/2 game back for the second best record, which could possibly get them a playoff spot.
Morgantown has 21 games left. They trail by three games in the division and two games in the wild card spot.
Bristol has 16 games left. They trail by two in the division and they’re one out of the second playoff spot.
GCL Pirates have 18 games left. They trail by 12.5 in the division.
DSL Pirates1 have been eliminated from the playoffs.
DSL Pirates2 have clinched a playoff spot
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 11-9 to the St Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon. The Pirates now travel to Anaheim for three games against the Los Angeles Angels. They will send out Mitch Keller for his fourth Major League start. Keller will be added to the roster prior to the game tonight. He leaves the International League as the league leader in strikeouts, while ranking second in both ERA and WHIP. Keller last started in the majors on June 18th when he gave up two earned runs over five innings against the Detroit Tigers. The Angels will counter with 21-year-old lefty Jose Suarez, who has a 6.22 ERA in 46.1 innings, with 46 strikeouts and a 1.60 WHIP. He gave up six runs over five innings against the Cincinnati Reds in his last start. Suarez has a 5.60 ERA at home and a 7.36 ERA in night games.
The minor league schedule includes a second straight doubleheader for Bradenton. Gavin Wallace should get the start in game one this evening. He has given up one run in each of his last three starts, throwing a total of 20.1 innings. Colin Selby is slated for Greensboro. In his last start, he went five innings without an earned run for the second straight time. He had a 2.36 ERA in five July starts. Fifth round pick Grant Ford makes his sixth start for Morgantown. He has given up two runs over his last 17 innings, while striking out 23 batters.
Quinn Priester has been starting on Mondays in the GCL, so expect him to go today. His start last week was pushed back to Tuesday due to rain, and he actually came out in the second inning, following a rehab appearance by Tom Koehler. Bristol is sending out Adrian Florencio, who allowed just one run on two hits in his last start, but he set a career high with five walks and tied a career worst with only one strikeout. Both Indianapolis and Altoona have off today.
MLB: Pittsburgh (48-69) @ Angels (58-61) 10:15 PM
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (10.50 ERA, 15:6 SO/BB, 12.0 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (58-60) vs Rochester (60-59) 7:05 PM 8/13 (season preview)
Probable starter: James Marvel (1.87 ERA, 35:15 SO/BB, 33.2 IP)
AA: Altoona (59-60) @ Harrisburg (63-55) 6:30 PM 8/13 (season preview)
Probable starter: Sean Brady (3.83 ERA, 61:29 SO/BB, 105.2 IP)
High-A: Bradenton (63-54) @ Florida (45-73) 4:00 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Gavin Wallace (3.61 ERA, 69:19 SO/BB, 86.1 IP) and TBD
Low-A: Greensboro (70-47) @ Kannapolis (52-65) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Colin Selby (2.68 ERA, 82:25 SO/BB, 84.0 IP)
Short-Season A: Morgantown (29-25) vs Auburn (21-33) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Grant Ford (2.92 ERA, 29:13 SO/BB, 24.2 IP)
Rookie: Bristol (25-26) vs Bluefield (25-26) 6:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Adrian Florencio (4.71 ERA, 28:17 SO/BB, 36.1 IP)
GCL: Pirates (12-26) vs Braves (13-22) 12:00 PM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates1 (28-32) vs Indians/Brewers (13-43) 10:30 AM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates2 (49-11) vs Royals2 (26-34) 10:30 AM (season preview)
From Altoona on Saturday, Arden Pabst hits his fourth home run of the season
Touch 'em all, @arden_pabst
Arden jumped all over the first pitch of the second for his fourth 💣 of the campaign.
⬇️2⃣ Curve 5, Reading 1 pic.twitter.com/uwy8Aeoc8s
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) August 10, 2019
From Indianapolis on Saturday, Jake Elmore doubled twice, giving him 27 on the season, along with a league leading .347 average
— Indianapolis Indians (@indyindians) August 11, 2019
8/11: Pirates release Tyler Lyons. Cody Ponce promoted to Indianapolis.
8/11: Clay Holmes activated from injured list. Parker Markel optioned to Indianapolis.
8/11: Francisco Cervelli assigned to Altoona on rehab.
8/11: Rookie Davis assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.
8/10: Mariano Dotel assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab.
8/9: Braeden Ogle activated from Bradenton injured list.
8/9: Pirates release Eduardo Vera. Cam Vieaux sent to Altoona.
8/9: Kyle Mottice activated from Greensboro injured list. Victor Ngoepe sent to Morgantown.
8/9: Tom Koehler assigned to Morgantown on rehab
8/8 Robbie Glendinning placed on Altoona injured list. Bralin Jackson activated from Altoona injured list.
8/8: Max Kranick placed on Bradenton injured list.
8/7: Pirates sign Luis Joseph.
8/7: Eric Wood activated from temporary inactive list.
8/6: Steven Brault activated from injured list. Richard Rodriguez activated from paternity list. Dario Agrazal and Yefry Ramirez optioned to Indianapolis.
8/6: Tom Koehler assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab
8/6: Pirates release Joseivin Medina
8/5: Pirates sign Omar Alonzo and Juan Fuentes.
8/5: Yoyner Fajardo promoted to Bristol. Fernando Villegas promoted to Morgantown.
8/5: Clay Holmes assigned to Altoona on rehab.
8/4: Blake Weiman placed on Indianapolis injured list.
8/4: Pirates release Jung Ho Kang
8/3: Pirates claim Yacksel Rios.
8/3: Richard Rodriguez placed on paternity list. Pirates recall Parker Markel.
8/2: Nick Mears activated from Bradenton injured list. Ryan Valdes placed on Bradenton injured list.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
Five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including a recent one and four players born in the 1800’s.
Jose Tabata, outfielder for the Pirates from 2010 until 2015 when he was dealt to the Dodgers for Michael Morse.
Paul Carpenter, 1916 pitcher. He was signed by the Pirates in July of 1916 after his minor league team disbanded. He pitched just five games over the last 2 1/2 months, giving up one run in 7.2 innings.
Wyatt Lee, pitcher for the 1904 Pirates. Pittsburgh purchased his contract shortly before the start of the 1904 season. The Pirates tried to sign him as an amateur in 1899, but he started a bidding war between the Pirates and Reds and ended up pricing himself out of the range of both teams. In 1904, he was considered a major off-season acquisition for the starting staff, but he posted an 8.74 ERA in his 22.2 innings before the Pirates got rid of him in June.
Andy Dunning, 1889 pitcher. With injuries to their top two pitchers, the Alleghenys signed three young pitchers, one of them being Dunning. He lasted just two games due to poor control and the return of both Cannonball Morris and Pud Galvin.
Dan Lally, right fielder for the 1891 team. He played pro ball for 19 years, but lasted just two years in the majors, 1891 and 1897. For the Pirates, he hit .224 in 41 games.