PITTSBURGH — For the last few years, as the Pittsburgh Pirates have foundered in mediocrity following three years of relative success under general manager Neal Huntington, the main complaint that the front office didn’t seem to have an answer for was the Pirates’ lack of a grand strategy to return to a high level of competition.
For many, those complaints centered around payroll and the failure to successfully add to a 98-win team at the end of the 2015 season. For others, it was more about the organization’s failure to commit to a rebuild.
Huntington and company never really had an answer for either group, though. They remained firmly stuck in the middle.
With an opportunity to interview new general manager Ben Cherington on Monday, I knew that was going to be my first and most important question.
Cherington, however, had no parts in it. Twice, he deftly dodged on whether or not the Pirates need to be beholden to windows of competition and whether not he’ll undertake a rebuild or add to the current team.
But he does have a plan, and it might be an even more ambitious one.
First, I’ll give you his well-stated and clearly forethought answer to my question:
“We can look at several different paths toward winning. One that’s been used has been that really strip it down and bring it back up. Another one that’s been used is sort of building more incrementally and building on the talent base you have and really being focused on good decisions and building winning over time. Neither have been 100 percent successful. Neither are foolproof. There have been success with both and maybe mistakes with both.
“So to me, that means we get back to, what are the common things? The common things are that teams that are winning are great at identification, great at acquisition, great at development and great at deployment. We’ve got to focus on those four activities and be great at all of them.”
Identification, acquisition, development and deployment are four words that were said in order about three dozen times on Monday. Get used to them.
They are the backbone of how Cherington foresees the Pirates returning to winning.
When team president Travis Williams spoke about the Pirates economic situation within baseball and about trying to find someone who would lead them to success given that situation, he used the phrase “cracking the code.”
What Cherington is proposing is more like hacking the system.
He wants to turn the Pirates into the best franchise in baseball at performing those four tasks: identifying talent, acquiring talent, developing players and deploying players.
And if one team is the best franchise in baseball at all of those things, they will probably not be beholden to windows of competition or particularly bothered by the payroll restrictions of the Pittsburgh market.
Here’s Cherington outlining, as an example, what it’s going to take to fix one small area of the major league club: the Pirates having fallen behind on MLB-wide pitching trends.
“If you look at who is pitching at an elite level in today’s game, you sort of work backward from that. What are they doing to allow them to do that? That’s a lot of what I’ve spent time on the last three years trying to learn more about. There’s a huge opportunity there.
“That’s going to require identifying people, coaching, analysts, performance staff, strength and conditioning, biomechanics, et cetera. There’s a sort of suite of expertise that’s needed. The work that’s going on, whether it’s in baseball or outside of baseball, with pitchers that are performing at that elite level. [Those people] are doing all of that work.
“Really, the guys that are doing it at an elite level in the major leagues now, you start with guys who really move good — great athletes and movers — which allows them to build a delivery and put their body in position to create incredible force on the baseball. Then they’re designing pitches which gets to the tunneling that are harder to pick up and they’re more effective and then they’re using those pitches effectively based on analysis of which pitch or sequence of pitches is most effective for a particular hitter, et cetera.
“You’ve got to kind of check every part of that sequence. I think that’s what the best teams in Major League Baseball are doing now.”
That’s one process to fix one part of an organization that seemingly has many necessary repairs.
And as the Pirates very well know, it’s not good enough to develop those tactics once. It might feel like forever ago, but the Pirates were right on the cutting edge of the MLB when it comes to on-field tactics in 2013.
They were ahead of the curve on defensive shifts, the two-seam fastball and valuing pitch framing, among other things. Six years later, they’re woefully behind. In an industry where the clubs that can nearly unlimited millions into their analysis and development programs, it’s not easy to stay on that cutting edge.
“I think that ties back to learning,” Cherington said. “The reason learning is so important is because a tactic that may seem like an advantage now is no longer one as soon as ten other teams copy it … Continuous learning allows you to find that next tactic. That’s what we’ve got to do. Yes, 100 percent. We need to be on the cutting edge.”
That will be extremely difficult task. But if that’s what the Pirates were looking for when they sought out Huntington’s replacement, they got a man well-suited to it. Cherington came up in one of the most forward-thinking large market systems with the Boston Red Sox. As Toronto Blue Jays vice president, he was tasked with figuring out what exactly other teams were doing to make them successful and attempting to replicate it.
If you’ve read Travis Sawchick and Ben Lindbergh’s book MVP Machine, what Cherington is talking about is strikingly similar to the efforts employed by the Houston Astros and others of the very best teams in baseball over the last few years.
Sawchick’s previous book was about the 2013 Pirates. Maybe his next book can be about them, too.