The Pittsburgh Pirates at one point not long ago were at the forefront of analytics and modern training methods. Jason Martin comes to mind as someone the Pirates felt could benefit exponentially from learning to maximize his launch angle with his swing.
Problem is, they tried to cut corners. It’s a classic case of identifying an issue and not doing anything about it. Much of this was caused by the front office believing their own words more than the number crunchers.
Ben Cherington has a reputation for being an analytics guru and more importantly knows how to implement it to the system. See much of the issue has been that players ultimately could never fully develop in the minors because the instruction and tools at the MLB level were far superior to anything these players had seen before.
An important set of changes have already taken place with how the Pirates think. They have added 3 new analytics members to the department, going from 9 to 12. Assignments for training silos in spring and throughout the system have already been established and here’s the kicker, they were based on analytics to identify areas of growth potential. Additionally, they added video and analytic capability to all levels of the system to create more real-time learning and training. They can now track and train from important things neglected in the past like spin rate.
These all sound like small things, and on the surface, they are, but, when the fan base is looking for reasons to believe, this is a very good sign. It's easy to say Neal Huntington didn’t draft well, but another area of equal importance is the development and it’s wonderful to see it get some love.
Allow me to jump sports here for a moment if I may. Before Sidney Crosby and a Ping-Pong ball changed the fortunes of the Penguins, the team itself identified an issue. The players in their farm system never came to the NHL ready to contribute. When they really dug into it, the problem was glaringly clear, they played a different system than the big club. Changes were made and today, aside from skill level, you’d never guess players called up weren’t coached by Mike Sullivan as they developed.
That’s exactly the type of philosophy it appears the Pirates are trying to implement. No, the baseball players don’t need to understand who has to slide back to cover the defenseman when one pinches, but they do need to understand the same lingo, equipment and expectation for measuring success as the Pirates do. This level of consistency should net a smoother ride through the system, hopefully eliminating much of the “I just leveled up drop off syndrome” we’ve come to expect.
Often when forecasting youngsters through the system and ultimately their arrival in Pittsburgh, many of us will actually pad that time in. If this is successful 50% of the time, it’s a huge win for a club that has struggled to get kids over the top in their growth.
Most of what Cherrington has done thus far in his tenure has had an eye on the future, this one can help today as well. When you consider the early importance placed on collecting international talent that in some cases can be as young as 15 years old, training and consistency are of paramount concern.
With Spring training right around the corner, it might be a bit early to look for these things to bear fruit, but there are some things to look for that can show you exactly what they are working on, especially at the plate.
For instance, let’s say Derek Shelton wants to try to hit pay dirt for a second straight season and points the team in a direction geared toward developing power. You could look for more swings that look like uppercuts than flat planes and forget about watching situational hitting in spring.
If you are someone who reads spring training box scores, you’re already a bit ahead of the curve. If you are someone who reads spring training analytics, you’re probably Craig Toth. Put them both together and the method the Pirates are employing will become extremely clear. Josh Bell may learn more this spring by striking out 4 times honing his swing than hitting 3 home runs off a kid who has been tasked with throwing one pitch all game to work on it.
Behind the scenes is typically hidden from fans who don’t openly seek it out, but this off-season it could really look different and now’s the time to enjoy the process of development up close and personal. Great year to broadcast a record number of Grapefruit League games if you ask me!
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