The Pirates' Success Must Start with the Fundamentals
Fundamental baseball is the basis for winning games and maximizing talent. When it comes to instruction and implementation of these basics of the game, the Pittsburgh Pirates often, well, miss the ball.
These are the things you’ll often hear the guy at the end of the bar shouting about at the TV. He learned in Little League and can't figure out why professionals haven't as well. The mistakes we’ll be discussing don’t always show up on a scorecard, unless Steve Blass was circling a play to call back on the importance later in the contest. They also aren’t fielders lacking range or arm strength, those are skill sets that come with the package. No, we’re going to talk about some of the most frustrating things to watch as a fan, and as Clint Hurdle’s face would often say, coaches.
The basics that, inexplicably, are far too often taught so late in a player’s development. If the Pirates want to really improve from the bottom up, these essentials will be instilled early and often. Once in uniform at PNC Park, they should be reinforced not introduced.
Controlling the Running Game
Every aspect of this needs a good hard look within the organization. Elias Diaz is prone to throw to first when a runner strays too far from the bag and I used to believe he emulated Yadier Molina, but what I’ve seen is a conga line of pitchers who have no idea how to hold a runner close on their own. Its an overcompensation by Diaz and let’s be honest if he had a success rate like Yadi, it might not be an issue. When a catcher and first baseman execute the play correctly, the first baseman sets himself outside the bag to receive and swipe the tag. Far too often the throw isn’t there, or the glove is in the runner’s path creating an error-prone adventure more frequently than creating the desired effect.
Holding runners close in the lower levels isn’t as much of a focus as it should be throughout the system. This is an essential piece that should be well in place by the time a player reaches MLB. In fact, even more so than control, this single factor was the most impactful hole in Tyler Glasnow’s rookie campaign. Every walk was a free pass to second and sometimes third, and the catchers were powerless to stop it.
Solutions: Each pitcher needs to spend time developing and executing pick off moves. These should be practiced in game even when a baserunner isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool threat to steal. Every pitcher needs to develop a competent slide step. Some pitchers really can’t handle the change in mechanics but anything to speed up the delivery even a fraction of a second will improve this metric.
Running the Bases
Ok everyone buckle up, I’m going to try not to write War and Peace here. Let’s boil it down to these few concepts: know when to tag, know when to go, know how to slide, execute a rundown. If you are going to be a team built on contact and small ball concepts, it stands to reason running into outs will put a damper on your productivity. Last season it became an almost nightly event discussing whether the runner was thrown out because Joey Cora, the Pirates' third base coach, tossed an ill-advised sign, or the runner had no clue what to do when the ball was struck. I’d happily give credit to Joey if the issue didn’t pre-date him by a decade or so.
Solutions: Identify the problem, if it was coaching make sure the new hire isn’t just a nice guy who can double as a fielding coach. Hire a specialist if you must but make the most of the runners you get on base.
Teach consistent sliding styles and technique early on especially to young base stealers. Replay has made this a prerequisite for stealing bases because you’re only safe if you know how to stay on the bag. That takes timing, practice and execution.
Moving runners over, hit-and-runs, run and hits, are all examples of where a small ball club can’t afford to half-embrace. Surely there is a pitcher with a plan on the mound and they want to help the batters fail as often as possible, but success for these concepts needs to be pushed over the 70% mark. That starts with understanding the concepts and applying them well. When Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds reach base to start the inning, nobody in their right mind would ask Starling Marte to bunt, but there is no excuse for someone with his speed to hit into double plays. Actively trying to push the ball to the right side would immediately eliminate that and worst-case scenario leave you with runners at first and third with one out as opposed to a runner at third with two outs. More to the point, it’s the difference between runs, and no runs.
Another example is having a runner at third with less than two outs and putting the ball on the ground. Again, the pitchers play a role, and some are masterful at inducing ground balls, but sac flies need to be more expected than they are now.
Anything less is simply giving away runs.
Solution: Practice these situations, early and often. Some of them dovetail into other instruction that should already be taking place. Launch angle is the darling of every analytics-based instruction, and it would seem to me a perfect pairing for some of these situations.
Many people stress the importance of teaching the game to young players and the problem has become league-wide in my opinion. As youth baseball has struggled to recapture the attention of this generation in a crowded field fighting for their time, kids aren’t getting that focus the way they used to. MLB has been slow to adopt anything to address it. Instructional leagues have been around for quite some time in Latin America to teach the game and identify talent and the US has some like the Arizona Fall League, but by the time you play there a player is expected to have these concepts baked in. As someone that consumes a lot of baseball, I’ve seen sloppy play become far too common even with the best teams in the game. The best mask it with strikeouts and homeruns, if you can’t rely on those you better become proficient at all the little things that those teams are ignoring.
Everyone is looking for the next big thing in baseball, could you imagine talking about pitch framing when Don Slaught was catching Doug Drabek? That’s how it happens, one club puts a focus on something seemingly small and the effect it has on the club is attractive to all the others. Maybe doing the little things, the fundamentals if you will, can be the next big thing. Maybe it can even start in Pittsburgh.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007