Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pirates hire my childhood hero

I don't know what tangible effect a hitting coach has on a team. In my limited experience covering baseball, I've found a good hitting coach is someone who can help bust players out of slumps by getting them to slow down and better understand their swings. Maybe he'll help them make an adjustment. It's not unlike therapy.

I don't believe a hitting coach can make someone better, but a good one can at least help a few guys squeeze a little more out of whatever talent they have. Whatever. It's not like this team is a hitting coach away from winning the division.

That said, I'm glad the Pirates have brought in Jay Bell as the new hitting coach. He was my favorite player growing up; the progenitor to Jack Wilson, the capable and sure-armed shortstop whose sidearm action to first I tried to imitate, much to the chagrin of my little league coach. He was a completely average ballplayer in nearly every respect -- the kind of guy the Pirates would have killed to have on the team last year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Post-mortem on the bloggers' round table

Here are some highlights from the bloggers' round table that Dejan Kovacevic initiated and Charlie hosted over at Bucs Dugout for the purpose of discussing the news on SEALgate. The following block quotes are Dejan's answers to a variety of questions asked about the sorts of issues that we've harped on with regard to the Pirates front office. I'm going to skip over the Gregory Polanco injury timeline stuff because I don't think it's pertinent to the overarching point. The full discussion can be found here.

DK on the militaristic culture of the Pirates development system:

The difference is not just in the practice but also in the preaching. These guys Kyle Stark employs, almost without exception, are these buzzcut military types who behave like drill sergeants year-round. In many cases, they’re underqualified for their posts but were hired more because they can be good-soldier types.
Let me put it another way: It’s weird...and it’s needlessly dangerous. And potentially demoralizing, too.
A team can get a bang out of stuff like this if they treat it like one fun weekend. But when it’s all year round, it can make people bitter and resentful.
...And rather than focusing on what damage comes from it, I choose to focus on what’s the benefit here. I’m not seeing a more disciplined group of players coming up the ladder, so that’s out. I’m not seeing more productivity. And I’m not seeing — this is huge given the nature of drafts — results from ALL THAT PITCHING they drafted.
I’m not sure why. I can’t be sure. Only a true person on the inside would know. But I hear from THOSE people, and they’re VERY down on the way pitchers are handled.
It’s an oversimplification to just count up sports teams that do this and say why not the Pirates? This team isn’t nearly good enough in its system at the things it MUST be good at to be trying stuff like this.
And it most definitely isn’t good enough to be doing this stuff just so some grown men can get their jollies at youngsters’ expense.
Every team is going to do this stuff differently. From what I’ve found — and feel free to prove me wrong — the overwhelming majority of these practices are one weekend and the exercises aren’t stupid things like the hand-to-hand combat that hurt Taillon or the logs or the hose or whatever.
The Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and Ryan Whitney both described an exhausting round of jumping jacks as the most strenuous activity at West Point in 2007.
Jumping jacks.
The Pirates are all military all the time in the minors. If you don’t believe me on this, ask them. They’ll gleefully acknowledge it. 
Kyle Stark seems egotistical and slightly insane.
That happens a lot in baseball. People get power-hungry. They control people’s lives on a daily basis. I’ve seen a little bit of that in nearly everyone I’ve covered in the sport, except maybe Neal Huntington, who’s a genuinely good man and always down to earth.
Stark, without question, has gone too far.
This “Hoka Hey” garbage is sensational and absurd and all, but why isn’t there more attention being paid to the fact that Kyle Stark has nothing resembling a baseball background? He goes from playing college volleyball to somehow being a college pitching coach, then working for the Indians. He has an MBA. This guy seems qualified to do so many things that aren’t run a baseball farm system. How does this guy have this job? At least Broadway has a baseball background. He’s a failed prospect himself. But Kyle Stark? I can’t find any evidence that this guy has any background in or knowledge of baseball at all.
I am honestly stunned that the paragraph about Larry Broadway had as little impact as what I gathered today. Almost all of the focus was on the sand, trash cans and Polanco.
But think about this for a moment: Stark had two years as a pitching coach at St. Bonaventure — yeah, that St. Bonaventure — before joining the Indians’ staff. He was never a coach or instructor. Broadway was a player through 2009, then spent two years as area scout, then was placed IN CHARGE OF THE SYSTEM.
I’m sorry, but that’s nuts. And trust me when people talk about the system being a joke, they’re talking a lot more about this than they are Hoka Hey. The latter just adds whipped cream on top.
Are Stark’s development methods really the problem, or is it drafting?
We can’t answer that definitively, other than to say it’s pretty clear the Latin American end has held up. That’s it. And Huntington himself invariably describes all this in the collective. Even in terms of trades and fre agents — a lot of people don’t know this, but I’ll blurt it out here — Stark has been his right-hand man, even before the promotion.
If the whole thing has gone sour, the answer is to change the whole thing.
Frankly, other than sustaining Latin America, as was done after Littlefield, I don’t see how this could be done piecemeal.

To what extent do you think that the discussion of the Pirates’ player development is being driven by issues of style, rather than substance?
The best way to answer is to go back to what I wrote above, not just about how it’s weird but also about how a lot of people — inside and outside — view the guys running this team. They think these guys largely don’t know anything about baseball, not even in the sabremetric/analytical sense, so they see this military stuff as more of a defense mechanism, a way of hiding that.
Go back to 2007-08, and recall that Stark pretty much cleared out the entire system of coaches. In one case, you diehards might recall, he replaced an established pitching coach at a low level with someone (name slips my mind) … oh, wait, Brian Tracy … who was 23 and just stepped off the mound.
I called Tracy a clipboard-holder then, based on what I’ve heard, and that ended up becoming all too common.
They want to be tough guys, revolutionary guys. And I don’t care about that. I want to see baseball results.
Did you say that Kyle Stark actually functions as Neal Huntington’s right-hand man? As in, chief adviser? Go-to guy on baseball decisions?
And could you clarify this?
They think these guys largely don’t know anything about baseball, not even in the sabremetric/analytical sense
Answer to the first question is yes. For years now.
Answer to second is that I’m describing a general — not universal — mindset. It’s one that quieted when the team was doing well this summer, but even then not much.
Say whatever you will about Keith Law, but he’s one of the VERY few who openly, boldly predicted the collapse. I didn’t. Most didn’t. But he nailed it. His position on the management and operations was among the few that didn’t waver.
What’s Dan Fox doing? Do they just not listen to anything he says? Clint Hurdle definitely doesn't listen to Dan Fox.
This is true, actually. Not sure if you’re being hypothetical there, but you’re right either way.
From what you can discern who sets the tone (evidently a negative one) in the Pirates organization? Coonelly?
You guys will hate this answer, but it starts with the GM in this case. No boldness, no goals set, no confidence exuded, no real presence around the team.Rolly your eyes if you want, but you’re asking about tone. That’s an intangible.
If you can keep a straight face in explaining to people in September that this team SHOULD have been only eight games over at its peak … there’s a time for that, when you’re sipping coffee with Dan Fox, and there’s a team to lead the team.

Kyle Stark will race you up Curahee!

We've been pretty silent here for a while. I'm sure you can figure out why. No matter how much we saw it coming -- AND WE DID -- the Pirates' August-September collapse was the most deflating, painful baseball hurt anyone 'round these parts has felt for the better part of two decades.

But the revelations from Dejan Kovacevic's column in today's Tribune-Review have inspired in us some weird amalgamation of anger and amusement.

When this Hoka Hey crap started leaking out during the season, it seemed kinda harmless. Plenty of teams do military-led or military-inspired training. Hell, Michel Therrien had the Pens doing drills at West Point back in 2007. No big deal, right? 

Then, DK came out with details, and the Trib published the full text of an e-mail Kyle Stark, the club's director of player development, sent out to the rest of the front office, and this stuff was exposed as outright lunacy. 

Dejan writes today:
Management stressed at the time it was only a three-day event, Sept. 14-16. But it turns out that, even though those ex-SEALS have long since left Pirate City, their methods didn’t. On Oct. 14 at 11:45 p.m., the Pirates’ minor-league coaches and instructors broke the midnight silence by banging on dorm rooms throughout the complex shouting, “It’s Hell Week! It’s Hell Week!" 

This is what happens when you pledge Phi Mega Stupid chapter of Mu Lambda Beta.

Players were told to be dressed in 20 minutes and to meet outside by the 2batting cage. Waiting there were Kyle Stark, the assistant general manager and architect of the team’s “Hoka Hey” ways, as well as Larry Broadway, the first-year farm director who never before held any instructional position at any level of baseball.

This is probably the most noteworthy thing in the entire piece. We'll come back to this.

Broadway told the assembled players this would be their “rite of passage” to become Pirates, then sent them on a two-hour scavenger hunt for envelopes hidden across the complex. 

Technically, they became Pirates when the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club signed them to contracts to play baseball. I mean, I'm just a guy in somebody's mom's basement, but that's my understanding of how that whole thing worked. They give you you a contract, you sign the contract. BAM! You're a Pittssburgh Pirates! And then they lead you off to a side room where you're measured for a uniform, they take a few pictures of you for the media guide, and then you're given a canvas and an array of oil paints and watercolors, and tasked with creatively writing your name (or if you're Jeromy Burnitz, drawing stick figure animals because let's face it, you're in it for the lulz). 

At 5 a.m., after a wink or two of sleep, they were bused over to Bradenton Beach for a two-mile run, followed by relay races in which they ran back and forth filling garbage cans with sand.

Valuable baseball skill. In fact, new metrics I was just reading about over at FanGraphs suggest that the reason the Rangers have fallen short each of the last three years was that their EqSAND Runs Above Replacement was way out of whack.

On the “Hell Week” finale Friday, with a 10 a.m. road game on tap, the players again were awoken at 5 a.m. This time, it was to perform sliding drills on a still-dark field lit by a solitary quartz lamp. The coaches took turns manning second base and tried — not always successfully — to leap over players sliding into the bag, generally making a mess on the basepaths.

I don't know. Maybe if you're trying to teach rudimentary first aid and you want real-life scenarios for practicing applying tourniquets and setting broken bones, this would be a good way to go about creating a few of those.

Look, this is sheer lunacy. And not because Deadspin and ESPN's baseball guys are calling it that. It's lunacy because there's no reasonable explanation by which this is an acceptable approach to developing baseball talent.

Once players sign professional contracts, whether it's out of high school or college or some ramshackle Dominican town where they're farm-raised for this stuff, those guys are professional baseball players. There's a lot made of how unlike professional athletes in the NBA or NFL, baseball players don't usually have any college experience. A lot of these guys do go right from living with their parents as 17- and 18-year-olds right into the dugout, and so they're not socialized the way most people are, and organizations do take on some of the burden of trying to continue to shape these guys into respectable adults. THIS IS NOT HOW IT'S DONE.

I don't understand -- not on any level -- the notion that these guys need team-building activity. In any given baseball farm system, there are, across five or six levels of play and a couple hundred different players, maybe five or six guys who might one day reach the majors. Perhaps two of them will reach with the club that drafted them. This is out of hundreds of players. The minor leagues are all about individual development. Wins and losses do not matter at all when you're solely focused on trying to maximize the output of every single player -- especially since different players have vastly different needs. 

If one of your minor league affiliate teams puts together a good season, good for them. That's nice. But it doesn't really mean anything. And given that so many guys will never, ever make the majors, that minor leagues jump between levels and organizations on a week-to-week basis, these groups of guys never stay together very long. Trying to instill some kind of immense sense of organizational pride in guys who are here one day and gone the next is like holding practices and collecting advanced data on balls in play to try to improve your ironic adult rec league kickball team.

Here's all you need to know about team chemistry and camaraderie in professional baseball. Good teams have good clubhouse chemistry because they're good teams -- not the other way around. Good chemistry can't help you win, and losing always poisons the room. Good teams have good atmospheres. Bad teams don't. It's that simple.

Finally, and this might be the most important thing, the guys the Pirates have had in charge of player development for the last five years do not come from anything resembling baseball backgrounds.

Larry Broadway was once rated the 12-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, but he never panned out. He spent about four seasons in Triple-A ball, signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent in 2009, had a shit year, then retired and became a scout with the team. The guy's not even 32 years old and he's the director of the farm system.

Kyle Stark played volleyball in college, then, for reasons I'm still not clear on, became the pitching coach at St. Bonaventure, and somehow parlayed that into a four-year stint in the Cleveland Indians front office. He has a law degree, an MBA and no military background unless you count his haircut. I can't find a single instance of him playing organized baseball. Honestly, this guy just seems like some stupid asshole who watches "Band of Brothers" a lot. And I'm not knocking "Band of Brothers," -- it's great stuff; it just has nothing at all to do with baseball. None of this does. How do you invest the kind of money the Pirates have in players and be so egregiously negligent when it comes to developing that talent? 

I don't know if Nutting is doing an investigation or not. I don't know what he's got planned. But it's abundantly clear that when your unconventional training methods have scared draft picks, their agents, their parents and their parents' agents, and you're regularly conducting non-baseball drills that put your most valuable prospects at risk for undue injury, and when your own players are going to the press to complain that your whole operation is a joke, something's got to change. 

Nutting needs to clean house. These guys are all stupid assholes, and they all have to go.