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A Pittsburgh Postmortem: Did Trusting Too Much in a Pitching Coach Scuttle the Pirates?

With the Bucs’ wild-card streak all but over, it’s worth exploring whether Ray Searage’s magic has expired, too

Ray Searage (AP Images)
Ray Searage (AP Images)

Iis rare to hear one of MLB’s buttoned-up, media-trained, Ivy League executives trash-talk another team, but even the most measured among them casts the occasional shade. At a July Baseball Prospectus event at Citi Field, Mets GM Sandy Alderson was asked whether he makes acquisitions with his coaching staff’s ability to mold talent in mind. Alderson explained that while he believes his coaches are “good at what they do,” he doesn’t “rely significantly on the particular strengths of our pitching coach or hitting coach.” And to wrap up his answer, he fired a shot, like he used to on Twitter.

“I know there are some teams out there who think, ‘Well, you know, we have the best pitching coach in the world, so we’re going to take so-and-so and turn him into something really good,’” Alderson said. “You’ve got to be careful about that. If you get your person at the right price, looking to turn him into something better than what you’ve purchased, fine. But I think you’ve got to be real careful about saying, ‘We’re going to make him better because we know something that nobody else knows.’”

Alderson didn’t say “Pirates” at any point in his answer, but given all the ink devoted since last season to Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, the subtext seemed clear. The Mets exec isn’t above crowing when he makes a smart move, and by midsummer he had another transaction to celebrate. Late last year, he traded starter Jon Niese to Pittsburgh for second baseman Neil Walker in an exchange of expiring contracts. Walker’s bat rebounded right away, and before he hurt his back in mid-August, he was on track for a career year, WAR-wise. Niese, meanwhile, struggled so much that the Pirates returned him to sender on August 1. As FanGraphs’ Neil Weinberg noted the day before Alderson’s comments about coaches, the Pirates’ prevailing pitching approach — busting hitters with hard stuff inside — seemed to make Niese worse.

Acquiring Niese wasn’t the only head-scratcher in a perplexing offseason for the Pirates, whose loss Wednesday night plunged their record to 70–74 and their playoff odds to 0.2 percent. Despite the Cubs’ presumed superiority and the continuing Cardinals menace, Pittsburgh did little to shore up a team that was coming off three consecutive wild-card berths. On the pitching side, the Pirates dealt Charlie Morton in what looked like a salary dump; lost A.J. Burnett to retirement and Vance Worley to waivers; and saw J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria, and Antonio Bastardo leave via free agency (only to get Bastardo back via trade in August). To replenish their staff, they traded for Niese and signed Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio, and Ryan Vogelsong to one-year contracts worth between $2 million and $4 million. By Baseball-Reference’s accounting, that quartet had collectively accumulated minus-1.0 WAR in 2015.

On the eve of Opening Day, FanGraphs’ projections pegged the Pirates as an 83-win team, putting them behind the Cubs and Cardinals and giving them roughly a one-in-five chance at a wild card four-peat. The stats said Pittsburgh hadn’t done enough work over the winter to supplement its strong homegrown core.

An optimistic Pirates fan could have countered that the projections weren’t taking pitching coaches into account. And if the wisdom of crowds could be believed, the Pirates had the best in the business: When Jeff Sullivan polled FanGraphs readers about pitching coach quality in February 2015, Searage — a former major league reliever who was promoted to Pirates pitching coach in August 2010 — had the highest and least-variable rating. That acclaim led to a frequent refrain last winter, whenever the Pirates made one of their unimpressive-on-paper pickups: As Pirates Prospects’ Tim Williams put it, “Ray Searage will fix him.”

Armed with stats alone, it’s extremely difficult to assess the impact of a pitching coach, although many have tried. Some Searage studies prior to this season concluded that pitchers had improved after joining the Pirates during Searage’s tenure, but apart from issues of sample size, such studies often struggle to account for confounding variables — in this case, the pitcher-friendliness of PNC Park and the National League, and the Pirates’ focus on catcher framing, defensive shifting, and nutrition, training, and rest. There’s also the problem of apportioning credit to personnel whose times with the team overlapped: We can’t isolate the individual contributions of Searage, manager Clint Hurdle, respected bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, and special assistant Jim Benedict, another pitching guru who predated Searage in Pittsburgh and was poached in October 2015 by the Marlins (who had to surrender a former second-round pick). Lastly, there’s the effect of the front office: By his own admission, Searage is “not involved in acquiring the pitchers he helps,” so at least some of the credit for the Pirates’ pitching reclamations has to go to the scouts and statheads who’ve identified pitchers who were primed for a renaissance.

None of that is to say that Searage isn’t great. It’s simply to say that our public evaluations of pitching coaches come with big error bars. In general, the more control a player has over an aspect of performance, the more quickly his stats in that area stabilize. For instance, a hitter’s swing rate, which depends largely on his own discipline, becomes meaningful much faster than his BABIP, which depends in part on defense and luck. One might imagine, then, that a pitching coach stat would be slow to stabilize, too: A coach could keep doing the things that worked well in one year and find that they worked worse the next, thanks either to injuries or a staff that’s less receptive (or less suited) to the same approach.

Despite the uncertainty and reasons for skepticism, this spring’s season previews were as unstinting in their Searage praise as the pitchers who’ve cashed in after working with him. In a span of less than a month from March to early April, Sports Illustrated called Searage “the secret to the Pirates’ success,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labeled him “the voice that powers the Pirates pitching staff,” Fox Sports highlighted his work in “baseball’s most dynamic pitching laboratory,” and dubbed him the “pitcher whisperer” — the same description a recent Ken Rosenthal report had applied to the departed Benedict. On the local level, Pirates sites posted bated-breath blog posts about Searage’s likely influence on Cory Luebke and Kyle Lobstein. Even as Searage insisted that the pitchers he worked with deserved most of the credit for their own performance, Searage hype soared to levels not seen since the Cardinals’ Dave Duncan, if not the Braves’ Leo Mazzone.

The Pirates’ offseason seemed consistent with the portrayals of Searage as a man with the magic touch. Burnett, Blanton, and Happ were among the most notable perceived Searage successes, a group that also included Francisco Liriano, Edinson Vólquez, Jason Grilli, and Arquimedes Caminero, among others. By opting not to replace them with high-profile players, it appeared from afar as if the Pirates were again sending a signal that they didn’t need to pay for premium pitching. They could stay in the shallow end of the player pool, relying on Searage to (as Alderson implied) turn other teams’ trash into treasure.

So what went wrong? We may not have a pitching-coach stat, but we can pinpoint where the Pirates have underperformed by comparing their projected positional WAR totals from March 31 to their actual totals from this season so far, extrapolated to 162 games.

Searage doesn’t deserve any blame for the injury-plagued, disappointing performances of Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Cervelli, who were projected to produce 8.6 WAR and are on pace for 1.7. Restore those seven missing wins, and the Pirates would probably again be bound for the wild-card game. Of course, some Pirates hitters — David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce — have overperformed to the point that the team’s position players, on the whole, are only a few wins in the red. Despite the earlier-than-expected arrival of top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon, the starting rotation in particular and pitching staff in general is responsible for the lion’s share of the shortfall. The Pirates rank 26th in Deserved Run Average, topping only last-place teams and teams that are tied for last place in the loss column: the Braves, Padres, Reds, and Angels.

Some of the Pirates’ established starters have faltered: Liriano’s success story soured before his midseason trade to Toronto, and Gerrit Cole’s elbow troubles ended his season this week despite a supposedly groundbreaking rehab program. To make matters worse, the Pirates haven’t struck it rich on any of last winter’s speculative plays.

“When I think Searage Project, I think about this profile: plus velo, swing-and-miss breaking pitch with shaky command and maybe a secondary offering that could be discarded,” says Travis Sawchik, Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and author of Big Data Baseball. “So Nicasio, [Felipe] Rivero, Feliz, and [Iván] Nova all might fit to some degree. Niese does not, nor does Vogelsong.”

Searage certainly had plans for Niese and Vogelsong, but even if we don’t hold their failings against him, the results are mixed. Feliz has been useful, but his stuff had made a comeback before he was Pirates property. Nicasio, an early favorite for this season’s Searage breakout, flopped in the rotation, and while he’s been better in the bullpen, he had already been an effective reliever in Los Angeles. Rivero’s defense-independent stats are worse in Pittsburgh than they were in Washington. And Nova’s brilliance in eight starts since the Pirates picked him up at the trade deadline is the clearest exception to the Searage slump.

Searage isn’t some snake-oil salesman; one down year doesn’t make him a fraud any more than McCutchen’s 2016 erases his years as a superstar. Still, this year’s results add new life to old questions about the long-term prospects of the Pirates’ pitcher factory. As Neal Huntington has acknowledged, baseball is an “industry of imitation,” and clubs can’t keep all of their secrets. Searage’s go-to tactics have been well reported, and pitchers who work with him change teams all the time, taking any knowledge they gained with them. While coaches can improve players, it’s hard for one team to keep finding pitchers to put back together when the other 29 teams have the same goal and are free to follow the same formula. Plus, if teams really believed that the best pitching coaches were a renewable resource worth several wins a season, they’d probably pay them more. It took only $500,000 — a pittance, by baseball standards — for the Orioles to woo Mazzone away from Atlanta. And after leaving Atlanta, he didn’t last long: Baltimore fired him after two seasons with a year left on his deal, and no other team called.

Without knowing what was in Huntington’s heart, we can’t say for certain whether the Pirates trusted too much in their pitching coach, whether they overestimated their returning talent, or whether ownership cut off the cash flow, forcing Huntington to double down on playing the pitcher lotto. Whatever its origins, the plan didn’t pay off, but the Pirates’ young core isn’t sunk. As Sawchik has observed, the Pirates surpassed FanGraphs’ 2013–15 preseason projections by a combined 32 games, the biggest margin in baseball. Just as three good years didn’t prove they could keep beating expectations indefinitely, one bad year doesn’t prove that they can’t do it again.