Building Blocks: 'Cohesiveness' preached for development

Planned upgrades will include more eyes, better technology

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One sun-splashed afternoon last month at the Pirates' minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., someone told minor-league catcher Michel Hernandez it was his turn to take batting practice. But not on any of the four fields or six batting cages.


Building blocks
The Post-Gazette's five-part series on the Pirates' bid to reshape the franchise will run each Wednesday until the start of spring training:

  • Jan. 16: Dismantling
  • Jan. 23: Scouting
  • Today: Teaching
  • Next Wednesday: Changing
    What exactly does team president Frank Coonelly mean when he calls for "changing the culture" of the Pirates?
  • Feb. 13: Evaluating
    Ultimately, the goal is contending at the major-league level. How long will it take general manager Neal Huntington to put together that type of team?

Instead, he was summoned inside to a fluorescent-lit hallway near the clubhouse, with no bats or balls in sight. Just two stools: One for Don Long, the new hitting coach, the other for Gregg Ritchie, the minor-league hitting coordinator.

Then, the fastballs came from each side ...

With a fast runner on first and a 2-1 count, what are you looking to do?

How about when you see three changeups in a row?

The coaches peppered Hernandez with questions and, in keeping with the virtual reality, he kept swinging back with rapid-fire responses.

"That's what we're all about," manager John Russell would say much later. "Everybody has to be on the same page."

When the Pirates' new management fired Brian Graham in October after six years as director of player of development, it surprised many. He had a solid reputation around Major League Baseball, with the perception being that he squeezed the most from a dry talent pool in the minors. Even franchise owner Bob Nutting had called Graham a "tremendous asset."

The explanation team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington gave for the firing, without criticizing Graham and without elaborating, was that they sought "cohesiveness" in the minor-league system. And that word, it seems, has morphed into a crusade.

To be sure, Kyle Stark, the 29-year-old newcomer who replaced Graham, sprinkles it liberally.

"John Russell has a style of baseball he wants to see played, and that's going to be driven by cohesiveness all through our system," Stark said. "There will be no separation. How things are done at PNC Park is how they'll be done with our teams in Latin America and the Gulf Coast League."

Stark's resume includes a law degree from the University of Toledo, a master's in business administration from St. Bonaventure -- where he was a pitching coach -- and, most relevant, the past four years in Cleveland's baseball operations department. He assisted the Indians in amateur, professional, Pacific Rim scouting and development, bouncing from task to task. Mark Shapiro, the Indians' general manager, nicknamed him "Oz" because of his multifaceted role as "the man behind the curtain."

Huntington, too, praises Stark as having "a very high upside," but questions surely must follow someone who never held a position so prominent. Stark knows it.

"I don't look at my experience as just the years I had in Cleveland," Stark said. "I look at it as just continuing to learn. Anybody in this game who is good, I think, is always getting better."

The magnitude of Stark's professional leap was heightened when Russell invited him, in early November, to sit in on the team's interviews with applicants to join the major-league coaching staff.

"Not something I expected," Stark said. "But it made sense: We all have to be on the same page. John wanted my opinion."

In mid-December, Russell had two days of meetings in PNC Park's clubhouse with his coaches, Stark and the minor-league coordinators to establish the details of how they want the game to be played. Starting with Pittsburgh.

"The cohesiveness begins at the top, actually, with what the major-league team does with cutoffs, relays, bunt plays or getting the first out on a double play," Russell said. "What are our workouts like? What's the terminology we use?"

Terminology?

"That's a big one for me. When I was a minor-league manager, it was very important to make sure we were wording our instructions the same way they were in the big leagues. A ball takes a bad hop on an infielder, and we yell out, 'Pick it up with your bare hand!' We want to make sure he doesn't try to reach down with his glove. It's a fundamental, but you need to say it again and again for it to become instinctive."

Beyond cohesiveness, there are three main upgrades the Pirates seek in the development system:

1. A revitalized and never-ending Player Plan.

The Plan is a book of scouting reports and key numbers that follows a prospect up the ladder. Graham employed the concept, and it will not change much, except for two differences:

One, it will be modernized, Stark said, with the latest evaluation criteria and methods. He did not divulge details.

Two, the Plan will follow a player into the majors. The clearest divide in the process under previous management -- in terms of action, philosophy and even responsibility -- was that the Plan closed once that player reached Pittsburgh.

Under the new Plan, Stark said, minor-league instructors will maintain contact with the player, if needed, as well as the major-league staff.

"I'm sure you've been hearing things for a long time," Stark said, referring to the previous Plan. "I think it's the how that will be more different than the what."

2. Better technology.

All evaluation, from scouting to statistics, will be processed into one database, allowing management one simple click for analysis. The Pirates already had a database, but the new one is said to be a marked improvement.

And that information soon could include video of every play at every level, maybe from multiple angles, once the team begins meeting its goal of filming more games. Currently, only "a couple" cameras are known to be in place in the system, Stark said.

Also, the Pirates are looking to advance beyond simple pitch limits to monitor their pitchers' health, a major sore spot for previous management.

Dr. James Andrews, the surgeon who has taken the knife to the arms of so many of the Pirates' former first-round draft picks, last year began a program of biomechanical analysis at his American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. In the procedure, high-speed motion cameras use extra frames to film a pitcher's delivery and detect anything that might raise a red flag. The Pirates will begin sending pitchers there, six at a time, this summer.

3. Greater supervision.

Larry Corrigan, a finder and shaper of talent for the Minnesota Twins the past 20 years, was hired as a special assistant to Huntington. Two new roving instructor positions were created: Rich Donnelly, a 26-year major-league coach, will be a free-floating evaluator, and Brad Fischer, a 29-year fixture in the Oakland Athletics' system, will be the Pirates' first instructor assigned specifically to catchers.

"I haven't met any one person good enough to get every single evaluation right, so it's going to be a matter of relying on everyone," Stark said. "I'm going to trust those people."

Stark will trust them more than the hard-and-fast numerical measurements some teams use. For example, there will be no rule, as there is in Oakland, that a minor-league batter must average a walk every 10 plate appearances to earn a promotion.

"No, but getting a good pitch to hit will be stressed," Stark said. "And we will use numbers extensively."

Other new coordinators are former Pirate Carlos Garcia for the infield, Troy Buckley for pitching and Kimera Bartee for outfield and baserunning. Ritchie and Jeff Banister, the field coordinator, are holdovers, as are five of the six minor-league managers and most of their staffs.

It remains to be seen if changing a few chiefs is enough, particularly given the acknowledged dearth of talent in the minors.

"We're starting right away," Stark said. "I understand it's a challenge, but, as I was telling friends of mine, the great part is getting the opportunity to come in here and build something. It's exciting."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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