Smizik: Maybe it's time to blame the players

Maybe Lloyd McClendon and Spin Williams weren't the root of the Pirates' problems the past few seasons after all.

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Based on the Pirates' miserable start, can we reasonably deduce that what many people considered the team's albatross for the previous five seasons -- the much-maligned duo of manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Spin Williams -- was not nearly so great a reason for the club's abysmal play?


Ed Yozwick, Post-Gazette

I think we can.

It is reasonable to assume, now that the club is losing under its fourth consecutive manager -- one of whom was Jim Leyland -- that the reason for the team's poor play is poor players.

While Leyland is being hailed as a genius in Detroit, and understandably so, it's often forgotten it was under him all this losing began. In fact, it was with Leyland as manager in 1995 that the Pirates had their second-worst season during this victory famine that is stretching into its 14th year.

This is by no means to suggest managers, including the incumbent Jim Tracy, don't deserve blame. It's only to point out they are not the larger problem and neither managers nor pitching coaches have some magic potion that can turn losers into winners.

Leo Mazzone is widely regarded as the best pitching coach of this generation. Mazzone was accorded near-genius status for his work in turning out stellar pitching staffs annually with the Atlanta Braves. Mazzone left Atlanta after last season to join the Baltimore Orioles, where his pitchers rank 29th, out of 30, in earned run average.

Mazzone didn't take stupid pills after he left Atlanta, he merely inherited lesser pitchers.

Tracy has received criticism in the past few days for the team's failure to twice successfully execute a sacrifice bunt in an extra-inning loss Sunday to the Cleveland Indians. It's not Tracy's fault Jack Wilson and Jose Hernandez failed to successfully bunt. It's the fault of Wilson and Hernandez.

Tracy has been blamed for not stressing good fundamentals, regarded as the gravest sin by many fans. But who's to say Tracy hasn't been stressing fundamentals? Great teaching is of no use if the players cannot execute what they have been taught. Just because teaching is taking place, it doesn't mean learning is.

In the situations Sunday, two Cleveland pitchers knew the Pirates were trying to bunt and were doing everything they could to prevent that from happening. The fact Wilson, a good bunter, failed is an indication of how difficult it can be. People who expect a 100 percent success rate on bunts are dreamers.

If there is blame to be placed beyond the players, it might rest with a baseball-wide philosophy of downplaying the bunt. Still, that's no excuse for not diligently practicing a skill. Even if a certain skill is rarely called for, players should be proficient at it. The fact Tracy had to pinch-hit for Craig Wilson with Hernandez shows the flaw in this philosophy. Why can't Wilson bunt? He has been a professional for 12 years. The fact he's an alleged power hitter shouldn't mean he can't spend five minutes a day in the batting cage perfecting his bunting skills.

All coaches can do is teach the proper fundamentals. We have to assume that is being done. It's up to the players to take those fundamentals and make them work.

When Jim Colborn replaced Williams as pitching coach it was considered, by some, a significant step forward. Williams, a dedicated, passionate and hard-working professional, had tutored only losing teams in Pittsburgh. Colborn had worked with winners in Los Angeles.

Here are some statistics that might change some minds about Williams and/or the role of pitching coaches. They concern ERA and opponent's batting average, two excellent barometers of a pitcher's performance.

Last year with Williams as pitching coach, Zach Duke had an ERA of 1.81 and an opponent's batting average of .253. This year with Colborn as pitching coach those numbers are 4.19 and .266.

Paul Maholm: Last year, 2.18 and .209. This year, 4.33 and .296.

John Grabow: Last year, 4.85 and .238. This year, 5.60 and .290.

Salomon Torres: Last year, 2.76 and .222. This year, 4.66 and .288.

Oliver Perez: Last year, 5.85 and .264. This year, 6.04 and .295.

Ian Snell: Last year, 5.14 and .267. This year, 5.74 and .313.

Two other pitchers have been on the roster last year and this year, Mike Gonzalez and Ryan Vogelsong. Both improved in one category and regressed in the other.

Williams, who is working for the Washington Nationals, said he has not seen one Pirates game this year so he could not comment on the current staff. But he added what many would say:

"The biggest thing is you gotta have the horses. A lot of good pitching coaches don't have good pitchers."


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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