Analysis: Russell faced big climb, went downhill
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John Russell found rare air by losing 299 games over three years as the Pirates' manager before being fired Monday, but he also had a rare set of circumstances.
From the day he took the job Nov. 5, 2007, he knew the team he inherited would not be kept intact long. That roster had an above-average offense, including All-Stars Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez, but little pitching and generally had not been successful for years. More important to team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, the organization lacked minor-league talent. So, Huntington traded Bay, Sanchez and nearly every other player of consequence from that team, and almost all of the returns were much younger players.
A couple of Huntington's trades have brought promising talent such as outfielder Jose Tabata and pitcher James McDonald, but the return as a whole -- most of which had been aimed to improve the major-league roster or the upper minors -- has been negligible to date.
In the interim, Russell dealt with an astounding turnover: Of the 47 players he used in 2008, only three -- catcher Ryan Doumit and pitchers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke -- were on the roster this year. And this most recent roster saw a franchise-record 51 players wear the uniform.
Russell was organized, tireless and provided a steady hand through the heavy losing, not once in three years publicly losing his temper or offering more than mild criticism of a player. He almost always placed the organization's longer-term goals first, per the direction set by the front office, including how he delegated playing time. And he was intensely loyal and mostly unquestioning of Huntington, although he appeared to assert himself more as this summer went along.
When Huntington made a costly trade in acquiring overweight and under-motivated Aki Iwamura in the winter, the front office wanted so badly to get Iwamura going that Russell was urged to put his .169-hitting second baseman atop the order. That continued into late May, and Iwamura eventually was sent to the minors, where he kept collecting his $4.85 million salary.
When Charlie Morton's pitching was all that kept the Pirates from a winning record a month into the season, the front office wanted so badly to get him going -- Morton also was acquired in a trade -- that he lasted in the majors until late May, when he was 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA. He would need a breather from baseball and help from a sports psychologist in the minors to recover.
Perhaps most extraordinary, there was front-office meddling in game situations, such as the conspicuous defensive shifts earlier this season, drawn up off statistical models but often proving embarrassing when applied to actual games. These faded over the summer, largely because of Russell's wish.
Even in that context, though, Russell's managing often came into question.
High atop the list of criticisms was his even-keel -- some might say dispassionate -- demeanor. His expression seldom changed, his tone rarely was animated or even audible, and that clearly did not sit well with a fan base more in tune with heart-on-the-sleeve managers in the mold of Jim Leyland or Lloyd McClendon.
Most relevant as it applied on the field, Russell tended to stay in the dugout after close calls, seldom arguing with an umpire even when his players appeared exasperated by the lack of support.
Monday in St. Louis, a Chan Ho Park pitch clipped the Cardinals' Jon Jay in the shin, but home plate umpire Brian O'Nora ruled a wild pitch, which allowed a runner to score from third. Park and Doumit argued, but Russell never emerged. Russell explained the next day that he did not have a "good angle" on the play and that he thought Park and Doumit were disputing a check-swing, but nothing prevented him from stepping out to find out why two veteran players were so upset.
The Pirates generally played hard under Russell, but that was to be expected of a group so thick with rookies and/or fringe major leaguers. And few would have deemed the team's attitude or approach as fiery.
For sure, no fire was found May 1 in Los Angeles: The Dodgers' Ramon Ortiz had twice thrown high and tight on Andrew McCutchen, but Duke never retaliated. The team looked intimidated, this despite having several players with no such trait. Shortstop Bobby Crosby had one leg over the dugout railing ready to charge the field after McCutchen's at-bat. But, as one Pirates alumnus said shortly thereafter: "If that's Leyland or Chuck Tanner, they would have been the first ones charging the field. That has to come from the manager."
The tangible aspect that might have reflected most poorly on Russell was the disparity between the 40-41 record at PNC Park and the 17-64 everywhere else. It was the second-most road losses in Major League Baseball's modern era, which began in 1900.
A young team tends to perform better in comfortable surroundings, and a third of the Pirates' everyday lineup -- second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata -- was made up of rookies. But, though that explanation was given often by Russell and the front office, Walker and Tabata actually were fine on the road. The broader issue, by far, was a visible lack of confidence and energy. When the Pirates played at PNC Park and were down by a couple of runs, whether boosted by the crowd or not, they tended to rally. When they were down on the road, the game was pretty much done.
That, and all preparation aspects, are the domain of the manager.
Fundamentals under Russell were inconsistent.
The Pirates ranked No. 1 in the majors in fielding percentage in 2009, and his first edition was mostly sound, too. But those teams had a middle infield of Sanchez and Jack Wilson, and the 2009 team had elite infield instructor Perry Hill, who would leave after the season in part because he was upset about Sanchez and Wilson being traded.
When those three left, so did the glove work, as the team this year dropped from first to a tie for worst in fielding percentage. Added to that were countless baserunning gaffes, and pitchers and catchers unable to catch anyone trying to steal. Even Chris Snyder, owner of the fewest errors in the majors over the past three years while with Arizona, suddenly was dropping routine throws upon joining the Pirates.
Strategy could be an issue, too.
Russell seldom strayed from the mythical manager's book, with the notable exceptions of the shifts and batting the pitcher eighth, which originated with the front office. Although statistical studies increasingly reject the value of the sacrifice bunt, he used it four times this season after McCutchen, one of baseball's fastest men, had reached second base with nobody out.
Russell was much more animated with the players than what the public saw, and there were signs that he stayed in communication and, in some cases, deeply engaged.
After word had broken about Russell's job status Sunday morning in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, several players in Miami approached Russell to express appreciation for his work. The Pirates went 17-22 down the stretch, a far better pace than previously, and many players -- notably the rookies -- credited a series of pregame, all-inclusive clubhouse discussions arranged by Russell.
The general mood about Russell's ouster might have been best summed up by one of the team's more important players saying, "What's this going to do?"
The focus Sunday among the team's key veterans was more on the front office, as it relates to a willingness to spend to upgrade the roster, the ability to evaluate talent and what they view as meddling with the manager and coaches.
Regarding a potential new manager, one player said, "It will take a good baseball person to make a difference in Pittsburgh, and someone who has the freedom to speak up and make a point."
There is culpability all-around, to be sure: The Pirates' process for hiring Russell was quick and heavily influenced by Coonelly. When Don Long was hired by Huntington and Russell to be the hitting coach, he was one of two men to interview for the job. In other baseball hires, the Pirates have gone with familiar faces, including from the Cleveland Indians who previously employed Huntington.
The new manager will face a far different challenge than Russell.
He will enter 2011 knowing that the four youngsters will form half his everyday lineup, possibly very effectively. He will know that a higher priority likely will be placed on upgrading and stabilizing the major league roster, if only because Huntington's job likely will be next on the line. And the manager will know, in all likelihood, that some of the front office's meddling and other mistakes might not be repeated, as hard lessons were learned by Huntington, who stood tall Monday in putting himself at the front of the line for criticism while announcing Russell's firing.
Already sounds like a much more attractive set of circumstances than Russell had.
First Published October 5, 2010 12:00 am