Hot Stove: Pitching plan will come from coach
How much difference a pitching coach can make with a staff, generally speaking, is best assessed by the degree to which said staff steps up on its own. Ultimately, the art still comes down to one man, one mound, one ball.
But listen to the Pirates, and it is clear that their optimism regarding Joe Kerrigan, the new man in that role, is robust.
"He's going to be huge for us," manager John Russell said this week at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. "With his level of preparation, his planning, you're going to see his impact, believe me."
Everyone in the team's management is careful not to be critical of Jeff Andrews, Kerrigan's predecessor who was fired after one year on the job. In fact, they have pointed out that most starters performed well mechanically as per video reviews done after Andrews' departure.
But that "planning" that Russell cited is key: Management is convinced that one of the many downfalls of its pitching in 2008 -- which was among the worst in franchise history with a 5.08 ERA and 657 walks, each highest in the National League -- was inadequate preparation for opposing hitters. Pitchers privately grumbled about it, too.
And that is where Russell and others sound optimistic that Kerrigan can upgrade the staff.
"You need to be able to have a plan going into every at-bat, every situation, and that's his strong suit," Russell said. "I think where you're really going to see that have an impact is early in games."
A statistical analysis the Pirates performed internally showed this: The team allowed 122 first-inning runs, most in the majors. From there, the number dipped to 87 in the second inning, then climbed back to 94 in the third and 120 in the fourth. And what that meant, as per the deeper study, was that pitchers were ill-prepared for the first, benefited from facing the bottom of the order in the second, failed to adjust to earlier mistakes against the same hitters in the third, then were out of gas by the fourth from running up ridiculous pitch counts.
How Kerrigan will address this is twofold:
1. He will take over and follow through on all pregame preparation, meeting with the starting pitcher and catcher.
2. And this is the larger departure: He will call some pitches -- maybe more than a few -- from the dugout.
Some catchers might be bugged by that, but Ryan Doumit always has welcomed it.
• When will Kerrigan have a good feel for his new staff? "When I catch them," he replied. Yes, catch. Although a pitcher in his playing days, he has done enough informal work behind the plate that he prefers to catch his staff to get the best feel for their pitches. He will put on the gear for the first time at the Jan. 14-17 minicamp in Bradenton, Fla.
• Nine pitchers will participate in an informal conditioning camp the next four days in Bradenton.
• Although Nate McLouth became a solid run-producer with 94 RBIs this past season, expect him to be at the top of Russell's batting order next season.
• The Pirates have been delighted by the offseason conditioning work of Tom Gorzelanny, who vowed a renewed dedication after his 6-9 season.
• Masumi Kuwata is not exactly going low-profile with his retirement in Japan. He is writing a regular column -- with some help -- for the Hochi Shimbun newspaper, as well as coaching his children's youth baseball outfit. His gear of choice, according to Hochi Shimbun reporter Yasuko Yanagita, remains a Pirates jersey.
• If the Pirates drafted according to the list of the top 100 prospects for 2009 just released by Baseball America, they would take Dustin Ackley, a first baseman/outfielder at the University of North Carolina. Yes, he is represented by Scott Boras.
• Only 61 days until pitchers and catchers report.
First Published December 14, 2008 12:00 am