Pirates' pitching maven Benedict revitalizes 1 of MLB's top staffs
Jim Benedict's brief professional baseball career began with a line drive to the head. It ended with a pink slip signed by Hank Aaron. In between, things were less dramatic, but they still mattered.
“My philosophy was built on my own struggles, battling and surviving,” he said.
Benedict has worked as a pitching instructor and scout for more than 25 years in college and the major leagues. After a tour of several organizations, he landed with the Pirates in 2008 and assumed the vague but flexible title of special assistant to the general manager.
Benedict was minor league pitching coordinator for two seasons but likes multitasking better. He does advance scouting and works extensively with pitchers. As chief troubleshooter, he is adept at tagging pitching problems and solving not only the immediate ones but also the deeper issues.
Reliever Mark Melancon, who is having a career year in his first season with the Pirates, calls Benedict “kind of a guru when it comes to pitching.”
This is a useful resource for an offense-challenged team, and most of the club's success is pitching-related. Ray Searage, who became pitching coach during the 2010 season, is a big reason. But others throughout the organization are involved, including manager Clint Hurdle, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, minor league coordinator Scott Mitchell and others.
Then there is Benedict, who has impacted most of the big league pitchers and several in the minors. He helped Melancon become an All-Star and Francisco Liriano an ace again. He rebuilt Charlie Morton's mechanics (getting to Morton too late to prevent Tommy John surgery, however) and is part of the ongoing Gerrit Cole project.
“You can see how he's been a big part of really crafting their entire pitching program, and how they're on the same page with every little thing,” an American League scout said.
Benedict, 52, has been described as an intellectual. He has a master's degree in history but claims to have lost it. Instead, stuck on a wall inside his Bradenton, Fla., home near Pirates City is a pink sheet of paper signifying the end of his career as a minor league, sidearm reliever.
His official release from the Atlanta Braves' organization is a special document, a passport to the rest of his life.
“The next day I was Coach Benedict,” he said. “I always had aspirations to coach and teach. Playing was just a platform.”
Also, the paper is signed by Aaron, the legendary slugger who was Atlanta's farm director at the time.
“I have his autograph,” Benedict said, sounding like a pleased-as-punch 12-year-old.
Melancon said Benedict “explains things in a different light. ... He's more intellectual, I think.”
Morton said Benedict “deals with more of the abstract aspect of pitching. He deals with some of the things you don't typically deal with in terms of pitching and mechanics.”
In his one-to-one work with pitchers, the voluble Benedict said he seeks to “go one layer below where you think you should go.” Meaning, he said, “You're just treating the symptom if you only try to fix what you see. If you're just treating the symptom, you're not treating the disease.”
“He goes into more depth,” Searage said. “I'll look at guys and say, ‘Let's do this, let's try this.' Bennie will break it down even more so.”
An avid reader and student of the game, Benedict has written his theories into a manual. He can go on at length about arm slots and backside loading. But his basic precepts involve keeping it simple, getting the mind and body to work as one and treating each pitcher as a wholly unique individual.
He wants his pitchers to be “loose-minded.”
“Be yourself,” Benedict said. “Let your instincts be more important than your training. Baseball is notorious for getting overtrained, overthinking, overpreparing, and we don't let our athleticism come out.”
Benedict grew up in Southern California in what he calls a “tested environment.” His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother in subsidized housing.
“That's where the struggle began,” he said.
A high school outfielder, Benedict converted to pitcher in junior college. He was good enough to earn a scholarship to Arizona State, but it was a dispiriting, one-year experience. Regaining his groove, he eventually signed with the Royals for nothing but plane fare.
While pitching batting practice on his first day of minor league spring training, a line drive smacked Benedict in the forehead. There was lots of blood, he said, but he was not seriously injured. Still, doctors had to induce a coma that lasted 72 hours.
After waking up, Benedict said his pitching somehow improved. He had some success in the minors, but a congenital back ailment cut short his career after three years. He became a pitching coach at Loyola Marymount under his mentor and former junior college coach, Dave Snow. He scouted for the Rangers, followed by stops with the Expos, Dodgers, Yankees, Indians and Pirates, where he reunited with general manager Neal Huntington. The two had met in Montreal in 1994.
“Intense, passionate, intelligent,” Huntington said of Benedict. “He studies it. He's very strong in what he sees, very strong in what he thinks. There is a lot that goes into Bennie's thought processes.”
Benedict has some catch phrases he gives his pitcher to write in their hats as reminders.
“It's all about letting go, being comfortable,” he said. “You have to train yourself to be comfortable. Enjoy competition. The goal is to have a thoughtless process. But there's a lot of pain that comes from getting that. A lot of struggle goes on, on the way to simple. Simple is the final product. Ultimately, my goal is for the pitcher to be his best pitching coach.”
Benedict knows biomechanics and respects the use of advanced statistics.
“But it's all about the human being,” he said.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.