Pirates pitching coach Searage builds trust, foundation with pitchers
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Everyone knew what Ray Searage was supposed to be.
Searage pitched seven years in the majors. The lefty was a reliever for the Mets, Brewers, White Sox and Dodgers. And at every spot he made, a new pitching coach tried to reinvent him.
“I went through it, and I know how it bothered me,” Searage said. “Every pitching coach tried to overhaul me. ‘Change this. Change that.' I lost my identity.”
The final and most extreme forced alteration came at the end of his professional career with Cleveland in 1991. The Indians had him copy the high leg kick and unorthodox head tuck of Len Barker. Searage was out of baseball after the 1992 season.
“I had no idea where home plate was,” said Searage of the unusual motion. “It didn't go good for two years.”
Understanding of the plight of pitchers has allowed Searage to connect with the Pirates' staff and spin struggling arms into gold. In 2012 under Searage, the Pirates' ERA dipped below 4.00 (3.91) for the first time since 1998. Last season, the Pirates finished third in baseball in ERA at 3.25. The Pirates had not put together consecutive seasons of sub-4.00 ERAs since 1991-92.
“Maybe it's because I have empathy,” Searage said. “I've been in their shoes. That's what I think it is. … I don't want these guy to go through the same things I went through. I want them to keep their identities. It's not like I went to school or anything to study for it, it just evolved over time.”
Searage was exposed to empathy while watching his father, who directed department store construction on Long Island in Freeport, N.Y.
“My dad was a very compassionate man,” Searage said. “He showed me to treat everyone as equals.”
His empathy was heightened after his pro career in 1993, humbled by making $10 an hour as a carpenter in Florida. That year, Cardinals roving instructor George Kissell called with an offer to become a minor league instructor. “I said ‘Hell, yeah,'” Searage said. “It's not enough (money), but it gets me out of here.”
In 2011, in Searage's first spring as Pirates pitching coach, he and fellow pitching guru Jim Benedict watched Charlie Morton throw. Morton was coming off a year that included a 7.57 ERA despite a 93 mph fastball. He was thought to be a major project. Benedict thought Morton looked restricted by throwing over the top. Searage agreed. Searage could have tried a number of things with Morton but began with one fix.
Searage's empathy is key to his foundational belief in mechanical adjustments. He does not reconstruct pitchers, Searage says, he “remodels” them. He looks for one or two “keys.”
“All we did the next day is have (Morton) start throwing out here (with a three-quarter arm slot),” Searage said. “Once he got out to here, the sinker was his primary pitch. It had a life of its own. It just took over. All he had to do was repeat his delivery.”
Morton went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA last season and posted a 62.9 percent groundball rate, tops among starters.
“People were always criticizing me for my mentality,” said Morton of struggles early in his career. “(They said) I was a head case: ‘As you soon as you mature, as soon as you stop being so crazy on the mound, you're going to pitch better.' In reality, it was a physical adjustment that allowed me to be more confident. … It allowed me to throw naturally. I started repeating my delivery. That was it. That was the start of it. … It was a quick fix. It was simple.”
Searage is part of a team that includes Benedict, Euclides Rojas and Tom Filer. They all contribute. In extended spring training last year, minor league pitching coach Miguel Bonilla passed along a tip: when Francisco Liriano employed a hip twist in his delivery, he had better timing. Searage was intrigued.
“When he got to the top of his delivery, we made sure his hip cocked a little bit. It forced him to stay back at the top of his delivery and then let everything go forward,” Searage said. “Sometimes he got caught too quick. … It's a puzzle. I love putting puzzles together.”
A ‘master' communicator
Each day during throwing drills, Searage makes his rounds and asks every pitcher the same question: “How do you feel?”
“I'm sure they are sick of it. But I can tell by the way (they answer),” Searage said. “I'll say ‘OK. What's the matter?'”
To get buy-in from pitchers, a coach first must gain trust. Clint Hurdle calls Searage a “master” communicator.
“You can be a mechanics guru and not be able to convey your thoughts,” Morton said. “You might not be able to get along with anybody. We all have different personalities, different characteristics. It's tough. (Searage) has a foundation that is based in kindness and empathy and understanding of people. I think that's what makes him great.”
Searage's mound visits are more often about changing the rhythm of an inning than they are about strategy. He rarely raises his voice during a visit.
Said Jeff Locke: “Ray brings up that I made the All-Star team last year. He never lets you lose sight of that no matter how tough things get.”
During bullpen work, pitchers say he listens more than he speaks with a trace of a Long Island accent. When he speaks, Pirates pitchers usually listen. And why wouldn't they? Searage helped Liriano to a comeback season. A.J. Burnett's career was restored under Searage. Ditto for Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and Locke.
Said Locke: “He's mini-legend around here.”