Altoona pitching coach provides another example of 'Pirates Way' approach
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates absorbed a blow in October when Jim Benedict bolted to take a job with the Miami Marlins.
Benedict, 54, was one of the architects of the organization's pitching philosophy. He helped rejuvenate the careers of Francisco Liriano, J.A. Happ and Edinson Volquez and assisted with Gerrit Cole's development as a home-grown ace.
The Marlins lured Benedict with a splashy title (vice president of pitching development) and an opportunity to work with talented arms such as Jose Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen.
Stung by the sudden departure of another member of their brain trust (the Marlins also snatched former Pirates special assistant Marc DelPiano in September), the Pirates demanded compensation. The Marlins gave them pitcher Trevor Williams, who's on track to start this season in the Triple-A Indianapolis rotation.
When Pirate City opened its doors for spring training, it marked the first time since 2007 that Benedict was not around. The reaction from the players and coaches, though, was business as usual.
“No one man makes this organization spin,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “It's a collaboration of a bunch of us doing this. We're going to miss Benny, but it's not an end-all. It doesn't revolve around me. It revolves around us. Jim was a part of that. Now it's next man up, as Clint would say.”
The Pirates Way
Manager Clint Hurdle indeed used that exact reference as he explained how the Pirates can maintain their momentum even as coaches come and go.
“Our programs are cohesive, complete and connected,” Hurdle said. “With the seamlessness of our teaching and coaching abilities, wherever our players go (in the Pirates' system), it's so like-minded. It's the ‘Pirates Way,' not ‘Ray Searage's Way.' ”
What is the Pirates Way? It utilizes individualized plans for pitchers instead of a cookie-cutter approach. It involves one-on-one interaction, including lots of time spent discovering what the player is like off the field.
“That's probably what separates us the most — figuring out each guy and what gives him the best chance to succeed,” Double-A Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage said.
Searage drills into his pitchers the importance of getting an out on three or fewer pitches. The teenagers at the Pirates' Academia de Beisbol in the Dominican Republic hear the same mantra every day.
No one is surprised Cole and Liriano like to bust batters with inside pitches because that's the way Pirates pitchers are taught from the ground floor of the system.
“Everybody knows the Pirates like to throw inside,” said lefty Steven Brault, who spent most of last season with Altoona after being obtained from the Baltimore Orioles' organization. “That's what we do. That goes all the way down in the system. It's a way we identify as Pirates pitchers.”
On the radar
Benedict was not the first Pirates coach to be eyed by another club, and he won't be the last to leave. Hurdle said teams already have inquired about minor league pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell.
During the offseason, Triple-A Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles interviewed for the bullpen coach job with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Hurdle and Searage believe Meccage eventually will be a target.
“Justin is going to make a really good major league pitching coach someday,” Searage said. “Who knows? He may be next in line behind me. That's fine. I think that's great. We need to have people in the minor leagues who are going to be able to take over once this gig is done for me and continue the winning tradition we've established.”
Meccage (pronounced Mess-age) joined the Pirates in 2010 as a coach with the short-season Single-A affiliate. Like Mitchell, Meccage was recruited to the Pirates by Benedict.
“Mess is awesome,” Brault said. “The way he does things, he's a little more hands-off. He's a little fiery at times and is not afraid to say what's on his mind. For me, that honesty is really helpful. He doesn't sugarcoat things when he sees something wrong, and I think that's the best way to learn things.”
Another part of the Pirates Way is having coaches move up and down in the minors to match up with where certain players are assigned. Over the past couple of seasons, Meccage shadowed top prospect Tyler Glasnow's rise through the farm system.
“I've been with him so long, he really knows me,” Glasnow said. “It's nice having someone that's seen you for a while, watching your bullpens and sides. We have a really good relationship.”
Next man up
Like dancers stealing steps from other performers, teams often try to copy other clubs' winning formulas. Searage laughed when asked if there are a lot of copycats trying to pick his brain.
“You know, this isn't anything that's kept locked away in a safe in the Pentagon,” Searage said. “Do your homework. And you've got to be accountable to the young man you're working with, so he'll put in and sell out to it.”
More than anything, then, the Pirates Way is about building relationships. Communication. Trust.
Benedict is gone from the Pirates, but the program he helped piece together remains in place.
“We learned a lot from him,” Meccage said. “I think we're all going to get together and take what we learned from him and be a little bit stronger. That's what we're looking for. Who's going to take the reins? I'm not sure who that's going to be. We're all going to have to step up a little bit. We're looking forward to that challenge.”