Q&A with Ray Searage: Pirates pitching coach discusses challenges, criticism
Ray Searage was the subject of my column this week for wearing a bull’s-eye for the Bucs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach has endured a rash of injuries to his starting rotation and bullpen and the criticism that comes with the club losing 20 of 29 games in one span.
Not only have the Pirates lost Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams to injuries, but fellow starters Chris Archer and Jordan Lyles have spent stints on the injured list. So have relievers Nick Burdi and Keone Kela, who was acquired last summer to be the setup man.
What’s worse, Pirates fans have watched former Pirates pitchers Gerrit Cole leads the majors in strikeouts (148) at Houston, and Charlie Morton (8-1, 2.37 ERA) and Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.86 ERA) are shining in Tampa Bay.
Meantime, Nick Kingham, who took a perfect game into the seventh inning of his major league debut in April 2018, struggled so much he was designated for assignment before being traded to Toronto. And top prospect Mitch Keller gave up a grand slam and six runs in the first inning of his major league debut.
That didn’t stop Searage from spending time with me Tuesday before the Pirates played the Detroit Tigers at PNC Park to talk about how he’s handling the Pirates’ pitching woes and the finger-pointing that has followed.
Williams is returning from the injured list, and Lyles should be soon to follow. What’s it like to get some of your starting pitchers back?
Really nice. It was a rough go there. Hopefully, we can get some solid guys coming back.
Is there something the pitchers have to do different, or did the stress of carrying the team early in the season play a part?
No, I don’t think so. These are things that just happen. We just got pie-eyed with these things coming up at the same time. Believe me, this is not what we wrote up in spring training — far from it.
When you lose three out of four and then four out of five, you start to scramble a little bit. Other guys are getting opportunities and finding out what the major leagues are all about.
A dozen different pitchers have spent time on the IL. What was it like as a pitching coach to go through this?
It’s a challenge. You try to help them grow up quicker than what they’re normally used to. You’ve just got to stay positive. You keep working with them, day in and day out. Some of the results are maybe in a sequence and not in an outing, but all of a sudden there’s two sequences that are good and they start to figure it out a little bit, where they need to throw the ball and how they can throw the ball to that certain area. It’s a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun.
The results can be fun or give you a heart attack some nights. You’ve been doing this long enough to not take it personally, but how do you say that it isn’t your fault or know that you can’t wave a magic wand and fix it?
I try not to go there. I just take each game and each day differently. We have that saying that we shower it off. That really had to come to fruition this year because I do take a lot of things personally. Those are things that I couldn’t control, and I was well aware of that. I had support from (Pirates manager) Clint (Hurdle) and (general manager) Neal (Huntington) and other coaches that we had to just keep on battling.
That’s the way we go. About this team: They’re so resilient. They forget about yesterday, but they learn by it. If you can incorporate that into your next outing, your next AB, your play in the field, it helps out tremendously.
How hard was it to lose Taillon and Williams, your top two pitchers on the staff last season, at the same time?
The proof is in the pudding. You see what it did. Time’s going to take its toll, and you’ve got to let these guys heal. When they come back, you’ve got to make sure you do your work diligently so that they are ready to come back.
Trevor’s not going to be the way he was in the second or third start, but if we can help him through and start building him up that way because, mentally, Trevor is one of the strongest people I’ve ever been around and he didn’t go into a corner or in his cave when he got hurt. He goes, ‘All right, it’s going to run its course. I’m going to do what I have to do to get myself ready so when I am ready to get going, I don’t have to worry about the other things I didn’t take care of.’
What was it like to get a young pitcher like Keller with a lot of talent and see him struggle in spring training and in his debut?
If you look back on all the good pitchers — Roy Halladay, God rest in peace, what he went through — it’s a learning process. I can’t speed up the process, the experience that they’re going to get between the white lines. You try to help them get through it. You’ve got to make better pitches. You look at the video. You look at the game, what you need to do better and where you were short on stuff.
You have a reputation for helping veterans reclaim what they once were and have helped guys like Cole, Taillon and Williams have success. How hard has it been to watch the young pitchers who struggle?
At least I can look myself in the mirror and know that I’ve done everything that I possibly could. The coach is only as good as his student. The student has got to take and be accountable for some of the stuff that has gone on out there. We can talk to them. We can show them. But when push comes to shove, they’ve got to be mentally tough, and they’ve got to grow up between the white lines. I only can make five trips. I can’t be up there every hitter. Those things are frustrating but when I leave here, at least I can say I know I did everything in my power to try to help them out.
You tried everything with Tyler Glasnow, and he goes to Tampa and the light bulb goes on. Is his success tough to swallow?
No, I’m happy for him because if I remember correctly, he said, ‘I’m just doing what Ray and the Pirates told me to do up here, and now it just clicked.’ Nobody has a timetable for anybody to be on. Good for him. The success brought confidence, which brought more success, which brought more confidence. It’s a nice wheel that’s rolling.
You weather the storm. You hold onto the mast, sink your teeth in it and don’t let go.
Archer has been inconsistent here. How hard is it to deal with the good stuff but also see his problems? Is it pitch sequencing?
It’s not so much the pitch sequencing. It’s where he’s throwing the ball. That’s the biggest thing: He’s making too many mistakes out over the plate. Back when we were two-seam guys, the pitchers that we had had to be two-seam guys. We’re evolving now. I hear people say, ‘You’ve got to get rid of the philosophy.’ The philosophy has changed. Are you watching the game? We’re just not executing pitches. We’re not pounding the two-seamer anymore. We’re going with the four-seamer up top, then we use the two-seamer accordingly.
Is that a result of Archer overcorrecting from not being able to throw strikes?
He’s trying too hard. He’s putting a lot of pressure on himself. I said, ‘Hey, take a breather. We’ve got this. You’re going to be fine.’ He’s got to get through this little storm right here – because he’s got all of the tools. He’s got all of the pitches. Just executing those pitches at the right times.
You’ve got to understand we’ve got two young catchers behind the dish, too, so we’re working with them but that is not an overnight success, either. But they’ve come so far right now that they’re really learning by being out there and catching these games. And they’re doing a great job. We’ve just got to help with their development.
I wish I could (go to the mound more often). Either that or have a bluetooth. It’ll happen in years to come. In the long run, you’ve got to make sure you stay involved, talk to them between innings and make sure we understand what’s going on and read swings, read the pitcher’s pitches …
What are the pros and cons you’ve seen from Keller?
He’s got good stuff. Too many mistakes over the middle of the plate. Simple as that.
How immune are you to the criticism? How hard is it to go from being the ‘pitcher whisperer’ to it all being your fault?
I listen to it, but I don’t take it into account because I know whatever I’m doing, some of these people are not privy to the inside part of the game that I am and what we’re trying to accomplish. They’ll see things that happen and say, they’re doing this or that. How do you know I’m doing that? Unless you’ve spoken to me or walked a mile in my shoes, you don’t know what I’m doing. I take it as people having conversations about a baseball game that don’t have all of the information yet …
If they want to use me as a scapegoat, fine. I know what I can do and what I have done, and I just keep working my (rear end) off.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .