'Player-centered' culture the key for Cherington

New GM lays out strategy for turning Pirates into a contender

November 19th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- On Monday, Pirates president Travis Williams and general manager Ben Cherington used four verbs to describe the process by which Pittsburgh will add talented players to an organization in need of more: identify, acquire, develop and deploy.

But to describe the philosophy behind Cherington’s strategy, the Pirates’ new GM used one hyphenated adjective that may prove to be even more important: “player-centered.”

“We are going to build a baseball operations culture that is player-centered,” Cherington said Monday afternoon. “Travis mentioned those four activities that we need to be great at -- identification of players, acquisition of players, development of players and ultimately deployment, or putting players in the best position to succeed. Being great at those four things is what drives success in a place like Pittsburgh. It is happening in other places.

“In order to be great at that, we need to keep the player in the center of that and build a team of people that collaborate at each step of the process.”

One of the more meaningful criticisms of the Pirates over the last four years was that they fell behind the curve in terms of modern player development practices. These days, the best teams thrive by making the most of each individual player’s abilities. They encourage pitchers to throw their best pitches more often. They work with hitters to find the optimal point of contact in their individual swings, seeking the kind of hard contact that consistently leads to extra-base hits and home runs.

Their coaching, in other words, is player-centered.

Meanwhile, the Pirates were almost a victim of their own success earlier in this decade. They surged into the postseason from 2013-15, in part, because they bought into organizational philosophies and dutifully executed them. Fielders lined up where opponents’ spray charts said batted balls were most likely to land, and Pittsburgh’s pitchers followed a formula: pitching inside and down in the zone, throwing more sinkers and fewer straight four-seamers.

(Worth noting: There were signs of change over the last year. The Pirates signed Jordan Lyles last offseason because of his four-seam/curveball mix. They hired analytically savvy, player-centered hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz. Some pitchers, like Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove and eventually Chris Archer, independently cut back on their two-seam fastball usage.)

While the Pirates mostly spent 2016-19 seeking players who were undervalued according to their old evaluation system, teams like the Dodgers, Astros and Rays were already moving on to the next big thing -- the game now dominated by high four-seam fastballs, heavy breaking-ball usage and swings designed to create the optimal launch angle.

Pittsburgh’s issues in those areas became apparent through the success that Lyles, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and others found elsewhere almost immediately with cutting-edge teams like the Brewers, Astros and Rays. Pirates chairman Bob Nutting was not blind to any of that.

“There's a lot of work that needs to get done, and frankly, we don't have enough talent in the organization right now,” Nutting said Monday. “We need to be better at all those fundamentals. We need to be better at bringing in talent in every opportunity that we can. The talent we have, we've got to be better at developing it, because we're not getting the most out of the players that we have. We've seen that in too many painful, visible examples.”

Enter Cherington and a player-centered culture of player development. Or, as he called it at one point, “player improvement.”

The last few years are full of player improvement stories. Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger made the leap from star to MVP. Max Muncy and J.D. Martinez went from the scrap heap to the All-Star Game. Morton and Cole came into their own. The specifics are different, but the theme is the same: Good players developed into something more than just “good.”

Player development is Cherington’s passion, and that shone through during his hours of interviews on Monday. It was his area of focus for most of his time with the Red Sox. Given his choice of opportunities over the past three seasons, he selected a behind-the-scenes role that allowed him to work primarily with the Blue Jays’ Minor League system.

“Player development, naturally, is a critical activity for us. It's something I've been drawn to my whole career,” Cherington said. “It's also an area that's completely changed in the last five to seven years. I mean, the whole world is upside down in terms of player development.

“Ultimately, great players and great teams are simply getting better every day. They're simply improving every day. You can call it player development. You can call it improvement. You can call it whatever you want, but that process has to be not just continuous, but on the cutting edge and ahead of other teams."

Williams cited the Rays, A’s and Brewers as examples of teams that have “cracked the code” to win in smaller markets with a limited Major League payroll. He believes Cherington, with four verbs and one adjective, can help the Pirates crack the code, too.

“At the end of the day, you bring great people around the table, great baseball minds, and you focus on the areas that Ben has excelled in, which are identifying, attracting, developing and deploying talent,” Williams said. “We put the resources around the table in those areas, we absolutely can be competitive.”