Shelton discusses Pirates’ strategy for 2020

April 22nd, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Derek Shelton thinks about managing his first game with the Pirates every day, if only because his phone alerts him about the games they would be playing if the season weren’t suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. His friends tell him to look on the bright side.

“I’ve received a lot of texts from people saying I’ve done a nice job of not losing a game yet,” Shelton said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “I text back and say, ‘Well, I haven’t screwed anything up yet. I’m sure I will soon.’”

Shelton has found ways to enjoy the unexpected downtime before his Major League managerial debut. He’s having family dinners, which baseball’s schedule rarely allows. He watched the first two episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series with a strict no-talking policy in place. He’s preparing for whatever the season may bring, but not wasting time speculating about every new proposed plan.

Much like players are finding ways to keep their bodies ready, Shelton is keeping his managerial mind sharp. Some coaches are using videogame-type simulations to stay engaged. Shelton is watching old games, including some the Pirates played last season and classic MLB Network broadcasts, and managing along with them using the strategies he’ll employ this year.

Last week, Shelton appeared on KDKA-FM and tackled a handful of questions from host Joe Starkey about his managerial tactics. Since we haven’t seen a Shelton-managed Pirates game outside of Spring Training, let’s use his answers to see how he’ll handle a couple key areas during his first season at the helm.

The topic: Workload management

What Shelton said: “I think you have to believe in it. The NBA’s different because they rest guys for complete games where they don’t play at all. In our situation, we could rest a guy, then he could hit in the seventh or eighth inning. Especially playing a National League game, we may have a high-leverage situation where the pitcher’s spot comes up and a guy ends up getting in a game and doing that. A lot of the study that happens on load management is basically making sure that we get the best performance out of a player. … I think we have to be smart organizationally in making sure that we get the best out of our players when they’re on the field.”

What it means: The way baseball has evolved recently, you’re just not all that likely to see many players around the league starting 155 games. It sounds like Shelton understands that but wants to remain flexible so that he’s not leaving, say, Josh Bell in the dugout with the game on the line just because he has a scheduled “day off.” The last part of Shelton’s answer is the most important. Sometimes you’ll get more out of a player if he starts five or six games a week than you would running him out there every day. The key is identifying how often each player should take the field and clearly communicating the data and logic that affect playing-time decisions.

The topic: How long to stick with starting pitchers

What Shelton said: “I don’t personally think that 100-pitch mark is the magic number. I think you see starters that start to lose their stuff at 75-80 pitches, and you have to be very aware of that going forward from pitches 85-100. Then there’s guys who are horses, and their stuff starts to get better at that point. I think that’s very individually based, and that’s why that workload is something that’s extremely important. … It all matters situationally. If we have a full bullpen and we’re loaded, depending on what our schedule is coming forward … then I think you make decisions on matchups.”

What it means: Whether fans [and media] admit it or not, sometimes a manager’s decision in this regard is judged by the results. If a starter gets pulled and the bullpen blows up, he came out too early; if a starter stays in and loses a lead, the manager left him in too long. There’s nuance to these decisions, which Shelton acknowledged by also pointing out that pitching moves are dependent upon how close the game is, how rested the bullpen might be and how far away the pitcher’s spot in the lineup is.

Not every pitcher is the same, so you can’t manage them all the same. Some starters have a deep enough arsenal and good enough command to navigate through a lineup three times. For others, maybe a six-inning start is the best-case scenario. Shelton said he’ll employ “a combination” of data-driven decision-making with what the coaching staff is seeing on a given night, so he won’t manage strictly by the numbers or by gut feel alone. The best managers can use both.

The topic: Closer usage

What Shelton said: “I’ve come out publicly and said Keone [Kela] is going to be our closer, and he is going to be our closer. But if he has four days’ rest and he feels comfortable, he may get an out in the eighth, then get the outs in the ninth. When you’re building [a bullpen], you build from the closer back. To your point, I do feel we have to identify certain other guys in our bullpen that will be used in different leverage situations. The highest-leverage situation may be at the end of the sixth, beginning of the seventh, and you may use someone that traditionally was used in the eighth inning for that. If we feel that’s the biggest out, we may use that person then.”

What it means: Shelton announced early in February that Kela will be the closer, and it sounds like he’ll function in a fairly traditional role -- in the ninth inning, sometimes in the eighth. Even teams that think outside the box tend to gravitate toward having a set closer, so this isn’t a huge surprise.

Relievers typically like to know when they’ll work, so it’s notable that Shelton said he’ll consider leverage when deploying his setup men. Sometimes the biggest outs are in the sixth inning, not the eighth. The question here is personnel, however, as the Pirates struggled to find any answers in the bullpen last year beyond Kela and former closer Felipe Vázquez.

The topic: Bunting

What Shelton said: “Generally, I would fall in the area of not [bunting], because it is giving away outs. The fact that we play in the National League, it changes the whole scope of how you bunt. … I think you have to be very cautious in how you do that. As you get later in games, I would probably be more of a proponent of it than earlier in games.”

What it means: This one’s pretty clear. Shelton isn’t going to call for a bunch of sacrifice bunts just to play for one run, unless the situation calls for doing so. (And it doesn’t take a statistics degree to understand that giving away outs is typically a bad strategy.) He said the Twins entered last season preparing to play more small ball, then they went out and obliterated home run records and adjusted their game plan accordingly. These Pirates lack that kind of game-changing power, so they might have to be more aggressive on the bases -- even if they aren’t dropping bunts -- to create runs.