Shelton ready to set fun tone with Pirates

December 4th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Derek Shelton made a promise on Wednesday morning. It had nothing to do with wins and losses, pitching plans or lineup construction. No, the Pirates’ new manager wanted to set the tone about, well, how he’ll set the tone in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse.

“It’s definitely going to be a culture where we have fun,” Shelton said during his introductory press conference at PNC Park. “You’re going to see us laugh. It’s going to be a fun place to be around.”

The last year was not what anyone would call fun for the Pirates, as they went 69-93 while dealing with a handful of critical injuries, at least three fights in the clubhouse and a complete front-office makeover. But Shelton spoke about his new job for the first time with a refreshingly relaxed demeanor, a pleasant attitude and even a few off-the-cuff jokes sprinkled in along the way.

Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington vowed to change the culture in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse, and Wednesday provided some insight into how they’ll go about creating that transformation.

“I think how you develop communication and fun is by building relationships,” Shelton said. “For me to instantly think that I’m going to walk in the clubhouse and, because people have said positive things about me, that everybody is going to trust me and everybody is going to like me, I realize that’s not true. But it’s my job and the job of baseball ops, and especially the coaching staff on a day-to-day basis, that we’re building relationships and we’re building that trust and we’re giving players an opportunity for their voice to be heard.

“One of the things that I’ve probably learned the most is the more you talk to players, the more you build relationships. Not only on a professional level but on a personal level, it’s going to lead to better things. We’re going to start that way.”

In the back of the room stood a 6-foot-5 example of what Shelton hopes to accomplish. Starting pitcher and clubhouse leader traveled to Pittsburgh, accompanied Shelton on his first trip to Primanti Brothers on Tuesday -- “I don’t think I’m going to eat for a week,” Shelton quipped -- then spent the morning of his 27th birthday attending his new manager’s press conference. Shelton has also met with first baseman in person since being hired a week ago, and he has spoken to another dozen players on the phone.

Cherington said the Pirates were seeking three things in their new manager. They wanted someone who could lead “an elite coaching and performance environment at the Major League level,” and Shelton has been a part of similar groups with Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Minnesota.

They also sought someone who could function as a partner with the baseball operations staff. Shelton is well-versed in analytics and making them accessible for players, but he poked fun at himself when asked about the role information plays in his decision-making.

“I’m definitely not as smart as Ben,” he said of the Amherst College-educated Cherington. “I went to Southern Illinois.”

Finally, the Pirates were looking for someone who would continue to learn and find new ways to improve. They saw those qualities in Shelton during his ascent from Minor League catcher and manager to Indians assistant hitting coach to Rays hitting coach to Twins bench coach.

“The feedback from players was really, really overwhelming from various different stops that he's been at,” Cherington said. “All kinds of different players who really spoke with conviction about Derek as a coach, as someone who can connect with all kinds of different people and ultimately just cares about helping players get better.”

After saying that, Cherington stood up and helped Shelton put on his new, No. 17 Pirates jersey -- a tradition that “has never gone smoothly for any manager that's ever done it,” Shelton deadpanned.

Nor was this process always smooth. Shelton, who was also up for the Mets’ managerial opening in October, first interviewed with former GM Neal Huntington, a friend dating back to their time with the Indians. Then Huntington was dismissed around the time that chairman Bob Nutting hired new president Travis Williams. It stood out, Shelton said, that Williams immediately called to say Shelton was still a candidate.

Fortunately, Shelton had worked alongside Cherington with the Blue Jays in 2017 and ultimately found himself at the top of the Pirates’ list. But waiting nearly a month for a new GM and another interview was stressful.

“It was probably more difficult for my wife and kids because I probably was not a fun person to be around in the gap while they hired Ben,” Shelton said. “I will say that I have the cleanest garage of any garage in Florida because I’ve cleaned it about 15 times.”

Shelton said all the right things on Wednesday, but nobody had a clear-cut answer about whether the Pirates intend to rebuild their Major League roster under their first-time manager. Shelton said he’ll have a better feel for the club’s competitive timetable in Spring Training, but he again promised the 2020 Pirates will be “a team that’s going to be accountable, a group that’s going to have fun.”

When he left his interview with Nutting and Williams, Shelton said he made it clear he wanted to be a part of what they were building.

“From the moment I sat down with them, you could feel their passion for the organization, their passion for the city, and it really got me excited. It got me excited about wanting to be here,” Shelton said. “In fact, I told them at the end of that interview, ‘This is really exciting. I’m hoping that I’m your guy, because I want to be a part of this. I want to be part of building this forward, and I want to be part of this baseball operations group.’”