Pirates have 'pitcher whisperer' in Searage

Pitching coach has rejuvenated numerous careers

March 9th, 2016

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Ray Searage stood in the middle of a black-and-gold circle, surrounded by Pirates pitchers and catchers before their first Spring Training workout.
"It's not my way or the highway. It's our way," he told them. "It's not about me. It's about us."
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As Pittsburgh's pitching coach, Searage is the goateed face of what's becoming a world-renowned reclamation clinic. Every time the Pirates acquire a new pitcher, no matter his ERA or injury history, there's a familiar refrain among the Pirates faithful: "Ray will fix him."
He's earned the benefit of the doubt. A.J. Burnett? Fixed him. Francisco Liriano? Fixed him, too. Edinson Volquez? J.A. Happ? With the Pirates, they were as good as they've ever been. And those are just a few starting pitchers, not even accounting for the relievers who have revived their careers in Pittsburgh.
Searage has been called a master mechanic, a pitcher whisperer. Granted, every coach looks like a genius when his pitchers do well. But Searage's reputation has risen to another level over the past few years, and he loves the challenge.
"I have an opportunity to help somebody out, to resurrect a career, to get them back on track?" Searage said. "Man, I'm going for it. I'm going to have fun."
This offseason, the Pirates brought in a handful of pitchers looking to rebound from injuries or poor performances. They've run into different problems: bad habits, nagging medical issues, mechanical flaws. But their stories all reach a similar conclusion.
They heard Pittsburgh is the right place, and Searage is the right man, to help them.
"Everybody said the same thing," left-handed reliever Eric O'Flaherty said. "They say he's amazing."
Why is that? In both preparation and practice, to use his words, "It's not about me. It's about us."
Preparation: "Strength in numbers"
The Pirates drafted and developed an ace, Gerrit Cole, and their Minor League system will graduate more starters over the next few years. That is a necessity for any low-payroll team, because pitching does not come cheap.
As a free agent this winter, Happ spun 10 outstanding starts with the Pirates and an otherwise average career track record into a three-year, $36 million contract with the Blue Jays. And it's not easy to trade for reliable pitching without gutting your farm system, either.
So rather than diving too deep into either the trade or free-agency market, the Pirates succeed on the margins. It's one reason they have outperformed their preseason projections the last three years and expect to do so again this season.
If it ain't broke, Ray can fix it. And the Pirates believe their pitchers aren't broken beyond repair.
"We're not an 18-car garage where we're trying to rebuild a bunch of engines and do some body work," general manager Neal Huntington said. "In each one of those cases, we believe there are strong indicators that they would have better seasons in '16 than '15."
But Searage does not do it alone. Ask him who else deserves credit for the Pirates' success with so-called reclamation projects, and he'll rattle off a long list of pitching coaches, coordinators and special assistants. First and foremost is bullpen coach Euclides Rojas.
"My right-hand man," Searage said. "He's the best. We breathe and live together on pitchers."
It starts with the Pirates' front office, the scouts and analysts who find the right pitchers. Perhaps they notice a fixable flaw in one's delivery, bad pitch sequencing from another or someone who will benefit from the Pirates' focus on defense and pitch-framing.
Then it falls on Huntington to sign or trade for them and the Pirates' strength and conditioning staff to get (or keep) them healthy. With relievers, Huntington knows he can count on manager Clint Hurdle to make sure they're rested but still sharp.
"It is a tremendous group effort," Huntington said. "Ray is on the front line of it."
That was clear the day left-hander Jeff Locke went to work on the bullpen mound between back fields at the Pirate City training complex. Locke ran through the motions of his new wind-up delivery with a half-dozen coaches -- Searage among them -- watching closely.

Searage estimates he spends at least two hours a day watching video, provided by team video coordinator Kevin Roach, and digging through information provided by analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald. He'll reach out to assistant general manager Kyle Stark or one of the other pitching coaches in the Pirates' organization.
"We're all in this together. It's not Ray this or that. No, it's the Pirate way," Searage said. "That's why there's strength in numbers. If you surround yourself with good people that have an idea about pitching, you can grab a little bit here and a little bit there. Before you know it, you're like, 'Wow, I'm loaded to help this guy out.'"
Then his work begins.
Practice: "Don't be scared, because we're a family"
In the offseason, Searage's phone buzzes endlessly with text messages and emails as his pitchers update him on their offseason throwing programs. Before one series begins, Locke said, Searage is preparing for the next one.
The way Searage puts it, the Pirates' pitching philosophy sounds simple: "First-pitch strikes, having an aggressive mentality, control the running game, pitch in, stay aggressive out there and compete." But his challenge -- and one of his gifts -- is getting 12 or more pitchers on the same page despite their different styles and personalities.
"He views the pitcher and then he figures out a way to correct him individually. Not saying, 'OK, well we have this philosophy, so every pitcher needs to throw that way.' No, it doesn't work for everybody," catcher Chris Stewart said. "We have our philosophies, but he has his mental and physical adjustments that he can make with guys. That's what's made him so successful."

Searage tries to whittle all the information down to one or two suggestions for each pitcher, simplifying things for their sake. But the best thing he does for his pitchers, they say, is nothing at all.
"He told me to just go out there and do whatever I do," added Liriano, who was named 2013 Comeback Player of the Year in his first season with the Pirates. "Just get people out. Don't think about mechanics."
That's part of a hands-off, feeling-out period Searage goes through whenever he starts working with a pitcher. Rather than overwhelming them with information and immediately overhauling their mechanics, he lets them get comfortable.
"Let him throw. Let them be themselves," Searage said. "Then always have that in your back pocket, your nugget or two nuggets. When they do come to you and they go, 'I can't figure this out. What do you got?' Boom, this is what I've got."
He went through the same process with reliever Arquimedes Caminero, who came to the Pirates last offseason with a high-octane fastball and a career full of control problems.
"The biggest thing for me was the comfort that they gave me," said Caminero, who posted a 3.62 ERA last season. "They were like, 'Just go out there and pitch, feel comfortable. Don't be scared, because we're a family.'"
A 22nd-round Draft pick by the Cardinals in 1976, Searage pitched seven years in the Majors and 17 in the Minors. He competed for a job in big league camp. He was offered different suggestions from myriad pitching coaches.
"It's always been about what's best for you, the player," left-hander Jeff Locke said. "It's not about making his job easier. It's not about taking credit for anyone's success. Ray's all about you. He's 100 percent invested in you."
"The thing I say about him most is the way he cares for everybody," added Happ. "You feel really good about having that kind of guy behind you."
Word gets around in baseball, reaching players like O'Flaherty and Cory Luebke. So the Pirates keep bringing in pitchers in need of repair, and Searage keeps helping them. Some, like Liriano, have stayed. Others, like Happ and Volquez, have turned their success with the Pirates into a lucrative deal elsewhere.
But that's fine with Searage. After all, it's not about him.
"I'm very happy for all of them," Searage said. "They're not here for me. I'm here for them."