PITTSBURGH -- At some point in the coming days, John Baker will start breaking down video of Pirates prospects. He’ll call every coach in Pittsburgh’s Minor League system. He’ll open up a “fire hose of information,” he said, and -- fingers crossed -- won’t be flooded.
But for now, Baker is still getting settled in as the Pirates’ new director of coaching and player development. He’s in an introductory phase that includes getting his email set up and getting to know people. To that end, Baker hopped on a Zoom call Thursday and met with local beat reporters for nearly 30 minutes.
Here are five things we learned about Baker, the former catcher and mental skills coach, at the outset of his time as the Pirates’ farm director.
1. He loves to learn, and he likes a challenge.
After his playing career ended, Baker finished his undergraduate degree. He’s currently completing the final course toward a master’s degree in performance psychology. He described himself as a “continuous learner.” It’s not hard to see how he’ll mesh well with general manager Ben Cherington, whose professional interests are also spurred by a desire to learn.
So when Baker heard about the opportunity to run the Pirates’ Minor League system from his former boss, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, he was immediately intrigued.
“Hearing the things that he had to say about Ben Cherington, understanding the constraints in Pittsburgh and that we're going to have to develop from the inside to build a contender, it's all the right guardrails to be forced to do some innovation and creativity,” Baker said. “I like to chase challenges, and this seemed like the appropriate challenge with the appropriate people. And I really feel like we can do some cool things.”
2. He understands the importance of building relationships, and his approach fits the Pirates’ “player-centered” culture.
Baker is only 39 years old, by definition part of the millennial generation. He played his last Major League game in 2014, and as he spoke on Thursday, you could see behind him the framed scorecard from the famed John Baker Game and photos of him in uniform. He can speak with old baseball men, and he can connect with the younger wave of players entering professional baseball.
As cliché as it might be, everything in baseball begins with building relationships. Baker, a student of legendary sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, gets that. As part of his work with the Cubs, Baker spent some time learning how college football coaches like Pat Fitzgerald and Tyrone Willingham connected with generation after generation of players.
“This generation wants to know why. They have access to information,” he said. “So if you don't have a reason or a purpose behind a drill package that you're trying to introduce, or a place that you're trying to send them that's better for their development, you're not going to have that kind of trust.”
One issue the Pirates encountered over the past few years was a failure to adapt. Their organizational process valued certain traits and skills, and they tended to prioritize those in the player development process. That occasionally meant they didn’t get the most out of certain players, because the organization tried to turn them into something they weren’t, rather than letting them be the best versions of themselves.
Cherington and manager Derek Shelton have talked about putting the players first in everything they do, and Baker seems to carry a similar mindset.
“I want to build players that know who they are and can compete with what they have,” Baker said. “What is he going to be able to be best at? How can he compete? Let's get some guys that put the ball in play. Let's get guys who put pressure on the defense. Those are the people that we're going to want surrounding the biggest talents that we have. That gives them an opportunity to play an elevated level of baseball as they develop.
“When guys get really good … it gives them a chance to continue playing the game and also maybe get to the big leagues as a fundamentally sound and complete player.”
3. He wants to mix old-school style with modern-day smarts.
Baker was a fourth-round pick by the A’s in 2002, their “Moneyball” Draft. He worked with one of the most forward-thinking front offices in baseball in Chicago for the past five years, and he’s joining a similar group in Pittsburgh. But Thursday, he spoke about winning through two things that would be considered old school: putting the ball in play and focusing on defense.
Baker is not eschewing analytics by any means, and he’s not simply nostalgic for the game he grew up watching. He’s just thinking about the next innovation beyond the current state of baseball that’s heavy on three true outcomes: homers, walks and strikeouts.
“Although that can be exciting, that’s not the game of baseball that I necessarily love the most. So I’m looking forward to bringing back some of the style of play that we may have seen in the past, counter to the 'three true outcome' game, but doing it in a modern way that’s supported by data and not just a 'get off my lawn' reversion back to what feels good because we did it when we were a kid,” Baker said. “It has to work. That’s the only rule. The only rule is that it has to work, to quote [the title of a book written by] a friend of mine, Ben Lindbergh, and Sam Miller. It does need to work, and it needs to be supported by evidence if we’re going to introduce it.”
4. There’s a reason “coaching” is in his title.
Baker’s job title makes sense in that coaches are charged with the day-to-day frontline duties of player development, but it also speaks to the work he’ll do with Pittsburgh’s coaches.
As a mental skills coach traveling around the organization, Baker found that he couldn’t connect with players as well as the coaches they interact with every day. That experience will inform his approach to this job as well.
“For a long time, I feel like baseball has often preyed upon Minor League coaches, just getting them in for their love of the game and kind of keeping them in that position. That is something that I absolutely intend to change in this role,” Baker said. “I want to help our coaches develop a career trajectory so that they can see themselves going on to bigger and better things, but I want to arm them with the skills necessary to be supportive of our players.”
5. He will take a collaborative approach to evaluating players.
Baker will get to know the Pirates’ players and coaches over time, starting this winter. But his lack of familiarity with the system and inexperience as a farm director will make it challenging for him to make personnel decisions heading into next season -- a task that’s complicated enough as is, considering there were no Minor League games to evaluate this year.
Baker will handle that by relying on the evaluations of incumbent personnel like international scouting director Junior Vizcaino, senior amateur scouting director Joe DelliCarri and pro scouting director Steve Williams.
“We have great people who have done this for a long time. As we get back to more consistent on-field activity, we’re going to rely on them to do reassessments of our players,” Baker said. “Bridging the gap between scouting and player development, making sure that we’re working laterally and synergistically as an organization, is a priority of mine. Because I need those guys’ ratings. I don’t have that expertise. So for me to say, ‘This is how good somebody is right now,’ I’m not going to do that.
“I understand what my weaknesses are, and although I am looking to figure out different ways to bring those things up for this value of continuous learning, when I don’t have expertise in an area, I do have trust in the people that are around me.”