PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have chosen John Baker, the former Major League catcher and Cubs mental skills coach, to help revamp their player development program.
Baker, 39, was hired on Tuesday and named the Pirates’ director of coaching and player development. Essentially, he will be Pittsburgh’s farm director, replacing former senior director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway in that role. Broadway was reassigned to an unspecified role within the organization.
Baker spent the last five years in the Cubs’ baseball operations department, first working as an assistant in 2016, then as a mental skills coordinator from ’17-19. Last year, Baker served as the MLB Head Applied Mental Skills Coach and spent the season as a “Tier 1” employee so that he could interact directly, in person, with players and coaches as they navigated through a season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are excited to add John to our baseball operations leadership team,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said in a statement. “John’s experience as a player, his training and experience as a mental skills coach for a highly successful franchise, and his continued learning in the areas of skill acquisition and human performance, give him valuable perspective on the entire player improvement and performance process. John will work closely with our Minor League staff and players to help lead our player development program.”
The Pirates have not yet announced their Minor League coaching staffs for next season. With Baker on board, their most prominent unfilled position is now that of Minor League pitching coordinator.
Baker played in the Majors for seven seasons, bouncing from the Marlins to the Padres and finally landing with the Cubs in 2014. He hit .247/.330/.341 with 14 homers and 120 RBIs in 359 career games. The backup catcher was best remembered in Chicago for “The John Baker Game” on July 29, 2014, when he pitched a scoreless 16th inning and scored the winning run for a walk-off win in the bottom of the inning; he was the first position player in Cubs history to be credited with a win.
Since Cherington took over as general manager last year, the Pirates have mostly prioritized creative thinking and aptitude over age and experience when filling out their front office. Cherington’s most prominent hires have been 32-year-old assistant GM Steve Sanders and 37-year-old special assistant Oz Ocampo before the 39-year-old Baker.
Baker will be tasked with overseeing a player development system that must be great for the Pirates to create the sustainable contending team they want in Pittsburgh. The club has prospect depth in some areas, and the top of the farm system is high on upside. But that was also the case five years ago, when the Pirates had a 98-win team and one of the game’s top farm systems, and the former regime failed to turn that promise into production at PNC Park as they fell behind the curve in player development.
Player development has long been a passion for Cherington, and his time in Toronto’s front office coincided with the Blue Jays’ shift toward holistic training plans: specifically designed programs that included skill improvement, strength and conditioning, nutrition and mental health. Baker’s experience as a player and his recent work in the front office should make him well-suited to play a part in creating similar strategies with the Pirates.
It’s also worth noting that Baker’s job title is not just about player development, but coaching and player development. That decision was intentional, as a way to emphasize the importance of coaches’ roles in the player development process. Cherington previously touched on that topic while discussing the position of farm director in late September.
“We want to be great at coaching. If you think about player development, we need great players and we need great coaches with them,” Cherington said before hiring Baker. “We need to identify what's the leadership that gives us the best chance to be great at coaching -- I mean, every aspect of coaching. It’s not just the people in uniform on the field; it's everybody, all the other staff, collaborating with that group. It’s how do we find the best possible coaches, continue to develop coaches, create the best environment for coaching to happen and ultimately [have] players get better?”