Even With Benedict Gone, Pirates Stand Tall On Mound

BRADENTON, FLA.—With Jim Benedict’s departure to the Marlins, it’s a new era for the Pirates’ pitching development. But the new era looks an awful lot like the old era.

Benedict’s title was assistant to the general manager, but more accurately he could be described as a pitching guru.

He helped rebuild Charlie Morton’s delivery. He worked with Francisco Liriano to help him return to form and he’s played a significant part in the development of young Pirates pitchers like Gerrit Cole.

With Benedict’s help, the Pirates have been very good at pitching. Without any big-money, long-term free agent acquisitions, Pittsburgh has finished second, fifth and third in the National League in ERA in the past three seasons.

No one with the Pirates downplays Benedict’s importance. He’s one of the best pitching coaches in the game. But they are also quick to note that when Pirates pitchers arrived in spring training this year, they found the same approach, the same programs and the same drills they had seen before.

“The thing we want to keep is the continuity. We’ve set up a culture here. Every coach is one the same page,” Pirates big league pitching coach Ray Searage said.

As the coaches see it, the system is designed to make sure no one person is irreplaceable.

“Nothing’s changing, but at the same time, we’re always looking to improve,” Pirates pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell said. “If I decide to hang it up and go home, someone from our system is going to be able to step in and not miss a beat. That’s the culture we’ve created here.”

Benedict was one piece—a very valuable piece—in a multifaceted Pirates pitching program. Searage remains as the major league pitching coach. Mitchell is back as the pitching coordinator. Tom Filer returns as the assistant pitching coordinator. Scott Elarton has been promoted from the high Class A Bradenton pitching coach to become a special assistant, baseball operations, and every other Pirates minor league pitching coach returns for 2016.

“Bennie did a lot of great things, but one of the things he taught us was no one pitching coach developed a pitcher,” Mitchell said.

So even with the loss of Benedict, there’s a lot of continuity in Bradenton. Continuity of instruction is a mantra for Pirates pitching coaches. It’s a bottom-to-top approach that emphasizes making sure that the same approach and the same language is used at every level of the system.

“The vocabulary is the same from the Dominican to the big leagues,” Mitchell said.

Pittsburgh’s coaching approach is a patient one. Coaches are taught to wait for the right time to suggest a tweak. The idea is that it’s better to let a pitcher find his own way to an adjustment rather than have it forced upon him.

“We’ll work with you. We’re not going to dogpile you and change your mechanics. We’ll let you be you. But if we see something and you ask for help, we’ll help,” Searage said.

“The teacher will appear when the student is ready. We don’t just see something and react. The player has to be ready to hear what you have to say,” Mitchell said. “And we have to make sure what we’re saying is correct. We do our due diligence. We look at old video, amateur video before we react to something.”

That lack of a one-size-fits-all approach is apparent on the Pirates backfields where pitchers come with all kind of different deliveries.

“We don’t cookie cut. We have things we believe in developing pitchers. But we treat them all as individuals,” Mitchell said. “We start with a player plan and goal setting. That begins once the season starts. When a player moves up a level, he takes that blueprint with him. He continues to work on the goals the he set.”

And once Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and others reach Pittsburgh this season, they’ll find that while the big league hitters are much tougher, the surrounding environment is designed to make for an easier transition. Searage makes trips down to the minor league camp to talk and run drills to make sure that a pitcher’s first introduction to him isn’t on their first day in the big leagues.

“Ray comes down and works with the pitchers. Ray was down here today. Clint Hurdle was here yesterday. They come to instructional league. There is familiarity when they get to Pittsburgh,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had guys in the big league camp for the first time. They thought it would be different. They said it felt like the minor league camp setting. They treated them like family. They treated them the same, not like they were rookies, like they were Pirates.”


• Taillon missed two full seasons thanks to Tommy John surgery in 2014 and a hernia surgery in 2015, but watching him in a backfield outing on Wednesday, it was hard to see any rust.

Taillon consistently hit 95 mph with his fastball, snapped off a sharp curveball and generally located both pitches around the zone.

“In those two years he was working on his craft even if he was hurt. Our mental strength department did a great job giving him mental reps. He didn’t take two years off. He got two years of development. He was learning how to take care of his body, watching how to attack hitters,” Mitchell said.

“The two years that he took while he was hurt, he knocked off the rust quicker. If he hadn’t worked on his craft mentally, you would watch him pitch and say he’ll need a few outing.”

With Taillon and Glasnow set to head to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the season, the Pirates have the enviable option of having two nearly big league-ready pitching prospects with front-of-the-rotation potential.

• While Taillon is ready to go for minor league Opening Day, shortstop Cole Tucker, the Pirates’ first-round pick in 2014, is a little further away. Tucker is working back from surgery on his right shoulder that sidelined him for the second half of 2015.

Tucker has been allowed to start making throws across the diamond, but the Pirates are making sure he doesn’t overdo it. He played shortstop in a sim game Wednesday morning as Francisco Liriano got in his work at Pirate City in Bradenton, but while Tucker made a low-effort throw to first while warming up between innings, in the game, he limited himself to underhand tosses.

“Things feel good. But you have to limit the volume of throws and swings you’re taking,” Tucker said.

Don’t expect to see Tucker head out to start playing when camp breaks early next month but Tucker should get back on the field for games this year. When he had the surgery, there was some concern that he could miss all of the 2016 season.

“It shouldn’t be that long. I obviously can’t give a date or know what the date is but I’m excited to get back on the field. Anything this year is just icing on the cake,” Tucker said.

• That Liriano back-field work? It was a rocky outing for the big leaguer as a lineup of Pirates minor leaguers squared up Liriano repeatedly. It’s a game that doesn’t count in any way, so there’s no real cause for concern, but Liriano did give minor leaguer Trace Tam Sing a taste of what the big leagues are like.

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