During his playing days as a Major League catcher, John Baker noticed a trend. He noticed that his pitchers would throw with more conviction if the pitch was their idea, versus his idea.
“The turn that I made a long time ago in my own catching career is how do I make my idea, how do I make it seems like it was his idea,” Baker wondered.
Now, Baker finds himself borrowing a similar thought process as the Pirates’ Director of Coaching and Player Development.
Toward the end of former General Manager Neal Huntington’s tenure, it became clear that the Pirates could amass talent, but fell short in the development area. Baker was hired by current Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington in December 2020 to help solve the frustrating problem of the Pirates rarely seeing their prospects reach their expectations in Pittsburgh.
In talking with players and coaches inside the system this year, the new approach by Baker is more “individualized”, “collaborative”, and overall gives more ownership of a player’s career path to the player himself.
And that’s where Baker digs back to what he learned during his playing days.
“You’re going to believe in your own program, better than you’re going to believe in my program,” Baker said of a player’s development plan. “If we really are putting you in the center of our conversations, we’re also asking you your opinion on your development, and what you think you should do.”
If that sounds like how the process should work, just know that it hasn’t always been this way.
“There was no collaboration,” Greensboro starting pitcher Michael Burrows said of the old player development system. “It’s was just ‘this is what you’re going to do’ and you can’t really ask why.”
Burrows, 22, was drafted in the 11th round of the 2018 draft out of high school, and signed for a $500,000 bonus. He showed potential in his first full season in 2019, though the results weren’t close to his 2021 season in Greensboro. In 13 starts, Burrows posted a 2.20 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 20 walks in 49 innings, emerging as one of the bigger breakout prospects in 2021 in the first year under the new system.
The old development program had everyone on the same programs, regardless of the individual’s need for those programs. Burrows, for example, would tire from the same running program that everyone did, and wouldn’t always benefit from the one weight lifting session a week. The standardized workouts were a problem expressed by other players, who didn’t have the agency under the old development team to opt out if they felt the routine was unnecessary.
That’s not the case anymore.
“There’s conversations, you’re treated like an adult, you’re treated like a professional player,” Burrows said of the new development approach. “Before, it felt like you were being babysat, essentially. Just a bad way to go about someone’s career, really. It’s not focusing on individuals. Just a group of guys, and you’re going to do everything the same.”
At the end of the 2021 season, the Pirates held end-of-year meetings with each of their minor league players. In that meeting, the players received a survey. The survey included questions such as the following:
“What training do you think has made you a better player?”
“What would you get rid of?”
“What do you like to do?”
“What do you not like to do?”
“Where do you feel like your strengths are?”
“Where do you feel like your weaknesses are?”
“Where do you need to improve?”
After the survey was completed, the Pirates would hold a meeting with the player about the results, comparing their responses to what the data said, the subjective views of their scouts, the views of the managers and the player’s positional coaches, along with what Baker describes as an “objective lens” from the analysis done by the body team.
Once all of that information is compiled together, the Pirates present the player an area to focus on, and all of the different ways they think the player can get to his goal. The key component is building the plan together with the player to reach the development goals.
“They’re always the key stakeholder,” Baker said. “We’re all stakeholders that surround them, but they’re the key stakeholder. To push that opinion below the decision makers, I just see that as a process that would not get the same amount of buy-in and conviction.”
What Baker describes as the alternative is similar to what was done under the old player development system. The new collaborative approach has been largely approved of in my discussions with the players, even with the new guys coming in.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Altoona outfielder Jack Suwinski said. “No one really knows you as good as yourself.”
Suwinski was acquired by the Pirates from San Diego in the Adam Frazier trade near the 2021 trade deadline. He has since been added to the 40-man roster this offseason, and could be an option for Pittsburgh’s outfield at some point in 2022. Suwinski was on board with the player-led development plans.
“Everyone learns in different ways, and everyone clicks in different ways,” Suwinski said. “I think that openness gives you a lot more opportunities to find new ways for players to keep learning about themselves and keep getting better.”
Developing the Coaches
Baker’s title as farm director includes a new responsibility: Coaching development.
The Pirates didn’t completely overhaul their minor league coaching staff. Baker calls the entire development system an evolution of what was started before.
“We’ve just empowered certain voices,” Baker said. “We’ve drawn more from motor learning and skill acquisition. Those resources were already here. They just weren’t necessarily capitalizing on them as much as I would have liked to. We’re building a bit more data into setting key performance indicators and signatures for players. Measuring our progress. Doing that a little bit more than it was happening in the past.”
The Pirates brought in new pitching coordinator Josh Hopper, who has helped to build what Baker called an “implicit learning environment.” They also promoted and/or empowered coaches who were previously with the front office who have shown a good ability to help players train better.
For more on the coaching side, check out the input of Miguel Perez, Gary Green, and Matt Ford, who have all been with the Pirates for many years.
An Individualized, More Collaborative Development System
There are so many drills that stick out in my memory in a different light after all of the talks I’ve had with players this season.
I remember a Fall Instructional League where, as a team-building exercise, the entire team had to run to the outfield wall and back to the infield anytime anyone made a mistake on a fielding drill. There were a lot of mistakes, and a lot of punishment running. This included catching prospect Jin-De Jhang in full catching gear, running back and forth from home plate to the wall, because a shortstop dropped a double play toss in practice.
I remember a Spring Training where Luis Heredia couldn’t pitch due to being too out of shape to run a drill called the Pirate Run. This was a relay run, similar to suicide runs on a basketball course, only this spanned the length of a football field. Watching 280+ pound Luis Heredia running as the lone player left on the field was a bit painful, and had me wondering even at the time why this run was required for a pitcher. Yes, Heredia needed to be in better shape, but did he need to do the same test as every position player in the system?
The old system was very militant, with a strict time schedule, and players ushered from one development station to another. It didn’t matter if a player needed more work on his hitting versus his fielding. He was scheduled for X amount of minutes at each station, and there was no time for fun, as everything was so tightly scheduled.
The new system is far more relaxed, with players throwing a football around the outfield pre-game in a more relaxed schedule. Their team-building includes wearing Wu-Tang shirts before games, rather than running punishment drills.
Aside from that, the concept of a collaborative development plan, led by the players but advised heavily by all of the resources in the system — well, that just seems like a much better approach than some of the “cookie cutter” approaches, as Burrows called them. The earliest such example? Every single pitcher throwing 90% fastballs in State College in the early days of the development program under Kyle Stark, the former head of the player development system. And while that State College fastball approach was short-lived, the concept of having every player take the same approach was kept around until the Pirates made changes in their front office.
“I think the new staff that has come in is far better,” Burrows said. “The [coaches] that are still here, I love those guys. They’re still here for a reason. As far as the front office, and everything that has gone on throughout Spring Training that I saw this year, and even last year just for a short time, that half Spring Training/COVID, it’s far better than where we were before.”