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Monday, December 5, 2022

Williams: Exquisite Corpse

The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have any [Plural word for a baseball player with less than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched]. This is all just the same. [Current prospect] is no different than [Former prospect who busted]. This team will never win [Accomplishment, or, just leave blank] and it’s all because Nutting is [Adjective].


ALTOONA, Pa. – I’ve covered the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system for 14 seasons now.

At times, it can feel like you’re just filling in the blanks, and repeating the same thing over and over.

At times, I feel like that’s what fans think is actually happening.

I can tell you that, after watching the Altoona Curve last week, something is different.

I’ve written about how the Pirates are handling their A-ball teams. They are creating a college environment in Bradenton, where players have room and food covered, and can just work on developing their baseball skills. By the time players reach Greensboro, they start to live on their own for the first time, while working their job as a baseball player.

Once a player reaches Double-A, he’s playing at a level where everyone has talent. Everyone is used to living on their own, and the best players have a solid life routine.

It’s at this point where players start to get exposed for flaws that may have gone unnoticed in the lower levels. Sometimes, it’s impossible to change those flaws. Altoona manager Kieran Mattison was an example of a player who didn’t figure it out until it was too late.

“I didn’t understand how to stay connected on the mound until I was 26-27,” said Mattison. “That was too late. When I was 22, 23, 24, I thought I was connected. I was trying, but it finally slowed down for me at that age.”

The Pirates could probably have better stats from some of their top prospects at this level if they allowed those players to continue the bad habits that got them here. On the outside, we might even see those stats as a sign that the player is ready for a promotion, or on his way to the majors.

I believe that is what was allowed to happen far too often in the past.

“Sometimes you can have successful bad habits,” said Mattison. “Sometimes wins can be a deodorant covering up a bad smell. Honestly, you have to have a very critical lens of your own guys, and I always say as coaches we’ve got to be the devil’s advocate. If we’re the opposing team, how are we going to get him out. We try to balance that with improving the strengths, but also improving the weaknesses.”

The key is getting the players to work through their issues, rather than continuing to lather on the deodorant with good stats from bad results. For Mattison, this process is something that should happen before Double-A, but this is the level where most mistakes are exposed. The Pirates want their players to know that they don’t expect perfection.

“We believe in efficiency,” said Mattison. “If you’re moving efficiently on the field, you’re just giving yourself a chance to be successful. Most of the time, the bad habits can come from the mental state, the physical state, or deeper something off the field that’s preventing you from being that good frame of mind and putting your body in a good position to be able to perform on a daily basis.”

One of the challenges from the outside is seeing young stars all around the game who are reaching the majors at age 20, making it look easy.

“When you have the outliers, like the superstars in the game who are young, can slow things down, they don’t have as many bad habits, because they can perform,” said Mattison. “Those guys are outliers. That’s why they’re special. That’s why they’re the face of this game.”

The Pirates have a potential “face of the game” in Pittsburgh in Oneil Cruz. I would say that Cruz is a case of how an extremely talented player doesn’t really get exposed until he reaches the majors. Cruz was able to crush Double-A and Triple-A with his current bad habits. The issues from Cruz are that he’s too aggressive. He has the ability to make contact with anything, and hit for a lot of power. This leads to him swinging at everything and chasing pitches that he committed to way too early.

Perhaps Cruz can develop into the star he has the potential to become.

The Pirates need to see better development overall for their prospects, so we don’t see a repeat of prospects performing in the minors, only to struggle in Pittsburgh. Ideally, this would lead to players being developed before they reach Pittsburgh.

What they’re doing in Altoona right now might lead to better results. A big part of that is the continuation of development under Mattison, who moved up from Greensboro with a lot of these players. That has led to deeper, more contextual development conversations with those players.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys from last year to this year,” said Mattison. “We all grow together. You learn to go more in-depth with this particular detail that you were talking about a year ago. You see them sometimes mature and grasp themselves, or learn something themselves and bring it to your knowledge.”

Mattison is a player-friendly coach, and creates a culture of open communication for his players, while knowing the challenges of keeping young players focused on the right things as early as possible.

“It’s more white noise that can be created at this level, because you are close to the big leagues, and we’ve had three guys who have been called up directly to the Major Leagues,” said Mattison. “We want to create a winning environment where everybody is caring about each other, and we’re all pulling together and doing it together and not alone.”

In my conversations and observations with the players at this level, there is definitely more group work and shared ideas happening than in the past. Each player has his own development path, as the Pirates are focused on a more individualized approach. Each player can use any method to get there.

Sometimes, the development plans can be similar.

Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero both have quick hands, and both aren’t making contact enough for their skills. The Pirates have both focusing their sights on different areas of the field to stay through the ball. Each player is different beyond this one approach. Gonzales needs to stay healthy so he can develop. Peguero needs to focus on controlling his skills.

Blake Sabol is an example of a player who learned a bad habit for his style of play at a younger age, and is slowly working toward his strengths. Aaron Shackelford is stronger mentally, not allowing mistakes to spiral on him.

The Double-A level, according to Mattison, is the first level across the league where everyone on the field has talent.

“At this level, it’s basically the separator is what goes on between your ears,” said Mattison. “I remember having a conversation with the team a few weeks ago.”

Mattison told his team that this game is a crazy sport, where the higher you go, the more things that will get exposed.

“It’s very important that you go about your business the right way, with intent,” Mattison told his team. “Everything you do, how you plan out your day, even leading up to the stadium once you get here, be intentful about it. That’s the separator of being a true professional and being successful at what you do, and not just going along for the ride.”

This is a slightly different approach than the past, where the development was focused almost entirely on the skills and abilities on the field.

“These guys really took ownership in that,” said Mattison. “Because they’re owning that process, then it leads to more relaxation when it’s time to perform and not try to do too much.”

The Pirates want their players to be aggressive, but they want controlled aggressiveness. The difference is swinging at everything, versus swinging at everything in a specific zone that suits the player.

“That takes time. That takes experience,” said Mattison. “You can’t forgo that. You try to do everything you can to train it, and work on it during batting practice, and gain the experience in real time and the game. That’s the ultimate teacher.”

The Pirates aren’t teaching anything extreme at the Double-A level. They are able to get better results by this point with getting players to change by continuing the same conversations as the lower levels.

“Some of the stuff they’ve heard in the past has started to come into fruition, because of the jump from High-A to Double-A,” said Mattison. “I think the key is, at this level, they see how everything is connected. Sleep, nutrition, working out. Cage routine. Defense. It all is connected to performance.”

That is a more all-encompassing view of performance than the previous development system used. The Pirates right now are using as many methods as they can to try and get players to perform. If it doesn’t help in performance, they won’t waste time with it.

“Sometimes, something may work for another guy, it may not work for another guy, and that’s the art of coaching,” said Mattison. “We try to do everything we can to prepare these guys, so they can just go out and play, and perform.”

Maybe this approach is what is needed to correct the issue of players excelling in Altoona, only to see those exquisite stats die once they reach the majors.

Maybe this all-encompassing approach will lead to a new Mad Lib when talking about the prospects in the Pirates’ system going forward.

Maybe we can trust what we’re seeing with Endy Rodriguez.

Or, maybe he’s just the next [Former Pirates prospect who busted].

But that seems like a lazy view when the Pirates aren’t developing their prospects the same way.


Williams: Exquisite Corpse

Endy Rodriguez is Looking Like the Best Prospect in the Pirates System

Liover Peguero Needs to Control His Talent

Jon Nunnally Discusses the Hitting Development Approach in Altoona

Why is Nick Gonzales Struggling to Make Contact?

Blake Sabol: A Prospect Development Story

Aaron Shackelford: “It’s definitely been a growing season, mentally”

+ posts

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.


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True,true,true. At the AA level it becomes a head game. They all have shown the ability to get to this level, now they need to believe that they can do it in order to advance. It is a good approach to take. Let’s see how it works out.


I enjoyed this article. Have you ever considered visiting the AA affiliate of an organization that does really great development to see what, if anything, is different? Might serve as an interesting companion piece to this series.


Tim, this week’s altoona articles have been some of my favorite on this site this year. Absolutely incredible work youve done here!


I’m not even commenting on ’em, just letting them stand. Awesome, awesome work.


Second, great stuff Tim


This is a great article, and I very much want to believe it, but I’m the most optimistic pirates fan among all my friends and family and it’s getting hard to ignore the continued lack of results in translating minor league talent to major league success under this front office. I don’t see any improvement from the hit rate of the Huntington regime. I remember at the outset of this year reading an article on here that said something along the lines of “if the pirates don’t have 4-5 prospects established on a permanent basis by the end of this year, then things have gone substantially wrong.” Other than Roansy (and Cruz due to his talent/pedigree, but not his performance), I wouldn’t call any of the prospects who debuted this year “established,” which has me very discouraged.


It is what it is and we are Pirate fans. Hard to find places for young prospects when we continue to ignore the fact that our season at MLB ended months ago. Nobody wanted our MLB deadwood at the trading deadline, but we continue to keep them on the 40 and stealing PT from kids who may just benefit from playing at the MLB level NOW.

Winning percentages of .317, .377, and we are now .379 – this must be the type of progress BC talks about referencing the job Derek Shelton is doing.


Great work Tim!

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

Kieran Mattison is a great dude to talk to.


Perhaps he can be Sheltie’s replace,ent.


This is why, no matter how well they perform below AA, I don’t get excited until they have success in Altoona. That means that I am excited about Endy, Burrows and Priester. The jury is still out on all the rest to me.

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