This is probably going to turn into more of an essay than a grading exercise. Yeah, we had a very truncated season and the Pirates were awful, but the problem goes beyond bad results. I’m more and more inclined to think that the team’s problems flow from a mindset that isn’t conducive to success in a hypercompetitive industry. And it’s not like I expected them to be any good this year. So I’m more interested in how they ran the team, and what it portends for the future, than I am in the immediate results. Anyway, be forewarned.
A week or so ago, I read an article about a study that concluded that people with lower cognitive ability are more vulnerable to fake news. The researchers would describe a fictitious person to the subject and include some very negative details, like crime and drug use. They’d ask the subject for an overall impression of the fictitious person, then tell the subject that the negative details weren’t true. And then they’d ask for an overall impression again. What they found was that people with lower cognitive ability couldn’t process the new information. They tended to cling to their initial assessment.
Which brings us to Erik Gonzalez. We all know the story. Gonzalez hit uncharacteristically well early in the season. With the rest of the team hitting like Ivan Nova on a bad day, Derek Shelton understandably installed Gonzalez as the everyday shortstop. And when Gonzalez went into a deep slump that left his numbers where they’ve always been, Shelton did the logical thing and put Cole Tucker at short. Oh . . . wait . . . no, he didn’t. He stuck to the end with a guy who, going into the season, clearly wasn’t the long-term answer at short (not that I’m at all convinced Tucker is, but he’s 24 and Gonzalez is 29).
This leaves me with the same feeling of frustration I’ve had, over and over in recent years, when the Pirates cling to sub-mediocrities rather than trying to improve and to win games. It’s like conspiracy theorists who can’t be reached by actual evidence — How are they not seeing a career 72 OPS+, or realizing that it’s a bad thing? (And Gonzalez, btw, has actually gotten worse in his two years with the Pirates, so that untapped potential the team purportedly sees is getting further from the surface, not closer.) If this was Clint Hurdle and he’d just been fired, that’d be one thing, but this is the guy who’s supposed to take the team in a different direction.
Unfortunately, the manager that Shelton reminds me of the most isn’t Hurdle, it’s John Russell. It’s the feeling that results don’t matter, that winning games doesn’t matter. It’s one thing for a rebuilding team effectively to run a tryout camp, but giving away games with moves that bear no conceivable relation to improving long-term is something else entirely. How does rebuilding explain sticking with J.T. Riddle to the bitter end? How does batting .149 keep earning you playing time?
I guess you can credit Shelton with eventually muddling his way to a moderately effective bullpen. Even then, though, he was making incomprehensible moves late in the year, like letting Derek Holland blow a 1-0 game after a brilliant start by Joe Musgrove. And anything Shelton accomplished with the bullpen is way more than offset by the team’s complete collapse at the plate, which was supposed to be Shelton’s area of expertise. It’s really hard to find any evidence that Shelton is the guy to help this team move forward.
What you’d most want to see from Ben Cherington is a departure from the many unproductive and destructive practices and tendencies under Neal Huntington. Some of that has happened. The failed obsession with sinkers has been abandoned. The development staff is currently being restructured, as Cherington was hired too late to do much after the 2019 season. Cherington actually made a trade that focused on upside when he sent Starling Marte to Arizona.
A lot of other things, though, were disturbingly familiar. To begin with, there was an offseason that, even with the Marte deal, was worse than any of Huntington’s offeasons. The theory, apparently, was to focus on defense because that would allow the team to fill its many holes with players making barely above the minimum. The result was a historically bad offense. Cherington couldn’t have anticipated the collapse of the team’s “core” hitters, but he did overrate those players, who never appeared to be more than a cast of good complementary players, rather than a winning core. (And overrating the talent on hand was another of Huntington’s habitual failures.) But Cherington’s additions predictably were a festering mire of offensive decrepitude, making things much worse than they had to be.
There’s also the continuing unwillingness to commit to a particular approach, specifically, rebuilding. It’s pretty clear now that Cherington knows the team has to rebuild; he just won’t use the “R” word. But how does that explain Holland, Riddle and Jarrod Dyson? What could possibly have been lost by throwing Jason Martin and Jared Oliva out there instead of Riddle and Dyson? Or by abandoning the continued, bizarro-world obsession with playing weak-hitting middle infielders in the outfield?
Worst of all is the spectacle of a team that still sees no urgency to improve. This was evident from the offseason: There was no reason, other than ultra-severe cheapness, that the team couldn’t have looked for a few third-tier free agents instead of bringing in players who, on a team that cared, would have been AAA depth. And Huntington and Hurdle must be proud of Cherington and Shelton for clinging to Riddle and Holland, not to mention Shelton’s regular reassurances that everything is going wonderfully in Camp Pirate Ship.
Cherington badly needs to try to connect — really connect, as opposed to mouthing vague, empty, anything-but-transparent platitudes — with the fan base. About a year ago, one national writer referred to Pirates’ fans as the angriest in MLB. That’s the inevitable result of demonstrating continuously that winning is something that’ll happen at some unspecified time, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Cherington doesn’t seem to understand that the fans have been hearing the same story for years.
But anger is less and less the problem. Instead, it’s Pirate Nation looking more and more like:
Nobody expects the Pirates to compete for top free agents, but there are plenty of ways short of that to show that winning does matter to the team’s management. The team is in danger of falling into an endless cycle where payroll gets cut, the fans get discouraged by another offseason that provides no reason for optimism, and management effectively uses the falling attendance to excuse still more cuts. Cherington needs to break out of that cycle, but there’s no sign of it yet. So a better grade can wait until the time is right.