Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Part II of My Conversation with Pirates Pitching Coach Ray Searage

Earlier this month I had an extended conversation with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and I was finally able to transcribe it over the weekend. Here is Part II. You can listen to the entire conversation here. (Edited for clarity.)

Q: What are the latest reports on Jameson Taillon?

Ray: Everything is going as planned...There are no restrictions on him. We just have to let him go about his business, keep an eye on him and let him get his work in and let him go from there.

Q: I know you don't want to put expectations in fans' minds or in the players' minds. They are going to have to go out at AAA and do the work and prove that they can perform at that level before coming to the major leagues. But, is there a timetable when we can realistically expect to see Jameson or Tyler Glasnow in Pittsburgh in May, June, July?

Ray: I wish I had a crystal ball to answer that question for you. They are going to dictate when they are ready to come up to the major leagues. The ball is in their hands, so to speak, no pun intended. They are the ones that are going to tell us, "Hey this guy is ready for the major leagues," and we'll go from there. We've got to make sure there are some areas that are taken care of. I know they work hard, they are good kids, they are very disciplined in what they do. We'll let what they do during the season and in spring training dictate what might happen after that. 

Q: Ray, what attracted the organization to Ryan Vogelsong and what are you expecting from him this year?

Ray: He's a guy with experience. He's a guy who's been to the World Series. He's had many good years up in the major leagues finding himself out. Last year was just an off year for him. He wants to come back to Pittsburgh and try to put out some fires that he left here. He's got some things to prove. He says Ray, "I've got some more in the tank." And I said, "You know what Ryan, I know you do." So we're looking forward [to it].

You know, I looked at video with all these guys we've gotten. It's not the same thing, it does have value, but it's not the same thing as putting an eyeball on them and watching them and watching the ball come out of their hand and seeing their delivery. It's something that's really exciting for me right now because we have some guys that are going to be really interesting to watch and see how they perform in spring training.

Q: Did you get to see Jon Niese throw when he came over to the minicamp in January?

Ray: At that point in time we were only doing long toss or their throwing program, but we had a nice conversation....He's raring to go....I'm really happy to see him get back into his old form because every time he pitched against us he was a tough son-of-a-gun out there and so we are looking for him to be that guy for us.

Q: Ray, I know you know these numbers, but over the last 4-5 seasons the average team has needed about 10 starters and needed roughly 30-35 starts typically from starters who aren't in the top 5. We know the Pirates looking to 2017, '18, '19 have a nice pipeline of young starting pitchers who, if they develop as hoped, can certainly fill those roles. But there is a level of concern right now to start the season that if someone were to get injured, the team doesn't have starting pitching depth. Is it Juan Nicasio, is it someone else, where would you look for your 6th, 7th, 8th guys to start the season?

Ray: Like you said, the 6th, 7th, 8th guys, you need guys with starting ability. We've got Nicasio, (Kyle) Lobstein, (Wilfredo) Boscon and possibly Glasnow or Taillon to fill a void in for a week or two. You're right every team needs 10-12 starters during the course of the year due to injuries or fatigue or other things. We've got to make sure we have depth and Neal has done a great job of giving us depth. With those guys who are like swingmen, they are going to foot the bill perfectly. And hopefully if that situation does occur at some point in time later on in the season, Glasnow and Taillon can foot that bill, too. You never have enough pitching, but I think we are in a good spot right now, but we're always looking to better ourselves.

Q: You ran into a bad string of injuries in terms of the number with Kingham, Cumpton and Taillon all missing at least a year after Tommy John surgery. I know you, as an organization, spend a lot of time looking at injuries. Is their anything that you have learned or is this still the big unsolved, Tommy John surgery?

Ray: Yes, that's a big X factor. There are so many different things involved in that. It stirs my mind, it's not in my pay grade. These things are going to happen over the course of the year and you try to help these guys prevent or minimize the injuries. Our strength and conditioning staff has done a tremendous job over the years and we will continue to do that. Injuries are a part of the game and they will happen and we just have to be prepared when they do happen. All the new information that we are getting will help us further minimize it, but not completely negate it.

Q: Neftali Feliz is a guy Clint had some experience with down in Texas. What was the attraction and what role do you see him playing with the Pirates?

Ray: Number one we want to make sure he's healthy and gets his work in. Then, he'll dictate what spot he's going to be used in. The whole situation with Feliz is, I think, being hurt and then coming back a little bit too soon and thinking that you still can do what you did before without being 100% healed. You end up forcing stuff and doing things you normally wouldn't do as opposed to letting your instincts and talent take care of it. He's learned from those experiences and he's healthy as far as I know right now. We'll see how it goes. It looks real good and it looks real positive (laughs) and I'm looking forward to seeing some gas come out of that hand.

Q: Speaking of gas, Ray I know your proud of all your guys and you love all your guys, but there must be a special spot for Arquimedes Caminero. You must be proud of the step forward he took last year.

Ray: Big time. He listened. He wasn't a robot, he listened. There were some times we had disagreements, him, myself, the catchers--what to throw and where to throw it. But that's normal, that's good, I want these guys to think. I don't want these guys to be, "Ok, follow Ray, here we go, yo, he, ho" (laughing). No, I don't want that. I want input from them so I can help them and be a better coach for them. With him, the way he performed last year, we got him back on track, and I'm talking about everybody involved, we got him back on track, and then he was even able to go outside that and improve on some things. There were some old teachings from previous organizations that we were able to get past and hopefully we're on the right track and able to keep going.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Part I of My Conversation with Pirates Pitching Coach Ray Searage: His Future, Organizational Pitching Philosophy & Use of Advanced Data

Earlier this month I had an extended conversation with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and I was finally able to transcribe it over the weekend. Here is Part I. You can listen to the entire conversation here. (Edited for clarity.)

Q: When a team is successful, other organizations often look to hire their personnel. Jim Benedict is just one who left this offseason.What does the future hold for Ray Searage, being in the last year of your contract?

Ray: I want to retire as a Pirate. In the past Mr. Nutting, Mr. Coonelly, Neal Huntington, they've always taken care of me. I'll let those things work themselves out. My job is to try to bring and to work at bringing a World Series team to the Pittsburgh people and fans and organization.

I just want people to know the pitchers, the players are not there for me, I'm there for them. My heart and my blood is with the Pirates and I would just like to finish my career with them.

Q: Is there an overarching organizational philosophy and approach toward pitching?

Ray: Definitely. We definitely try to make the pitcher, no matter what level he is at, be the best that he can be by staying within himself. Now yes there are some things that are outside the box that we might have to make adjustments with and you take that individually, but collectively and being cohesive throughout the organization there are certain things that we have parameters on, especially in the minor leagues, in order to develop to become a professional ballplayer at the major league level.

There are so many things that are involved and there are so many different niches that each player has, and that's what we have to find out as coaches. And our organizational [goal] is to try to make the pitcher the best he possibly can be by being and staying within himself and not losing himself. When I pitched, I had so many pitching coaches try to help me, but it really hurt me because I ended up losing my own identity. We don't want these kids to lose their identity. Obviously they've got good stuff or they wouldn't have been signed. Now we've got to refine that stuff from the minor leagues and even into the big leagues. You still have to continue to teach in the big leagues. If you assume that all these guys know everything, what they have to do and stuff...no, you have to be there and be like a checklist and that filters all the way down into the minor leagues. That's why are pitching coaches are so good at what they do. They stay within themselves, but help the pitchers stay within themselves also. And on the same page, they also help them develop to become a pro, be a man, be a Pittsburgh Pirate.

Q: Is first and foremost and always will be, fastball command? It's number one and you won't move until you have that sorted out?

Ray: Yes, you have to because everything is going to come off that fastball command. If you can't throw your fastball for strikes and you can throw your offspeed for strikes you aren't really a fastball pitcher. We want to make sure these guys have the fastball command and all the other pitches excel off of that. Sometimes it takes longer than others. Everybody has a different kind of learning skill. We've got to make sure we try to make them improve on that from year-to-year, from game-to-game, from pen-to-pen. It's a very long process and sometimes the guys that are really good and catch it real quick are the guys that just shoot right through the minor leagues and help us here at the big league level.

Q: How much time do you spend looking at analytical data these days?

Ray: In the beginning, I'll tell you Dave, I bucked it. I didn't really like it, because this was something different and I tended to back off and say no, no, no. As we continued to go on through the years here, now I embrace it. Now it is really good stuff, especially the consistency of where the pitches come out of the hand. You can tell the different spots, where the fastball is, where the curveball is, where the change-up is. One of the guys that was the most consistent was A.J. Burnett. He would have an area where he dropped his fastball, his curveball and his change-up all came out the same area. And you looked at another guy, I'm just going to call him Joe Smith right now, and there would be three different areas with the fastball, the change-up and the breaking pitch. We found out the more consistent you could get to that one realize point, with the Trackman, and find these things out, the less time the hitter has to figure out what pitch is coming. And then it all comes down to execution, and I don't want to make that sound trivial, but it comes down to execution of your pitch. If you have a consistent release point on those three pitches it gives you an added advantage.

Q: Do you look at and value things like spin rate, perceived velocity, soft contact, which everyone is trying to achieve, as well?

Ray: Yes, yes. There could be a grip or a minor little tweak in the delivery or the arm slot that could help improve those things. But, we don't try to go hunt that down, it just happens to come out and shock us and say, hey, this is what it is. What we'll try to do is make it a little bit better, but not lose the guy himself. There is a fine line you have to walk, where you work with the improvement, but you also have to know the individual to and whether they are able to do it. More times than not you are going to be successful with it, but your approach has to be the right way or it's not going to work out.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Latest in Top 100 Prospects Lists, Pirates Edition

This morning ESPN.com's Keith Law was the latest to post his 2016 Top 100 Prospects list. (Insider) Law was a big fan of Pirates 2015 first-round pick Kevin Newman going into the draft, ranking him as his #2 overall prospect. Law is often a lone wolf, a role he clearly relishes, as no one else in the industry rated Newman nearly that high. Newman "slid" to the Pirates at 19. True to form Law ranked Newman #23 on this year's list, his first year eligible. "A no-doubt shortstop with the agility, arm and hands to stay at the position." Law's Top 100 is the only one I've seen that has Newman listed at all. It's worth noting that Law's list is heavy on position players playing up the middle and a full 20 of the 100 are currently shortstops.

Other Pirates on Law's list include Tyler Glasnow #6 (20th in 2014 & 13th in 2015) "his long-term upside is rare," Austin Meadows #16 (35 in 2014 and 32nd in 2015) "if he does hit for the power that he's physically capable of producing he'll be a star," and Josh Bell #56 (90th in 2014 & 60th in 21015) "a natural hitter with superlative hand-eye coordination and a disciplined approach." The most-notable omissions are pitcher Jameson Taillon (27th in 2014 & 36th in 2015) who has missed the past two seasons due to injury and infielder Alen Hanson (74th in 2014 & 89th in 2015).

Baseball Prospectus recently posted its Top 100 list which includes six Pirates: Glasnow #11, Meadows #22, Bell #49, Taillon #51, catcher Reese McGuire #76 and outfielder Harold Ramirez #80.

MLB.com's list included five Pirates: Glasnow #10, Meadows #20, Bell #49, Taillon #54, and McGuire #98.

Earlier this week I had Jim Callis, one of the authors of MLB.com's list as a guest on my show. Among other things we discussed the outlook for Taillon, Meadows' ceiling vs. that of Starling Marte (he thinks Meadows' ceiling is higher), and whether Elias Diaz can be an everyday catcher in the majors. You can hear the entire conversation here. Check it out.