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.