I wrote the follwing on June 13 in this FanPost.
People talk about talent evaluation as the defining measure of Neal Huntington and his organization. I don't know what to think about this. The organization has seemingly had three very good drafts. I'm fine with Huntington's record in player transactions. Mostly good in my view, some bad, but he wasn't trading much talent and he has gotten some assets through Rule 5 and the waiver wire for free. But, I am very troubled by the performance at the major league level. Not the skill level, which leaves a lot to be desired, but the decision making by the players and the lineup construction and in-game managing by the manager.
I am more optimistic about the talent in the Pirates organization than I have been in many years. But, I am also now more concerned than ever with how they are currently and will in the future develop that talent. The teaching that Neal Huntington continually cites as taking place is just not evident at the major league level and the long and short-term planning that is the core of any successful organization seems haphazard at best and non-existant at worst.
These are important days. Put me down as concerned.
I have seen nothing in the two plus months since to make me feel any better about what is going on at the major league level. It is time to fire John Russell and his staff.
I don't write that lightly. I fully recognize that we are talking about men and their careers. I recognize that John Russell and his staff are working hard. I recognize that the Pirates lack talent at the major league level. I recognize that the Pirates have continued to trade players during the entire three years of his tenure and there has been a revolving door in the clubhouse. I also know John Russell is a good person. For all these reasons I have not once called for him to be fired. In fact I have never publicly written that a coach or manager should be fired. These are hard decisions and being a fan and on the outside, I don't feel that I am equipped with all the information needed to make a sound decision. But in this case, I feel I have seen enough.
I just finished listening to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's press conference. Last night the Steelers lost a preseason game to the Denver Broncos. The noteworthy aspect of the game was that many of the young Steelers trying to earn a roster spot played poorly. There were physical errors, mental errors and, at times, a lack of composure and discipline. Before the game, in a sideline interview in front of the television cameras, Mike Tomlin uttered his favorite phrase. He spoke of individuals playing up to The Standard. Every player who has the privilege of putting on the Steelers uniform understands what The Standard is. The coaching staff has expectations. If you are going to play, then you play up to The Standard. If you don't perform to that level, someone else will play.
In his post-game press conference Tomlin spoke about the performance of various players. He didn't mince words. He did not parry shots with reporters or dance around issues. Those who played well and those who didn't were mentioned by name. He talked about taking advantage of teaching opportunities to raise the level of play of the young men that he coaches.
Football is different than baseball. The culture is different, the locker room environment is different, the nature of the season is different. But in both football and baseball coaches teach. There is much more teaching in football because of the myriad positions and the intricate game planning that goes on week-to-week, but both sports have fundamentals that are keys to success. In football it is blocking and tackling, securing the football, running good pass routes among other things. In baseball it is hitting and pitching, running the bases, fielding your position and the like. Both games have a big mental component.
The shocking thing about the Steelers' performance was seeing multiple players not perform up to The Standard. Coach Tomlin said that others will get opportunities as a result. As a fan, I know things will be better Thursday night when the team takes on Carolina in the final exhibition game. I know the problems will have been solved when the Steelers play their first meaningful game against Atlanta on Sept. 12. Mike Tomlin will teach and he will evaluate and he will correct the mistakes. He has a track record. Last year, when starting running back Rashard Mendenhall had a lackadaisical week of practice, Tomlin benched him. There is a level of preparation and performance that is expected and if players don't meet that they don't play. Every man on the Pittsburgh Steelers understands this.
The Pittsburgh Pirates under John Russell do not have a standard. Their play throughout the course of this season has been substandard in every facet. They do not hit well, they do not pitch well, they do not run the bases well and they do not play defense well. First, and most importantly, this is on the players. They are major leaguers getting paid to play baseball. Many of the players are not very good. But, beyond the talent level, the Pirates make fundamental mistake after fundamental mistake.
Yesterday Ronny Cedeno came up in the third inning with men on first and third and the Pirates down 3-2. Pitcher Charlie Morton, he of the .000 batting average, was on deck. Cedeno, on his own, bunted. I'm sure in his mind, Cedeno thought he might bunt for a hit and if he didn't at least the runner on first would advance. Of course Cedeno failed to execute the bunt properly and was thrown out. Morton struck out and the Pirates failed to score. This was so incredibly boneheaded that it is almost laughable. Throw in the fact that Cedeno did something similar the night before and it's pathetic. Top it off with the fact that something like this seems to happen every game and it is time to fire the manager and his staff.
Over the course of 162 games every player will make mistakes and every manager will make bad decisions. But, we have gotten to the point where the Pirates players' approach to the game and John Russell's lineup construction and in-game managing decisions are unacceptable. The list examples of fundamental, fixable mistakes the Pirates have made this year goes into the hundreds and many seem to happen over and over. The fact that Ronny Cedeno does not know that he has to swing the bat in that situation, that Lastings Milledge makes the third out of an inning at third base before a runner crosses home plate, that Andy LaRoche doesn't know what to do when two players occupy the same base, that Ryan Doumit constantly tags players at chest level on plays at the plate, that many players can't execute a sacrifice bunt, that no pitcher on the staff effectively holds runners on base...the list is only just starting. These are things the coaching staff has to correct. It hasn't happened. There is no reason to believe it will happen.
In addition Russell's lineup construction seems haphazard at best. He has consistently failed to put his players in a position where they are most likely to succeed. He often ignores platoon splits and the allocation of playing time has been questionable. His unwillingness to honestly address his players' performance (see quotes about Aki Iwamura batting leadoff, Ryan Church being hot, Garrett Jones hitting well, any day's starting pitcher's performance) suggests that he isn't driving home the message that the level of performance is not acceptable.
John Russell has a record of 172-281 during his tenure with the Pirates. His .380 winning percentage is historically bad. But in the end, John Russell's record is not the main reason he should be fired. The teaching that should be taking place hasn't happened or is not being done the right way. A team with the Pirates' lack of talent needs to do all the little things right. Instead, the Pirates fundamentally are a terrible team. Russell's decision making further hampers them. The Pirates don't have The Standard. Time's up, I've seen enough. Fire John Russell and his staff and find someone who can get this right.