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The intangibles of Derek Shelton

Shelty’s a little less green, but he’s still learning.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates
“They’re getting better! I’M getting better!”
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s inevitable that when a team isn’t good, fingers almost immediately point to the manager. And so it is with the Pirates; the cries of FIRE SHELTON are kind of loud in the Burgh these days, along with the usual (and boring) “Nutting needs to sell the team” stuff.

Guess what?

Neither is going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

The Nutting thing is a book article unto itself, but here I’m going to concentrate on Derek Shelton. As the most hands-on guy in the Pirates organization—the captain of the Pirate ship, so to speak—of course he bears some responsibility for the team’s performance. How much, though, is the question.

Technically, 2021 was Shelty’s second year at the helm, but, you know, a pandemic happened in 2020, so expectations were low. Not that they were super-high this year, but at least he had a whole season with which to work.

Ben Cherington has only ever hired one other manager as a GM when he brought on John Farrell to manage the Red Sox in 2012. You might remember that the Red Sox won it all the following year. However, Farrell had a history with the Sox, having been the pitching coach under Terry Francona, and had also briefly managed the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays organization is also where Cherington’s and Shelton’s paths crossed, as Cherington was the team’s VP of baseball operations and Shelton the quality control coach in 2017 after several years as the Rays’ hitting coach. Shelton went on to be the Twins’ bench coach, and you know what happened from there.

Let’s face it—being the Pirates’ manager is a training wheels job. It’s attractive for someone with ambition looking to get a foot in the managerial door; who knows that winning here means a possible bounce to a better team. The chance to work with a GM who has proven to be successful at the highest level was undoubtedly attractive to Shelty as well. In a way, it’s a no-lose proposition. If Shelton fails, he can blame Nutting as everyone else does for not giving him the tools to succeed. If he wins … well, we’ve gone over that.

So how did Derek do in his first real season managing the Bucs? Let’s take a look.

First and foremost, it’s plain to see that the players like Shelton. With such a young struggling team, there’s a lot of the dad element to Shelty’s approach, but at 51, he’s not all that old either.

Even when things were going wrong this season—and they did, quite a bit—I never got the impression that anyone was giving up. On the contrary, Shelton could be seen going up and down the dugout giving guys little pep talks. One of the most memorable moments for me was a night just before Mitch Keller got demoted to Indianapolis after having thoroughly stunk up the joint. After he was taken out, Shelton was shown talking earnestly to Mitch, and I could clearly read his lips:

You don’t suck. Don’t think that.

Considering that Keller came back from Indy better (not fantastic, but better), Shelton’s words must have worked to a certain extent. A manager needs to toe the fine line between being encouraging and blowing smoke up someone’s butt, and Shelty seems to do that pretty well.

Two areas where Shelton’s managerial inexperience shows are two pretty essential areas—setting a solid lineup and knowing when to take a pitcher out. At the beginning of the season, the first three batters were almost always Adam Frazier, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Bryan Reynolds. When Frazier got traded in July, Shelton started shuffling all up and down the lineup, although Reynolds was pretty much always in the number three slot as the power hitter. He did seem to get a bit of consistency with Hayes/Cole Tucker/Reynolds at the end of the season, so it’ll be interesting to see if that holds up next year.

As far as knowing when to take a pitcher out … I confess this was my main issue with Shelton throughout the season. I know he intended to see if a pitcher could get himself out of trouble, but there were instances when he shouldn’t have allowed himself that luxury with such an inconsistent staff. One also has to wonder how much input Oscar Marin had in the decisions as well. Marin’s new to the job as well, and since Shelton’s always shown himself to be open to others’ opinions, I’m sure there were a few times when Marin was like, “I talked to him, he knows what to do,” Shelty took his word for it, and could only watch as the wheels blew off in spectacular fashion. Starting pitching remains a significant issue, if not the biggest issue with the Pirates right now, and that’s where Shelton should be leveling his focus in the offseason.

2022 will be Derek Shelton’s “put up or shut up” year, but per a recent ESPN interview, Cherington is confident his manager is up to the task:

“He pours so much into the job. He’s so much fun to be around. I believe our team has responded to that through the effort and perseverance we’ve talked about. We’re seeing improvements from the team in different areas, so I’m just really excited to continue to work with him.”

I can go with that.