The 2019-20 offseason saw the exits of the Pittsburgh Pirates team president Frank Coonelly and General Manager Neal Huntington but also long-time manager Clint Hurdle, and it was the right call.
Finishing 69-92, missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season, it was an ugly year. There was a physical fight between players that led to reliever Kyle Crick missing the remainder of the season, there was a physical altercation between a player and a member of the coaching staff. It got so bad the players enacted a ‘no coaches in the clubhouse’ rule.
It was a caustic environment and the Pirates needed to start over.
Enter Derek Shelton.
The former hitting coach for the Cleveland Guardians and Tampa Bay Rays and bench coach for the Minnesota Twins was given the unenviable task of managing a rebuilding franchise. Shelton has guided three dreadful rosters to completion each of the last three seasons. That alone is an accomplishment given the pitching staffs he’s had to work with.
As such, his record as manager doesn’t really matter, and with Shelton entering the final year of his contract, he was given an extension this year. The amount or the length of contract was not disclosed.
Now, partway through year four, what does a fair evaluation of Derek Shelton so far look like? Is such a thing given the circumstances even possible?
The front office’s internal expectations were not ones of particular optimism, but after a 20-8 start, the Pirates have entered an alarming total freefall to 36-42 and fourth place.
The starting rotation, it’s current depth issues aside, has been a pleasant surprise. The bullpen has been marred by injuries and unreliability. He’s been given an offense made up of role players like Connor Joe and Josh Palacios thrust into starting roles, without one of its more promising bats for most of the season in Oneil Cruz, without Ji-Man Choi and currently without Bryan Reynolds. Andrew McCutchen has also battled through an elbow injury preventing him from playing the field.
But woven into the web of injuries is some admittedly questionable game management.
Asking Joe, a player who has over parts four MLB seasons has not successfully laid down a bunt, to bunt with two runners on in a tied game in the 10th is certainly fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s not the first time Joe being asked to bunt has ended in disaster this year.
He also drew criticism recently for pulling Henry Davis for a defensive sub against the Marlins only to need to pinch hit with Jason Delay for his spot in the order after the bullpen blew a three-run lead.
He has been regularly criticized by fans, and sometimes not without cause, for his bullpen management. In a blowout loss to Milwaukee Brewers last season, he left Cam Vieaux in for nearly 50 pitches, leading to a private and public apology from Shelton.
It was downright bizarre when he brought in David Bednar with two outs in the ninth in a barn burner against the Mets on June 9. Although being let down by bad defense, Bednar struggled out of his usual rhythm. Needing to face four batters to get the last out as four runs scored off the usually dominant Pirates closer, needing 19 pitches to retire the final batter.
While the execution remains in the hands of players, it is the onus of those deciding the specifics of deployment to ensure players are given the best chance to succeed possible.
In modern baseball, the manager is not usually the only one involved in those choices. Those are decisions are often made as a group between the manager, the gm, and the analytics team. Usually, some time in advance of when they occur. The days of a manager filling out a lineup card by himself on game day are largely over. The same thing can mostly be said about bullpen usage.
But to say that Shelton, a former catcher, has no say over whether Austin Hedges is starting would not be true. I would find it hard to believe that if Shelton was pounding the table for anybody other than a player that is well on his way to having one of the worst single-season offensive performances since 1871 to be starting, that upper management would tell him no. At the end of the day, he fills out and hands in the lineup card and Ben Cherrington isn’t calling down to the dugout to request a specific pitching change mid-game.
Is any of this even remotely fair to Derek Shelton? Can he be reasonably expected to take what he has been given by the front office, often putrid, and the baseball injury gods, often merciless and make something good?
No, but this sport isn’t fair and Shelton often leaves much to be desired. If he is to be the manager that ultimately leads a group of players out of this long rebuild and into consistently competitive play, he like the rosters he works with, must get better.