Why Derek Shelton might be the Pirates’ ideal manager candidate

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports 1 month ago

Sam Fuld isn’t interested. Jason Kendall is, although the Pirates have shown zero interest in having their former catcher return to the home dugout at PNC Park. Athletics coaches Mark Kotsay and Ryan Christenson are also in the mix.

As the Pirates find themselves very much in the thick of a managerial search, there’s one name that hasn’t gotten a ton of attention that probably should: Derek Shelton, the 49-year-old bench coach of the Minnesota Twins. He, too, will interview for the gig.

Shelton, much like Clint Hurdle when the Pirates were winning, offers an interesting blend of the old and new schools of baseball thought. They’re also similar in age given Hurdle was 53 when the Pirates hired him on Nov. 14, 2010.

The coincidences don’t stop there. The fall Hurdle was hired, he interviewed with the Mets, the same as Shelton has already done. No matter who takes over, that manager will inherit a team that pitched and fielded poorly.

The 2010 Pirates had a worst-in-baseball ERA of 5.00. This year’s group pitched to a mark of 5.18 that was fifth from the bottom and among the worst ERAs in franchise history.

The two clubs were either last (2010) or next-to-last (2019) among all 30 MLB teams in fielding percentage.

Those things, however, are merely happenstance. What makes Shelton a smart fit is much more involved. With that in mind, here’s what you should know:

1. Shelton and Pirates general manager Neal Huntington have history together.

Shelton was the Indians’ hitting coach under manager Eric Wedge from 2005-09. (Wedge actually interviewed in Pittsburgh before Hurdle was hired.)

Huntington worked in Cleveland’s system for 10 years before coming to Pittsburgh, advancing from assistant director of minor league operations to one of the top lieutenant positions under then-general manager Mark Shapiro.

During Shelton’s time with the Indians, Huntington was a special assistant to Shapiro, meaning he and Shelton probably dealt with each other quite a bit.

2. Shelton has also seen how one of baseball’s best small-market teams operates.

If the Pirates are trying to become a little more like the Rays — hold the Tyler Glasnow/Austin Meadows jokes, please — Shelton would be a terrific starting point.

From 2010-16, under both Joe Maddon and Kevin Cash, Shelton served as hitting coach in Tampa, taking note of how the Rays identified talent and developed players. The Pirates also have a built-in reference for Shelton in Chris Archer, who pitched for the Rays when Shelton was there.

While hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz were two of the bright spots on the Pirates coaching staff this year — and almost assured of keeping their jobs regardless of who’s hired — it wouldn’t hurt to have another hitting mind around, the same as Hurdle brought.

Shelton, meanwhile, should also recognize the importance of a catcher extracting more from his pitching staff via framing, blocking, throwing and how he calls a game. Although Jacob Stallings proved himself as a capable No. 2 at the major league level, the Pirates still need significant help in this department.

3. Given what Shelton has done recently, he could be the perfect guy to improve the Pirates’ power.

Pittsburgh tied Colorado and Washington for the best batting average (.265) in the National League in 2019; however, only the Miami Marlins (146) hit fewer home runs than the Pirates (163).

The Twins this season set the Major League Baseball single-season home run record with 307. They also experienced an insane year-over-year jump of 141 homers, going from 166 in 2018 to this year’s total.

What did they do? Can it be copied? How could Shelton implement the same sort of approach in Pittsburgh?

4. Before the Twins hired Shelton as their bench coach on Nov. 6, 2017, he had worked as the Blue Jays’ quality control coach.

It sounds like a job that would only exist in football, but it might’ve given Shelton some experience the Pirates could use.

In speaking with reporters upon his hiring in Minnesota, Shelton described the job as a little bit of everything, with a focus on analytics and development.

“The job description was fairly fluid," Shelton said. "Day-to-day, there was analytical stuff and advance scouting reports. I helped with hitting because that's my background, but I integrated into defense more than I had at the major league level.

“And there were relationships with the minor league coordinators about developmental roles. The job itself was ever-changing, and I looked at it as growth for me, especially because the bench coach role was something I was looking to transition into."

Regardless of personnel moves, one of the areas the Pirates need to remedy involves how successfully players transition from Triple-A to the big leagues.

If Shelton has observed a different way of doing things, the Pirates should be all ears. Plus, if he’s more willing to implement and rely on analytics, that won’t hurt, either.

5. In an August 2018 interview with FanGraphs, Shelton expounded on his philosophy as far as analytics and what he’s learned from the places he’s been.

It’s fascinating. A few of the highlights:

• “One thing the Rays do a very good job of — especially between their major league coaching staff and the front office — is having a very open dialogue. There’s kind of a no-ego relationship where you’re free to ask questions.”

Thought: Considering the season the Pirates just had, they should be asking questions about everything. Egos can’t trump good ideas.

• “You have to manage to your personnel. The type of team you have will kind of dictate how you play.”

Thought: The Pirates need to be nimble. They don’t have the horses to play like a big-market club. They need to be different, like the Rays, and their manager should embrace that.

• “If you’re in a leadership role, you have to continue to learn, and that includes having a willingness to go outside your own box. If you don’t, you won’t be making yourself the best coach, or the best manager, that you’re capable of being.”

Thought: Hurdle is a very smart man. He read a lot. Had philosophies on things. Could motivate, could inspire, all that stuff, and it’s great. But did he really evolve during his time with the Pirates, especially in the later years? Did he get better?

This isn’t meant to criticize Hurdle, but someone who’s so open about challenging himself? The Pirates should absolutely want to have that.

Jason Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.

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