Pirates’ staff a work in progress
CHICAGO — At the end of a bad day, after the Pirates’ starting pitcher served up a handful of homers or the bullpen couldn’t hold a lead, pitching coach Jeff Andrews will talk to his kids.
Still in early grade school, Andrews’ sons are too young to worry about sugarcoating the truth.
“They, in their innocence, will say, ‘Dad, you guys aren’t pitching very good,’ ” Andrews said, smiling. “I’ll kind of laugh and say, ‘You know, you’re right.’ You have to laugh. Kids have a way of putting it all in perspective.”
Andrews can handle the truth, even if it is not always pleasant. With a 12-man pitching staff, there’s always going to be a time when somebody has an injury, slump, mechanical issue or mental block to deal with.
Andrews’ job is to provide emergency management, inspiration and motivation — a combination of Mr. Fix-It and Dr. Phil.
“I’m not sure how he does it,” left-hander Zach Duke said. “That’s why he’s a good coach. He’s figured out a way to do it, and he does it well.”
After 22 years in the minor leagues, this is Andrews’ first season at the major-league level. In many ways, it has been his greatest challenge.
One starter, a former Cy Young candidate, was so awful that he was jettisoned from the team by the end of April. The two pitchers expected to anchor the rotation have been big disappointments. There already has been some turnover in the bullpen, with more likely to come.
And it’s only mid-May.
“It seems like we were just in Bradenton, Fla., getting ready for spring training,” Andrews said.
He paused and laughed.
“But it also seems like that was 10 years ago — in dog years … or in pitching coach years.
It has been somewhat stressful, searching for answers. But it’s that way even in the minor leagues. You’ll have spots when your best pitchers aren’t going that good, when flares are falling in for hits. It’s a lot of management — keeping the focus on what we’re trying to do.”
A typical workday for Andrews begins the night before. Minutes after the final out of a game, Andrews tries to climb inside the head of the next day’s starting pitcher.
What batters will he faceâ¢ How well is the other team hittingâ¢ How well are the Pirates playing defenseâ¢ Who’s sore and needs a breatherâ¢ Who’s slumping and needs an ego massageâ¢
“It’s the same things I ask these guys to do: plan your work and then work your plan,” Andrews said.
The thoughts will keep Andrews busy until he falls asleep. By 1 o’clock the next afternoon, he is back at the ballpark. There is video to review and scouting reports to scan. At 4:15 p.m., a pitcher or two will report to the bullpen for a side session. After that, there are more meetings and review sessions.
“He lives and dies with his pitchers,” manager John Russell said. “He takes it to heart when they’re not pitching well because he wants them to succeed. He works really hard with them, not only on the physical but the mental side of it.”
Actually, much of the fine-tuning Andrews does each day does not involve pitching mechanics. During the bullpen workouts, Andrews is careful to work on just one or two physical aspects.
“You can’t overload guys,” Andrews said. “A lot of times, there’s not really all that much, just a sharpening of execution. It’s so much more mental — the competitive side and being prepared, being ready — than, ‘Your arm is too low,’ or ‘Your curveball is not tight enough,’ or something like that.”
More often than not, a struggling pitcher will know what he’s doing wrong. He just needs someone to provide support and instruction. That’s why Andrews’ previous experience with many of his pitchers — he spent the past five years at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis — is important.
“He’s pretty open with us, and he’ll tell us if he’s going through something or if he’s frustrated with us,” Duke said. “That’s the good thing about having that relationship. There’s an open line of communication there.”
During a game, Andrews monitors every pitch. Without looking at the score, it’s easy for him to tell if the pitcher is veering from the game plan.
After the game, there are charts and stats to review. Andrews will huddle with a player or two, perhaps get the catcher’s perspective.
Then it’s time for Andrews to begin plotting for the next game … and maybe chat with his sons.
Some of the Pirates’ pitching quandaries have been solved by subtraction: Matt Morris was released; Evan Meek and John Van Benschoten were reassigned to the minors.
Other issues will take more time before they are resolved. Will Duke continue to regain his formâ¢ Can Paul Maholm be a steady performerâ¢ Will Tom Gorzelanny’s back and shoulder hold upâ¢ Can Ian Snell rebuild his confidence?
“(Andrews) is doing whatever he can to help,” Russell said. “It gets tough on everybody when we’re not pitching or hitting well. He’s no different than anybody else. He never quits, and that’s the only way we can get better.”