By Ron Yurko
This past week, Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan polled the readers of Fangraphs to assess their opinions of pitching coaches around the league. Ray Searage, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach, came out on top with the highest rating followed by Don Cooper of the Chicago White Sox. Searage took over the pitching coach job for the Bucs during the 2010 season, with his first full season of the job in 2011. As a former front office intern and fan of the Pirates, I can’t say I’m surprised by the result considering how the media has heralded Searage and crew for their various “reclamation projects” such as Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. After seeing the result of Sullivan’s poll, I wondered how the other top pitching coaches in the league compare to Searage in their own “reclamation projects.” For each of the top 10 highest rated pitching coaches, I looked back to 2011 (Searage’s first full season as the Bucs pitching coach) and examined to find how many “projects” they each had and their respective outcomes. I defined a “reclamation project” to be a starting pitcher (avoid the vast number of relief pitchers) that was either traded or signed after a disappointing season (or seasons). There is of course some subjectivity here, because I don’t want to include the Giants signing Tim Hudson nor the Cubs signing of Edwin Jackson (remember he was once pretty good). The point was to find pitchers that were similar to Liriano or Volquez, cheaply acquired by the team to hopefully bounce back in their rotation. Below is a plot of the number of reclamation attempts I found for each of the top 10 rated pitching coaches.
One important note when considering this chart, by no means does more “reclamation projects” necessarily imply a pitching coach is better than another. Rather, its actually more reflective of the organization and the struggles faced. Especially when considering the Pirates, Cubs, and Padres (the top 3 of these 10) who have had their fair share of struggles. Prior to Huntingdon’s takeover, the Pirates repeatedly failed to draft and develop pitchers. So in order to stay competitive while young arms like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon developed under the new regime, the Pirates had to find these cheap “reclamation projects.” This is in stark contrast with the Tampa Bay Rays who successfully drafted and developed pitchers like David Price, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore to name a few. The only project I considered for Jim Hickey was Roberto Hernandez in 2013, who improved moderately with the Rays with his career best xFIP of 3.60 but otherwise remains mediocre (and of course no longer a Ray).
Similar to the Rays, the White Sox rotation over the last four years consisted of pitchers from within the organization such as the absurdly good Chris Sale. The only “reclamation project” I found for Don Cooper during this period was the short-lived Philip Humber, who was dumped by both the Royals and Athletics in the same offseason before being picked up by the White Sox, signing for merely $500,000 (okay, small amount in MLB terms). After working with Cooper however, Humber had what remains the best year of his career in 2011 (see table below) with a solid WAR of 3.3 (as well as a perfect game), which is a great showing for such a small pick-up and is essentially the prime example of a successful project. However, it was short-lived as elbow troubles derailed the former third overall pick, who has now signed with a Korean league team.
Another project yielding great results was the Indians signing of the former Devil Ray Scott Kazmir in 2013, who posted a 2.6 WAR then continued his surge with the Athletics last year posting a 3.3 WAR. This is of course brings up the point to how much credit goes to whom in these projects as Kazmir’s strange training likely had more to do with anything in his return to form. A similar bizarre project is the Giants’ successful turnaround of Ryan Vogelsong in 2011, who was plagued with injuries and unsuccessful minor league seasons until an injury to Barry Zito forced San Francisco to call up Vogelsong into the rotation. For a player who signed a minor league deal, he posted 1.8 WAR in 2011 (with a 2.71 ERA) then a 2.3 WAR in 2012. I could not find projects for the Athletics and Rangers during this period largely due to both organizations relying on younger arms, as well signings of already successful free agent pitchers like Bartolo Colon or the highly anticipated Yu Darvish. Although the A’s used younger arms they acquired from other teams like Tommy Milone or Jarrod Parker, they did not necessarily fit this project mold due to their youth.
The table below lists who I designated as project players (and acquired years) of the Pirates, Cubs, Braves, and Padres during the period from 2011-present:
For each of the of the teams except the Braves I plot the WAR for each of the pitchers for the season prior to joining the project team, as well as their WAR with their project team. I exclude the Braves from this because Gavin Floyd suffered an awful elbow injury even if he was an attempt at a project. However, the Indians signed Floyd so it will be interesting to see whether or not they have another Kazmir for 2015. Prior to the signing with the Braves Harang posted a combined WAR of 0.2 with the Mariners and Mets in 2013, then a solid comeback with the Braves in 2014 posting a WAR of 2.5. The rest of the team projects are as follows:
Note that for the Cubs, Volstad posted a WAR of 0 in his only season with the Cubs even if he was an attempt of reclamation, and I used the year in which Arrieta was traded to the Cubs from the Orioles (he played for both) as the prior with 2014 as his first full year with Chicago. In terms of WAR, Arrieta was the most improved player from these three teams due to great 2014 campaign.
It’s interesting to see the comparison between the two Volquez comebacks as he has had multiple up and down seasons. Although his 2014 season with the Pirates was heralded as a great result of Searage’s work, Volquez actually did not greatly improve but performed steady with his career peripherals (2014 FIP of 4.15, 2013 FIP of 4.24). The media has of course focused on his greatly improved ERA which went from 5.71 in 2013 to 3.04 in 2014, but this has more to do with better luck (.325 vs .263 BABIP) and from pitching in front of the shifting frenzy Pirates. His improvements with the Padres were more impressive than with the Pirates, but then again pitching in pitcher-friendly Petco Park benefits everyone.
When looking at the other Pirates pitchers it’s easy to see why Searage receives so much praise, but he is definitely not alone among MLB pitching coaches able to reform pitchers. Both the Cubs and Padres have also had their share of successful reforms, as well as the endeavors of the Indians, White Sox, Giants, and Braves. Of course the pitching coaches alone should not receive all the credit, nor would they accept it, as so many factors contribute to improvements, the change of scenery from New York to Pittsburgh alone possibly did wonders with Burnett. Worley’s success could be attributed to his time in the minors with the Indianapolis Indians. The pitching coaches are simply necessary pieces in the grand design of forming dynasties. It is impressive however how these “reclamation projects” under the tutelage of Ray Searage have consistently yielded positive results for the Pirates. As long as Ray the Reformer is the pitching coach for the Pirates, it is likely that his popularity will continue to rise as the organization will continue to trust the coaching staff to take other Liriano types and tap into their potential. If the ridiculousness of Pittsburgh’s fondness with Dick LeBeau is anything, as long as Ray Searage doesn’t take a manager position elsewhere he’ll likely be the next assistant coach with a key to the city.