August 9, 2010

Reaction to Kerrigan, Varsho Firings

The first shots were fired at Pirates management before Sunday's game as pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and bench coach Gary Varsho were both relieved of their duties.

In a Warren Commissionesque move, everyone involved claimed that this was John Russell's decision acting alone. Forgive me, but if defensive positioning for specific batters is being dictated from above, I find it hard to believe that hiring and firing of key personnel is 100% delegated. It's also worth pointing out that the typical sequence is pitching/hitting coach fired, manager fired, GM fired.

Varsho Should Have Stuck To Pinch Hitting
Whoever made the decision, Varsho's firing is no surprise since he clearly had personality conflicts with members of the team. Journalist extraordinaire John Perrotto quotes a source as saying Varsho was "too outspoken and confrontational." That is some crack journalism indeed. Could the "source" be "anyone who was listening to the radio broadcast when Varsho had to be physically restrained from coming to blows with Lastings Milledge during a game against the Rangers?" Varsho also didn't get along with Ronny Cedeno. Now these aren't core players by any means, but they're more important than Varsho. Bench coach is a rather bullshit job to start with and it seems like you would keep it by NOT physically fighting with players.

Kerrigan Can't Recapture Red Sox Magic
Kerrigan is a bigger story both because of his more important role and because he came here with some pedigree. Although it is popular to say that there isn't much coaching one can still do at the major league level, clearly there are a few pitching coaches who cause major improvements in many pitchers. Dave Duncan in St. Louis and Leo Mazzone in Atlanta come to mind. Joe Kerrigan, too, was once considered in that class. After finishing last in ERA in 1997, in 1998 his Red Sox pitching staff had the second best ERA in the American League; Kerrigan was credited with resurrecting the careers of guys like Bret Saberhagen and Tom Gordon. The Sox ranked first in ERA in 1999 and 2000, again with Kerrigan as their pitching coach. He was promoted to manager, went 17-26 and was out of Boston after a quarter season, but no one thought at that point that he couldn't perform as pitching coach.

His next job was with the Phillies in 2003 and 2004. He apparently did a solid job in 2003 when he got 14 or more wins out of starters Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers. The Phillies finished a respectable seventh in ERA. All four of those declined in 2004, Philadelphia finished 13th in ERA and Kerrigan was out.

In Pittsburgh the story was even worse. In this, his second season as pitching coach, Kerrigan's staff ranked 15th in the National League with a 5.08 team ERA at the time he was fired. Last year the Pirates ranked 14th with a 4.59. Evan Meek is the only pitcher who really blossomed during Kerrigan's tenure. Many more have regressed including guys like Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, and to a lesser extent Paul Maholm. I can't recall any stories of Kerrigan teaching guys new pitches or really being credited with much of anything.

It is doubtful that any pitching coach could keep his job after ranking 14th and 15th in team ERA, but Kerrigan is also rumored to have had personality conflicts with some Pirates pitchers. Phillies pitchers openly said they didn't like working with Kerrigan during his tenure there from 2003-04; Pirates pitchers are not very outspoken but the midseason firing suggests possibly the same type of thing was going on here. Also after flaming out in Pittsburgh, one wonders if Kerrigan will get another MLB pitching coach job.

In any event, his replacement Ray Searage by all accounts has an agreeable personality and already has developed a good rapport with the staff as bullpen coach. Searage carries an interim tag but has widely been considered the pitching coach of the future. He served as a minor league pitching coach for the last seven years, experience that could be helpful with the Pirates' young staff.

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