Dave Duncan had been a mainstay of Tony LaRussa’s coaching staff as a pitching coach. He had developed what appeared to be an uncanny ability to get the best out of pitchers who others had given up on, resurrecting the careers of pitchers like Dave Stewart, Darryl Kile and Kyle Lohse, among quite a few others. If there is a secret formula to get pitchers to suddenly perform, Duncan had it.
However, very quietly, Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage may have received those secrets when Duncan retired. Without the fanfare that Duncan had, Searage has had his own run of pitching resurrections for the Pirates.
Just look at the list of pitchers that have come through since Ray Searage was named the pitching coach on November 24, 2010. A.J. Burnett had been a disaster with the New York Yankees, posting a 5.20 ERA between 2010 and 2011. He came over to the Pirates, and suddenly became the pitcher he was with the Marlins, putting together a 26-21 record with a 3.41 ERA. Burnett struck out just under a batter per inning, with 389 strikeouts in 393.1 innings, and lowered his walk rate from 4.0 per nine innings to 3.0 per nine.
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Edinson Volquez had been signed by the Pirates on a one year contract; a tantalizing pitcher who never seemed to be able to make the most of his ability. Searage helped him work on getting ahead in the count and throwing strikes. Meanwhile, Volquez began using his sinker far more frequently, going from 29% in his career to 42% last season. That led to Volquez posting a 13-7 record with a 3.04 ERA. Those control issues were minimized, as Volquez walked a career low 3.3 batters per nine innings.
Even the relievers have flourished under the guidance of Ray Searage. Mark Melancon had been a solid reliever prior to imploding with the Red Sox. However, once he came to the Pirates, Melancon became an All-Star caliber closer, posting a 1.65 ERA in his two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Searage has even worked his magic with players already on the Pirates. Charlie Morton mentioned that how, when he was sent down the the minor leagues due to his struggles at the major league level, Searage adjusted his arm slot, suddenly transforming Morton into a solid major league starter. Players that were struggling to even play catch were being sent to Searage, and he fixed them.
The secret seems to be nothing more than optimism and an ability to relate. Burnett stated that Ray Searage allows the players to “be themselves” instead of trying to fit them into some sort of box. Searage had his own struggles at the major league level and knows what it is like to be sent down. He has been through the very same struggles that his pitchers have gone through. Despite those struggles, his belief in his pitchers may be the difference in why they have been able to become transformed once they sign with the Pirates.
Perhaps that understanding and positive demeanor are all that these pitchers have needed. If so, Ray Searage’s ability as the Pitcher Whisperer may just be a lesson in how to get the most out of people in general – just listen and be a positive influence.