Evaluating the Importance of the Pittsburgh Pirates Clubhouse Culture


With new manager Derek Shelton and a new clubhouse culture in place for the Pittsburgh Pirates, let’s try to examine how important this is for a baseball team

If/when the 2020 MLB season begins, the Pittsburgh Pirates will have a new manager as Derek Shelton will replace long time manager Clint Hurdle. After nine years at the helm for the Pirates, it became clear that Hurdle’s time in Pittsburgh had run its course and that it was time for new leadership in the Pirate clubhouse.

Obviously during Hurdle’s tenure, there was a time when his leadership style and clubhouse culture worked. After all, in his nine seasons as manager he led the Pirates to four winning seasons and three postseason appearances. This included the team’s first winning season and postseason appearance since 1992 in 2013. However, nothing lasts forever.

Not long after he was hired, Shelton made it clear he wanted to go about changing the Pirate culture. In his introductory press conference Shelton claimed he wanted to make the Pirate clubhouse “a fun place to be around”. This indicates that at the end of the Hurdle Era the Pirate clubhouse may not have been a fun place. You can read more from that press conference here.

Prior to Spring Training being suspended due to the spread of COVID-19, these changes that Shelton wanted to implement appeared to be taking place. During spring training broadcasts the Pirates broadcast team routinely mentioned how looser and more easy going camp was this spring compared to last year.

Shelton wanted to create an environment this spring that was positive, laid back and more open minded. This was obvious. From the team donning blond wigs to have their hair look like that of rising relief pitching prospect Blake Cederlind, or players watching the Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury fight together, it was obvious this team was more laid back than 2019 and had a better comradery.

“I enjoy the clubhouse environment that we have right now. It’s really chill. It’s not lackadaisical, but it is chill,” Keone Kela told reporters during Spring Training about the Pirates clubhouse culture. Coming from Kela, this is really saying something. After all, he was suspended by the team last summer following an altercation with members of the staff.

Starting pitcher Joe Musgrove was also complimentary of the new culture in the Pirate clubhouse. Musgrove said the team has good chemistry and good clubhouse culture. He added that with the new connection between the team and the front office the Pirates feel like one family. This is great to hear from Musgrove as he is viewed as a likely clubhouse and on field leader in 2020, and he is also a player the Pirates have approached about a long term contract extension.

During the off-season, the Pirates also added veterans who are known for being a good clubhouse presence. Likely fifth starter Derek Holland, center fielder Jarrod Dyson and fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia all fit this bill. So, if/when the 2020 season does start, clubhouse chemistry and attitude, unlike in 2019, should be the least of the issues that the Pittsburgh Pirates may encounter.

All of this raises the question, how important is clubhouse culture? Well, by all accounts, the answer is yes.

Just take the 2013 – 2015 Pirates for example. All three of these teams made the postseason, and all three of these teams had excellent clubhouse chemistry. Those teams had a strong comradery and always had each other’s backs on and off the field.

The importance of clubhouse chemistry was also on display in the 2016 NLDS between the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, and it is covered wonderfully by Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic here.

Sharma mentioned how the Giants clubhouse has a culture that was so strong that it led to him buying to this intangible playing a big role in the team’s success. This culture was a major driving force behind the Giants being the most successful franchise in baseball, and maybe all of sports, from 2010 – 2016 when the team made the postseason four times and won three World Series Championships.

Sharma also examines the Cubs clubhouse culture from 2016. In 2016 the Cubs embraced being the hunted from the get go that spring. They never got too high or too low, and it ended in the Cubs taking home their first World Series Championship in over 100 years.

As Pirate fans know, the Cubs manager in 2016 was Joe Maddon. Maddon is known for being a players manager that creates a strong clubhouse culture. Shelton worked with Maddon in Tampa Bay. He also was on a strong Minnesota Twins coaching staff last season. So, a strong clubhouse culture is something Shelton knows how to cultivate.

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During this past off-season the Pittsburgh Pirates organization improved in multiple ways. This included a new, improved clubhouse culture. If/when the 2020 season does get rolling the Pirates will undoubtedly run into their fair share of problems. Every MLB team does during a season. However, one thing that should no longer be an issue is the clubhouse culture, and this can only benefit the Pirates.