Pittsburgh Pirates Minors: Through the Eyes of a Coach with Eric Minshall

facebooktwitterreddit

Today we kick off a new series here at Rum Bunter called ‘Through the Eyes of a Minor League Coach’ by talking with former Pittsburgh Pirates minor league pitching coach Eric Minshall

Over the past month or so, I’ve been using former Bristol pitching coach Eric Minshall as my source of knowledge and insight into the young Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospects featured in the ‘A Day in the Life of a Minor Leauger’ series . So, why not correspond with him one more time? Not to discuss a certain player this time, but rather to discuss what goes on between pitchers and pitching coaches that people are not privy to.

I love to give a series of articles a catchy name. So, for this mini-series, I’d like to introduce to you the first installment of ‘Through the Eyes of a Minor League Coach.’ Now, hopefully, I can continue this series granted I can get some more coaches to come on.

To give some background on Eric, he’s been coaching for 25 years now, 18 of which were spent coaching up young pitchers as a pitching coach. He’s seen pretty much everything coaching at multiple levels between pro, college, and high school and is effective utilizing the greatest tool of all, and that is between the ears. He is now the pitching coach with the Frontier Independent Leagues’ Southern Illinois Miners, after spending 2019 as a pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates rookie league Bristol Pirates.

One of the many topics was how much goes into coaching a pitcher, and it’s not just the stuff the average fan or even the most passionate fan would see. Eric mentioned that fans might say, “Hey, this guy is throwing 99+ MPH, he should be in the Majors right now.” “There is so much more to it than that,” he said. Minshall then told a story of a particular pitcher who came up for Dominican spring training who threw in the upper 90s, but would throw a mile wide when asked to hold a runner on at first base.

Another aspect not talked about a whole lot is the mentality part of the game.

“The Pittsburgh Pirates are heavily invested in the mental strength game, and I believe that’s a huge difference-maker.” We talked about one of Minshall’s prized prospects from 2019 in Tahnaj Thomas and his mental work that he went through. “Tahnaj was the victim of surprisingly poor defense, but he wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate consistently.” This went on to another conversation of pitch count, and not just pitch count allowed for the game but even for an inning. “You would have to seek permission over the phone to see if that pitcher could even continue the inning if he reached his inning limit.”

More from Rum Bunter

Getting back on the topic of mentality he’d mentioned when a pitcher wouldn’t be there mentally, he’d start throwing “ball one, then two, then three. It’s something I like to call an avalanche.” As the master of comparisons like Eric is, he used UConn women’s basketball as an example. “I was listening to a game a year ago, and they were tied with a team in the first quarter, and then UConn came out and scored two baskets in a row.” He equated that avalanche of UConn going on a 22-2 run to a pitchers mentality.

“Then you start thinking, and that can be a pitcher’s worst nightmare when your thinking on the mound. They start thinking about attacking, and we don’t want them to think. We want them to be aggressive and attack the zone. When you start to overthink outside of sticking to the game-plan, an avalanche can occur, and you won’t get out from under that once it occurs.”

Using Thomas again as an example of mentality and getting it right, Minshall mentioned how the Pittsburgh Pirates mental strength team came to Bristol and sat down with Thomas after a rough couple starts to begin the season.

“They put him through a bunch of mental exercises and had him write some things out that were AMAZING! His next outing after that, he started coming around and started his building block process.Then we could begin game-planning with him to throw to both sides of the plate.”

Most of our conversation talked about mentality, and more specifically, early promotions and getting over the hump can make or break you as a pitcher. Minshall was pleased to see that Thomas wasn’t promoted to full-season Low-A Greensboro during the season. Despite having the stuff needed to be successful at Low-A, between the ears is what he still needed to develop. You had some guys who also tried to do too much and try to continually prove why they were there and justify their draft pick. “Any time you try and do extra, you’re going to run into trouble,” Minshall noted on this topic.

Some of the most important teaching moments and opportunities would come after a player’s outing was not what you would call a great outing. Minshall used Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Samson Abernathy as an example.

“He had one outing where he just couldn’t find the plate. He walked three or four, and we had to pull him, which was entirely out of the norm for him. We were concerned he may have gotten the yips all of a sudden. We talked in the outfield the next day, and he said that’s never happened to me before, and here he is having a moment that he’s never been faced with before.”

Minshall continued, “Now you could be the hard coach and say you better never have an outing like that again or you could be supportive and say hey now you have and let’s figure out what happened and focus on tomorrow and the next day. We went to work the next day, and he was fine, and we got him right back out there, and he did fine.” You have to know as a coach when the right time is to address this and nip it in the bud, or you face putting a pitcher out on an island.

Some of the unknown factors for the fans is when you have a player switch roles and the teaching moments and having to prepare a player come into play. A classic example would be switching from a starter to a reliever, and Minshall used Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Alex Roth as one of those examples.

“He had been a starter his whole career, and we sat down with him and told him he’s going to be a reliever. You want to talk about mentality? Talk about starting over. We had a game in Burlington we sent him to go down and warm up and in a hurry. And when he gets in the pen, he’s going from the full. He just didn’t know, and it’s not like he’s dumb; he’s a smart kid, but we had to say you have to work from the stretch.”

“You have to teach these guys how to get ready. You’d be surprised how many guys come to you in pro ball, and they have no idea how to throw a pen properly or how to warm up properly or even how many pitches it takes for them to get going. That stuff had to be taught regularly, but these are the building blocks, and it’s very important.”

The mentality of a pitcher and teaching them what it means to be not just arm ready, but also game ready as Minshall put it is so crucial in the development process. Another essential part of a pitcher’s life is what we call pitch shaping. Minshall delved into the murky waters of this subject and laid out in great detail what exactly goes into pitch shaping and what it is.

“We had some guys at Bristol who had some quality stuff, and they were great guys. We would send some guys up, and I would call West Virginia to talk to pitching coach Tom Filer. He’d say OK, Minsh tell me what this guy’s got what does he have? I’d say well this guy has a crisp fastball, locating both sides of the plate and so on.” They’d continue to talk about an individual players make-up, “and then the topic of pitch shaping comes into play,” Minshall noted.

“Does he have an average curveball, does he have a sharp curveball, and when does it break? If I said someone had a really good curveball, and Tom would ask well, is it a good curveball in Bristol, or would it be a really good curveball here? We would have discussions like that and bicker about pitch shape at times, which is silly on my part because Tom has 40 years of experience. Tom would call me back, and he’d say you know you were right; he does have a good curveball…. at Bristol.”

Minshall continued, “and that was Tom’s job to make it a better pitch shape with a harder stiffer break and stuff like that. This is part of the development process we do, we don’t get guys who are major league ready.” He then went into what exactly Major League ready is. “It’s a lot of things, it’s a hard crisp fastball with movement, it’s being able to command all four quadrants of the zone, but pitch shape plays a BIG role in getting guys out.”

Minshall talked about how certain players can see that “bump” in a breaking ball in the higher leagues and will demolish it all day long. “You have to start pitch shaping, and that goes hand in hand with pitch designing, but you have to start getting a better quality pitch. Those are the type of pitches you see on T.V. and that’s what makes those guys special.”

Another unforeseen aspect of pitch shaping is the reality of tons of minor league players who can throw in the upper 90s who are being released or go unsigned because they can’t control the ball. “Their WHIP is is high because they walk everybody. It’s not just about fastballs, of course, do you have a quality breaking ball to get hitters off of your fastball? What does that pitch shape look like? The pitch shape between Bristol and High-A is significantly different, and if you look at the metrics, you will notice the vertical and horizontal break difference and things like that.”

We started discussing the things that I saw with his proteges and the fact that most of them that have had conversations with me were developing a change up currently. So the curious guy in me wanted to know what exactly went into producing that pitch and if it was challenging to master.

“I wouldn’t say it was difficult to master. Change up seemed to be the pitch we worked on the most because it’s not sexy. Everyone wants to throw a slider, and everyone thinks they have a good slider until it’s discharged over the right field wall going oppo. You’ve got to be able to change a hitter’s timing and balance with the change up, especially if it has plenty of depth and movement. To me, I have a very good track record with teaching the change up because I don’t teach just one type of change up I work with that pitcher’s own delivery and what kind of fastball and release point they have. I’m big into tunneling, being able to get the change up to come out of that same fastball tunnel with a similar type of familiar grip.”

In order to get guys to learn a new pitch, they weren’t comfortable with yet Minshall and the pitching staff would pair guys up as a sort of understudy. These guys who were developing say a change up would be paired with a throwing partner who had an excellent change up actually to see what to do with it. “These things happen organically we don’t set these things out on a list we have to watch and learn, but those things are a real key piece to of the puzzle,” Minshall said.

Spin rate has become widely available to the public for quite some time now, but I’ve heard guys mention their spin rate dictated them to start throwing up in the zone more. Naturally, I wanted to pick the wizard of pitching coaches’ brains about this.

“It’s an indicator, but it’s not the whole answer. I’ve seen guys that throw 88 MPH but have 2,900 to 3,000 spin on that ball that gives the ball what we call great carry. By the time it leaves the pitchers hands it’s not going to drop in the zone if he’s got enough spin under it with good efficiency and good vertical movement it will dictate to work up in the zone. The most difficult thing to do is command that part of the zone.”

Now we all know there is communication within the clubhouse, whether it be a pitching coach to a hitting coach or vice versa. The one thing I wanted to know is how often, if at all, did Minshall talk to other pitching coaches in the higher or lower levels within the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He talked about how it would happen often, and most of the time, it would be to gain more intel on a particular pitcher. “You can only watch so much tape before you need to talk to his actual coach about these things,” Minshall noted.

“Even if a pitching coach is unavailable to speak to or if he wants even more intel, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a system in place where they can look at past notes on a pitcher made by the previous coach. The fact that the game is ever so evolved but yet so personal in terms of gathering information is a very neat tidbit I never really noticed or cared to know until now,” he added.

The close bonds that coaches share is an incredible aspect people rarely talk about, and it was pleasant to hear from Minshall personally on the subject. “You spend a lot of time together. We even eat breakfast together. The Pittsburgh Pirates have instilled a sort of family atmosphere and have formed trust and close relationships with these guys. We have a group text going on even now where we would just talk and catch up with each other. The season is long and hard, and it’s nice to talk to these guys. It may not always be about baseball, but when you work with a really good group like we did their good conversations to have because they’re your friends.”

The next aspect we talked about didn’t necessarily talk about a pitching coach mentality or pitch framing but dealt more with the human side and the more dark aspects of minor league ball. We spoke about specifically the international players and them being the only source of income to their family in some cases. Minshall mentioned the most heartbreaking thing is to see these guys at the convenient store at the Western Union sending home all but 40 bucks to live off of. Mind you, they may be making $200 or a little more.

You will see an international guy with a couple of bad outings with tears in their eyes, thinking they will be cut, thus not being able to support their family back home, Minshall noted. This aspect of baseball is never talked about due to the hundreds of millions of dollar contracts to a Bryce Harper or Gerrit Cole. Most of these lower-level guys are making next to nothing with no security and are asked to perform to the best of their ability, and just maybe they get that break into the Majors.

Next. Injury Update on a Trio of Pirate Pitchers. dark

With time being of the essence for these ballplayers, Minhsall mentioned: “The element of time is a ballplayer’s worst enemy. You’ll look at a guy with a .300 average, and he was released. You think, why was he released well he was 26 in AA you find out that it’s not going to happen.” It’s a cold fact, but it’s a reality the majority of these guys won’t make it, which makes the ones that do all that more special.”

Overall, I had an incredible time with full-time coach and wizard Eric Minshall. He truly delved into the depths of what it takes to frame a pitcher’s mindset, stuff, and how to go about business. I was truly sad when the Pittsburgh Pirates released him from Bristol, but I genuinely hope wherever he ends up in his future endeavors is fruitful and prosperous.