Maybe Derek Shelton Is the Right Man For the Pittsburgh Pirates Long-Term


Over the course of the season, I have seen a lot of the same sentiment toward Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton.  In so many words, it sums up to, "Shelton is fine for now, but once the Pirates are successful, they will need a new manager to get them to the next step."  For a while, I felt the same.  However, more and more I am beginning to disagree.  I think Shelton may be the right guy for the Pirates in the long-term after all.

Defense, Baserunning, and Bullpen

I typically judge managers on three components.  Their team’s defensive play, base running, and whether they manage a bullpen well.  For all intents and purposes, Shelton was handed a cupboard with little to no ingredients and asked to bake a six-tiered wedding cake.  It is very difficult to win at the highest level with the players the Pirates rostered. 

Therefore, it is impossible to judge Shelton on his wins and losses.  I actually think the New York Yankees currently being out of the playoffs with the players and payroll they have is more of an egregious offense against Aaron Boone, than it is for Shelton potentially losing 100 games this season with his roster.  

Also, considering the amount of young, developing players currently rostered by the Pirates, their current stretch is all that more impressive. After beginning the month 0-5, the Pirates have won four straight series and are 9-4 in their last 13 games.  

Shelton and staff have found ways to get the best out of players that are potentially part of the Pirates future like Yoshi Tsutsugo, Bryse Wilson, and Mitch Keller among others.  Despite the small sample size, it shows me that when given the opportunity to field a team of young talent, Shelton can succeed. It’s when he is given players that really have no business being in the major leagues he struggles to win.  But who wouldn’t?

Defensively Elite

In addition to motivating this team to have such a stretch that they're on currently, the Pirates are stellar defensively.  Defense is something that can be focused on in both Spring Training and off days, if the proper focus is given by the manager.  Shelton has led this Pirates team to a .987 fielding percentage on the season which is enough to rank them fourth in the entire MLB.  

This is great in general, but especially compared to their team ranks of 26th in 2018 and 28th in 2019.  I will note, the Pirates fielding percentage was close to last in the shortened 2020 season, Shelton's first as Pirates manager. However, with Shelton's first Spring Training being cut short because of Covid and less off days available to fix things, I am tossing 2020 out (along with the Dodgers championship, out of spite).

The Pirates also have two of the best defensive catchers in the league and arguably the best defensive third basemen in the league.  This can be attributed to the players’ individual talent, of course, but I do think a Major League manager can influence a team’s defensive ability more than most aspects of the game.  There is only so much hitting you can teach, but defense and base running is teachable. 

Jacob Stallings and Michael Perez have the most blocked balls without a passed ball in the entire league, per Sports Info Solutions.  Stallings also leads all MLB players in Defensive Runs Saved in the last two seasons under Shelton.

Equally impressive, Ke’Bryan Hayes leads all third basemen this year with 17 runs saved.  His total is actually more than Matt Chapman and Nolan Arenado combined per Sports Info Solutions.  Chapman has two career Gold Glove Awards and Arenado has eight.  If Hayes had been healthy in the beginning of the season he’d most likely lead all players in Defensive Runs Saved.

When a few players are stand-outs at defense, the players can attribute it to their own talent.  However, when the whole team is performing that much better the manager deserves some credit.

Baserunning Greatly Improved

As mentioned, another aspect of the game that can be taught is smart baserunning.  To demonstrate the difference Shelton has had on this team, I will use the stat "Outs on Base".  This stat considers players being thrown out making a baserunning play.  

This does not include caught stealing, pickoffs, or force outs.  However, it does consider those bonehead plays we all remember under Clint Hurdle where guys like Starling Marte made the first or last out at 3rd base, as an example.  Or Gregory Polanco getting doubled off on a line drive.  To me, Outs On Base is the best barometer for smart baserunning.

In 2018, the Pirates had the 5th most Outs On Base and in 2019 they had the 2nd most Outs On Base with 62 and 60 respectively.  In 2021, the Pirates have the 7th LEAST Outs on Base with only 40 so far.  

This, to me, is a great indication that the Pirates have learned how to be smarter on the base paths.  Potentially, trading Starling Marte and releasing Gregory Polanco helped as they were the two biggest offenders per the eye-test.  However,  I do credit this improvement to Shelton and his staff.  Visibly it is very apparent the Pirates are smarter on the base paths than they were in Clint Hurdle's final years.

Bullpen Based on Analytics

The bullpen management of Shelton is difficult to judge.  This used to be an important barometer for me as well on how to grade a manager.  Unfortunately these days, when a team has young starters and young relievers, it is impossible to know what decisions are being made by analytics and what decisions are being made by the manager.  

GM Ben Cherington may want certain youngsters to only put so many innings on their arms in a season where the Pirates are not competing for a playoff spot.  Potentially, Shelton has been forced to pull guys earlier than he would want which in turn puts a strain on the bullpen.  

It's all an analytics game now so I have trouble anymore judging a manager based on how he manages a pitching staff.  However, Shelton has managed the staff well enough in the latter half of September to put together an impressive run with this personnel.

Also, while I don't want to go deeper in this particular article on the batting order, I have to mention that Shelton did switch Ke'Bryan Hayes to leadoff where he is batting .323.  That is a great move by a manager that seems to get the most out of his guys.  However, this could have been an analytical decision as well so I don't want to credit Shelton too much, and risk sounding hypocritical, if it indeed was not his decision to make.


Overall, I think Derek Shelton at least deserves a chance when this team opens another window of opportunity.  He has steered the Pirate ship back on course in terms of the things that can be taught.  Shelton also is motivating a young squad to keep playing hard at the end of a season where there is really nothing to play for.  Give him a chance, that is all I ask.