2022 is a Year of Growth for Derek Shelton

Photo Courtesy of Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

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Local morale and buzz around the Pittsburgh Baseball Club is as drained as it has been in a long time. The Pirates are haggling with Bryan Reynolds over mere pocket change and MLB's lockout over the collective bargaining agreement didn't help much either. With the team devoid of much above average proven major league talent, fans don't seem to care much about the upcoming Pirates' season.

I can't blame you if you feel that way. But as a lover of baseball, I'm choosing to find the few positives in what's to come in 2022 for the Pirates. They may not be very good in the standings this season, but brighter times don't seem that far away.

Outside of a few players on the team who are of interest, a lot of my attention will be fixated on manager Derek Shelton and how he handles his third season at the helm of the on-field operations in Pittsburgh.

Shelton, 51, is a wonderful leader of men. Much like his predecessor in Clint Hurdle, Shelton receives very positive reviews from his players about his leadership on and off the field. For a team that is soon going to see an influx of young talent, having a guy like that is paramount. He's going to have to mold a lot of young major league players into great people and players.

I've heard some people say that Shelton is just a lame duck manager. He'll get the Pirates through the bad times they're currently in and then, once they're ready to contend, they'll kick him to the curb and find a more experienced manager.

For what?

Shelton is going into only his third season as a manager. The beginning of his managerial career started with potentially one of the worst situations he could have inherited. But there are only 30 of these jobs in the league. One can't be too picky, and he certainly wants the chance to be the guy when the Pirates' prospects really begin graduating to the major leagues.

In 222 career games as a manager, Shelton's teams have an 80-142 record, good for a .360 winning percentage. That's to be expected with the rosters Shelton has been given. However, the records don't tell the story with what kind of impact Shelton is having on the team early in his career.

Pittsburgh finished tied for the league lead with the Astros and, World Series champion, Atlanta Braves in fielding percentage at .988 last season. Go back to Shelton's first season, the shortened 60-game season that really didn't count in the first place, and see the Pirates were 27th in the league at .978. They committed the second most errors in the league with 47.

Shelton didn't get a real chance to impose his impact on that 2020 team, and they're miles better defensively just two years into his tenure than they were before him. He's instilled the fundamentals that seemed to lack under Hurdle.

As far as the hitting goes, the batting average rose by 16 points in 2021, albeit over the course of 102 more games than the previous season. Where the Pirates still lack is the power department.

As a team, the Pirates hit 124 home runs last season. For context, that's 0.77 home runs per game. They finished with 20 less home runs than the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team in 29th place. That's a big yikes.

A deeper look into the team shows things are not guaranteed to improve in that department. Reynolds hit 24 home runs last season. The next three players were Gregory Polanco (11), Colin Moran (10), and Jacob Stallings (8), none of whom are still playing for the Pirates.

They will get a full season of Yoshi Tsutsugo and they did add Daniel Vogelbach via free agency. A healthy Ke'Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz's arrival to the big leagues could also bolster their power potential. As a former hitting coach, Shelton's hitting knowledge won't really wear off on guys until he has legitimate MLB talent littered throughout the lineup.

A lot of Shelton's handling of the pitching staff came into question over the past few seasons. His in-game decisions were questionable at best, something to be expected from a newer manager. With the designated hitter becoming a fixture in the National League, his management of his pitchers will be less dependent on where the Pirates are at in their own order and more so off of the pitchers' performance and the upcoming opposing hitters.

Situations where Shelton may be inclined to get an extra inning out of his hot pitcher in order to win  a close game could occur more. His read on how that pitcher is performing has to continue to get better with less strategy now being a part of the game in that aspect.  It will be a lot more feel for how his pitcher looks on the mound that day.  

More often than not, his decision was made for him in the past because the Pirates pitcher was coming up in the batting order.  It was easier to make the simple switch for a pinch hitter and not put as much strategical thought into it than it is now.

Pittsburgh's prospect system is a glimmer of hope for what is to come in a few years. Shelton should have the opportunity to continue to grow until then. By the end of next season, a good portion of the prospects will be in Pittsburgh or in Triple-A, just on the precipice of the big leagues. That's when we can begin placing real expectations on Shelton and Co.

For now, he deserves every chance to keep growing as a manager and continue to improve the players he has while also building a culture. I have a lot of faith in Shelton and I think the small contingent of true Pirates fans should too.  This is yet another season that Shelton has the chance to prove himself.  Otherwise he may be that lame duck that gets tossed aside as soon as the team shows a real ability to compete.