The Pirates owner opens up about the team’s recent struggles and what he believes is a very bright future.
The familiar sounds of spring framed a perfect Florida morning. Bats cracking. Gloves smacking. Metal cleats squeaking on the cement. As prospects took batting practice and went through drills at Pirate City on Tuesday, Pirates owner Bob Nutting stood back from the action, following COVID-19 protocols, and sported an ear-to-ear smile.
The pandemic has been unkind to everyone, but it has been especially impactful on the Pirates. No gate revenue cost people jobs, no minor league season wiped out valuable developmental time, and the club stumbled to an MLB-worst 19-41 record.
But as frustrating as the past year might have been, it’s also possible that Nutting has never been happier with the Pirates’ direction.
After taking a few last looks at the players he hopes eventually will arrive at PNC Park, Nutting grabbed a stool, sat in front of the bullpen mounds and opened up to the Post-Gazette during a wide-ranging interview about the state of his team and how the Pirates are perceived.
“I know how much fans care, and I know how much they want this team to be better,” Nutting said. “We’re working every day, putting the right people in place to accomplish that. I hope they know how much I care, too. There’s nothing more important to me than getting this right.”
Nutting was hardly finished. He seems keenly aware that Pirates fans have grown frustrated since the club made three consecutive playoff appearances and the whole thing fell apart — in large part because he’s felt the same frustration.
“I respect that they care so much to get mad,” Nutting said “They deserve the team to perform better, certainly than it did last year. It was time for a fresh direction, and they should expect that. They should also know that I appreciate and respect the passion and the caring.”
While Nutting has received his fair share of criticism in Pittsburgh and beyond, a lengthy discussion with him about the state of the team paints a picture of someone who cares about making things right — even if those desires aren’t always expressed by spending big money on the major league payroll.
For Nutting, the problems that cut short the Pirates’ last brush with success aren’t limited to money. Poor decision-making in the MLB draft and trades stripped the club of talent, while three consecutive appearances “blinded” the Pirates when it came to innovation and the ability to evolve, Nutting said.
But as far as he’s concerned, those things are in the past, the same for his frustration with how the previous run ended. Now, most of Nutting’s time and energy is spent looking forward and pushing the Pirates to grow from the ground up, with a renewed focus on acquiring young talent, development, open-mindedness and staying ahead of the curve.
“What’s exciting for me right now is we’re a year into this process and just beginning to see it have some real impact,” Nutting said. “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re moving forward.
“We need to learn from our past, understand where we’ve been and look carefully at what the best teams in the industry are doing. It’s painful to watch players perform at a higher level with other clubs, but we can learn from that. If we learn, study, watch and bring a little humility to our player development program, we’re going to be better for it.”
'We have a responsibility'
In a candid moment, Nutting admitted the Pirates’ recent problems have negatively affected his sleeping habits, their failures causing him to wake up in the middle of the night frustrated. Sometimes, it’s a bad loss. More often it’s big-picture things like failed trades or bungled development. Emails sent to vent are hardly uncommon.
More competitive than he lets on, Nutting said his 14-plus years on the job have not made losing or failing any easier.
“I don’t handle it particularly well,” Nutting said. “I’ve been through enough seasons that I know there are a lot of games, but no. You take a year like last year, where we just played badly and underperformed, you definitely have those moments when the frustration level can be high.”
Nutting’s frustration reached a breaking point in 2019. As Gerrit Cole finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting, Austin Meadows blossomed into an All-Star and Tyler Glasnow was arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball before suffering a forearm strain, Nutting seethed.
All three, of course, were Pirates. And none came close to realizing their full potential with the organization. For Nutting, it was a troubling trend.
“That’s extremely painful for me. It’s extremely painful for the organization,” he said. “We’ve had that happen too many times. We’re talking about extraordinarily good players who we either didn’t evaluate, develop or assess properly. That’s part of the reason we didn’t have and don’t have enough talent in the organization. Those need to be players we’re harvesting. They can’t be players we’re losing.”
The pitching problems were especially irksome to Nutting, who said the Pirates became victims of their own success from 2013-15. While he said those years reminded him how much fun it can be for Pittsburgh to have a winning baseball team, he also felt the Pirates fell into a trap of thinking they had everything figured out.
Whether that was the strict adherence to pitchers throwing sinkers low in the zone or treating Meadows the same as they might another position player with a different skill set and temperament, the Pirates never really evolved with the times or thought seriously enough about the need to change.
“Baseball changes all the time,” Nutting said. “The tools that worked in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, or in 2013, are not necessarily what are going to bring us to a championship in the 2020s. I think the success blinded us to what we needed to do to stay nimble and change. We are absolutely on a different version of that track now.”
A reason for that, Nutting said, has been the work of general manager Ben Cherington and his staff. Pitching programs are now highly individualized and data-driven. The focus on sport-specific training has increased. Meanwhile, no two players are developed or coached the same; it’s what Cherington means when he talks about a “player-centric culture.”
The progress the Pirates have made under this new group has led Nutting to question why he didn’t make some of these moves sooner. Instead, they pretended they had enough talent in the organization and mortgaged what little they had — roughly 18 years of club control — for two years of Chris Archer in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
“If anything, we perhaps should have moved more quickly,” Nutting said. “Perhaps we should have taken some of the bolder, more aggressive steps maybe in 2016 or 2017 that we’re taking now, where we really had an honest assessment of where we are with talent.
“We certainly shouldn’t be in a position where we are giving up some of our most talented players and resources in order to fill a short-term hole. I hope we aren’t in a position to have to do that again, ever.”
Nutting isn’t saying that he never wants to make a deadline deal again or that the Pirates won’t trade prospects for major league pieces. Those are simple, essential parts of competing for a playoff spot.
Nutting’s focus is something the Pirates failed to do well enough coming out of those playoff seasons: They didn’t successfully identify, acquire and develop that next wave of talent. Without the necessary backfill, the structure tumbled to the ground.
Now, Cherington has girded the Pirates with prospects, yanking the club’s farm system back into baseball’s top 10 by targeting young, high-upside talent the new group feels it can develop in a more productive way.
“We all know what it feels like to shoot for a .500 team, and that’s not what we’re doing,” Nutting said. “We’re trying to get to real excellence. And at the same time, we all understand that no matter where we are in that cycle, we’re always going to have to have an eye on how we’re bringing talent in, how we’re building a broader organization.
“Nobody wants a bare cupboard in terms of resources, prospects, players and talent. That’s unfortunately what [Cherington and president Travis Williams] walked into. And we have a responsibility to not let that happen again.”
'I enjoy it'
The day before this interview, Nutting spent two hours chatting with John Baker, who was hired in November to oversee the Pirates’ minor leagues.
Baker is a former big league catcher. He has his master’s degree in performance psychology and most recently worked as a mental skills coach with the Cubs. Around baseball, Baker is highly regarded and was seen as an impact hire by the Pirates.
Nutting is a huge fan.
“I love the level of detail, thought and intellectual curiosity that ‘Bake’ brings to every day and to the process that we’re putting in place,” Nutting said.
It’s not just Baker, either. Cherington lured assistant general manager Steve Sanders from Toronto and special assistant Oz Ocampo from Houston. Both have similarly sterling reputations, Sanders for his contributions to the Blue Jays’ drafts success and Ocampo for the talented Latin players he helped the Astros discover.
Nutting and Williams talked at Cherington’s introductory press conference about believing they hired a “talent magnet,” and so far Nutting said Cherington has been everything he hoped for and more — given who he’s hired and also the direction he’s been able to take the Pirates.
“He’s a very interesting, thoughtful and introspective person,” Nutting said of Cherington. “So far, he’s done what we’ve expected and exceeded expectations. We hoped he would be a talent magnet, and he’s surrounded himself with extraordinarily good people, has supported them and built a culture where they could flourish and do good work.”
As far as what Cherington has changed, a few things have resonated with Nutting. The first goes back to the pitching conversation from earlier, where Nutting felt the Pirates had become overly reliant on pitching to contact and getting ground balls while the rest of baseball shifted toward spin and strikeouts.
“There’s no reason to have a pitcher pitch to contact if we have a weak infield behind them, and that’s not his best pitch,” Nutting said. “Even if it worked for other Pirates in the past, we need to recognize what our pitchers today can do.”
That’s why Nutting has no problem green-lighting what he described as a “pitching lab,” an addition to Pirate City that Cherington asked for, loaded with technology to analyze release points, ball and body movement — all frame-by-frame to modernize what the Pirates are doing.
At the same time, Nutting has endorsed a “broader, more integrated approach” with strength and conditioning. Training has become more position- and player-specific. It’s also more wrapped around sport science and gearing things toward a baseball setting, not necessarily something confined to a weight room.
Nobody wants a bare cupboard in terms of resources, prospects, players and talent.
All of it should theoretically combine into a better hit rate on highly touted prospects.
“That’s an area where we can excel,” Nutting said of player development. “And when we’ve been at our best, we did excel.”
Nutting can be strikingly detailed with how much he cares about, and follows, this process.
Not in an intrusive or meddling sort of way, but he has a natural curiosity about what the Pirates are doing and why they’re doing it. In normal times, it’s hardly uncommon to see Nutting walking around Pirate City, chatting with coaches or coordinators and listening to them explain things. Taking the coaching staff to dinner is actually one of Nutting’s favorite parts of spring training.
Asked about his unique approach, Nutting said he acts that way — more hands-on than most people in his position — for a couple reasons. One, he wants those doing the work to know he cares and that they have his support. He also finds it fun.
“I enjoy it,” Nutting said. “I like hearing the discussion. I love hearing the detail. I love understanding what they’re doing. I know I’m not going to design those systems. That’s why we bring extremely good people in. But most of all, I think it’s really important that the group understands how committed we are.”
'I don't want the free pass'
Nutting enjoys learning about the developmental process, but he doesn’t have any hot takes on whether the Pirates should take Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter — a pair of Vanderbilt pitchers — with the No. 1 overall pick this summer.
“If I’m ever steering that ship,” Nutting said with a laugh, “we have a problem as an organization.”
Signability is not going to be a factor.
At the same time, the importance of nailing that pick is a huge part of the Pirates’ future plans. It’s the same for upcoming labor negotiations in MLB, as well as what happens when/if Cherington restocks the farm system and infuses the necessary amount of talent into the organization.
“We need to get that right,” Nutting said of having the No. 1 pick. “But we also need to get the next picks right because that’s future of the team in ’25, ’26 and ’27. That groundwork has to be laid now.”
Whether it’s Rocker, Leiter or someone else, Nutting has also promised that the Pirates will take the best player available, regardless of cost.
“Signability is not going to be a factor,” Nutting insisted.
Another revealing answer Nutting gave involves a salary cap and floor, two things that could become points of contention when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December.
Nutting has long maintained that baseball’s current economic structure is unfair to small-market teams, and he reiterated those comments Tuesday. But the Pirates owner also took things a step further and said the Pirates would support a system that featured both a cap and floor, if the issue ever seriously arose in discussions.
“Would the Pirates be better off in a different economic system where, one, there’s a cap and floor and, two, there’s sufficient revenue-sharing and rethinking of revenue to be able to support that economic system? Absolutely. Of course,” Nutting said. “We would support the narrowest possible band because that, like hockey and football, absolutely equalizes what is the most unlevel playing field in all of sports in Major League Baseball.”
At the same time, Nutting was careful in how he worded his comments about baseball’s economic structure because he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse. The Pirates are what they are, have what they have, and must do their best to function within that.
“The current system of economics in baseball does not work for the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Nutting said. “But we always have and always will continue to do the very best we can understanding the inefficiencies in the market and taking advantage of them.
“I am deeply committed to never using the existing system as an excuse. It immediately creates a free pass for everyone in the organization, and I don’t want the free pass. I don’t want anyone in the organization to have a free pass. We’re going to maximize whatever we have. Period.”
The Pirates’ current growth trajectory eventually will call for some sort of financial backing on the part of ownership. Whether that’s draft picks, international signings, additional spending or adding to the major league payroll via extensions or free agency, as the current plan grows, the team’s budget should follow.
Nutting is fine with that. None of it will be an issue, he said, although he did want to be clear that it should not be exclusively focused on major league payroll. For teams like the Pirates, finding and developing players remains equally as important.
“I don’t think we should ever get to the point where we’re pigeonholing financial commitment to a narrow, specific area,” Nutting said, citing the amount of money he’s still paying to the former regime in the former of severance. “I don’t want that to be done with prospects. I don’t want it to be done with payroll.
“We’re making a significant financial commitment to rebuild and expand our Dominican Academy. If Ben needs a pitching lab and thinks that’s the best way to get our players performing, that’s where our dollars should go. Our dollars should go wherever Ben thinks he needs it at the time. That’s going to rotate from player payroll to the draft, to development, to physical infrastructure. My responsibility is to make sure we look broadly and don’t get tunnel vision and make a mistake like we may have made a couple years ago.”
Those conversations, Nutting said, have already been had with Cherington and Williams, the owner reinforcing to them that they will have the support necessary to do their jobs the right way.
For the first time in a long time, Nutting said he feels they have a concrete plan in place, one that will eventually restore a sense of respectability to a once-proud organization.
“Ben and Travis wouldn’t come here to flounder around and be a half-assed organization,” Nutting said. “That’s not why they’re here. That’s not a vision that attracts talent. And we are simply not that organization. Nobody here thinks we are.”