It was difficult to evaluate Derek Shelton during the first three years of his tenure as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager.
Shelton’s first season was 2020 and Major League Baseball played a shortened 60-game schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Pirates finished 19-41 but it was hard to draw many conclusions from an aberrational year.
The Pirates then went 61-101 in 2021 and 62-100 in 2022. Again, it wasn’t fair to judge Shelton’s tactical ability. General manager Ben Cherington was in teardown/rebuild mode and Shelton didn’t have enough talent on his roster to truly compete.
However, 2023 was a different story. The Pirates added a host of veterans over the winter and entered the season vowing to be competitive. The Pirates ended up with a 14-game improvement, finishing 76-86 and winning 18 of their last 31 games with a rookie-laden roster following the trade deadline.
So, how did Shelton do this year? It’s always tricky to evaluate a manager’s performance because of so many variables.
One way to do so statistically is to compare a team’s actual record against their expected Pythagorean record, which takes into account the number of runs scored and allowed. The Pirates should have gone 71-91 based on plating 692 runs and giving up 790.
Thus, the Pirates won five more games than expected.
Cherington – the man who hired Shelton – was pleased. Ultimately, it is the GM’s opinion that counts.
So, Shelton will be back in 2024 for the final year of his contract. Cherington also plans to bring the entire coaching staff back.
“The simplest part of it is that we got better,” Cherington said. “It was a really young team that got better at the major league level. We won more games. We improved in team-level and individual performance in a lot of areas across the board. Of course, credit goes to the players for that, but the staff are all doing their jobs to support that. They work their tails off. They care.
“We went through a difficult stretch in the middle third to half of the season. I didn’t see any wavering from the staff in terms of effort, mindset, positivity, commitment. It was difficult, but I didn’t see any wavering. Then to see how the team responded after the deadline, continued improvement from individual players and the team … I think speaks to the environment that’s being created, the messaging and the focus. We kept getting better. That was clearly the goal that we set out at the deadline.”
The Pirates don’t anticipate losing any of their staff members though bench Don Kelly could warrant consideration for some of the open managerial positions around the major leagues. The Cleveland Guardians, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets and San Francisco Giants are all seeking new managers.
Though it may not happen in this hiring cycle, Cherington and Shelton both believe Kelly will eventually get the opportunity to run his own team.
“I think he has all the attributes that if I was somewhere else and going through a search, he would be someone who would have the attributes you’re looking for,” Cherington said. “He’s got a really good combination of traits, starting with his level of integrity and the values he walks into the park with every day, gives him the opportunity to earn trust with everybody in that room. Players, staff, front office, (the media). You name it. You start there, and that’s a really good starting point.
“On top of that, the playing experience, the baseball experience he has. The passion for the game, the communicator. He’s got all the equipment to do the job. I feel like that’s a matter of time. I hope, for his sake, if it’s something that he wants to do, I hope it’s a matter of time. In the meantime, as long as he’s the Pirates’ bench coach, we benefit from that, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with him.”
Cherington continues to be grateful to work with Shelton almost five years after hiring him in November 2018 in what was the GM’s first major decision while on the job. The fact that Shelton is on solid footing despite having a 218-328 record in four seasons is evidence of that.