The baseball world is having a laugh at some of the Pirates' training methods, but that doesn't make those methods wrong.
Dejan Kovacevic reported early Friday morning about the unusual development philosophy of Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark, which involves having the Bucs' prospects train for a few days with Navy SEALS. Kovacevic also relays a fairly wild-sounding email from Stark. Among the recipients was Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. It's written in an odd, charismatic guru-type tone, and it compares Pirates prospects to Hell's :
1. Dream like a Hippie — PASSION — Elite people have big dreams, are driven by those dreams, and believe that they can achieve them.
2. Prepare like a Boy Scout — RELENTLESS — Elite people have extreme work ethic, train exhaustively to get better, and prepare fully so they can be their best when their best is needed.
3. Trust like a Hell’s Angel — OWNERSHIP — Elite people trust their preparation, own their strengths and weaknesses, know what they do best and build conviction around it, and compete with reckless abandon.
The story is now a big one around baseball, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports followed up with more later in the day on Friday.
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that the Pirates have a terrific farm system, and that they've clinched a Wild Card slot this year.
Now go read Stark's email again. Does it seem laughable to you now? My guess is that it probably doesn't. Instead, it probably sounds like the work of an outside-the-box thinker who's found an unusual way to do his job well.
My point is that, in the wake of yet another late-season collapse, a lot of the criticism the Pirates are currently receiving for this amounts to piling on, which is the easiest thing in the world to do. We simply don't know how effective three days of NAVY Seals training are at developing ballplayers.
Actually, the most problematic aspect of this story comes from Passan's article.
From getting blasted with water after 5 a.m. wakeup calls to hand-to-hand combat in which, according to two sources, top prospect Jameson Taillon once suffered a knee injury, the Pirates' insistence on using militaristic exercise has spooked enough players that a number openly complained to minor league staff members this year about the instructional league plans.
If the Pirates are risking an injury to someone as important as Taillon in order to do something like this, they shouldn't be doing it the way they're doing it. Having players punch and kick each other, as Passan suggests the Pirates are doing, is a terrible idea. (UPDATE: Kovacevic writes that Taillon did not injure his knee in a military drill.)
Beyond that, though, it's possible to let your imagination run wild with this. Bucs prospects do many, or perhaps most, of their offseason workouts at Pirate City in Bradenton, in full public view. I've been there, albeit briefly, and everything I saw there (or read about in reports from there) seemed to be normal baseball stuff.
Kovacevic is reporting about something that happened (as Kovacevic himself notes) for three days. Just three days. The Bucs' minor-leaguers had to wake up early in the morning, do push-ups and sit-ups, crab walk, and run along the beach while carrying large poles, among other activities.
Should it strike us as significant that the players don't like waking up at five in the morning to flip over truck tires? No. Almost no one likes doing that.
Does it mean anything that other teams think these routines are stupid? Not necessarily. The line between madness and genius can be thin, and I'd rather have the Pirates considering unusual routines than just going through the motions.
If Pirates coaches don't like doing this stuff (and that might be the case), that's more potentially troublesome, but it also doesn't automatically mean these drills are a bad idea.
Of course, the Pirates' minor-league system does have serious issues. The Bucs spent $48 million on the draft in the past four years, and beyond three top-two-overall picks (Taillon, Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez), it's unclear what they got out of it. Strong performances this year from four Latin American prospects -- Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson and Luis Heredia -- suggest that the primary problem might be the players the Pirates are picking in the amateur draft (which doesn't include Latin American players), and not how they're being developed. But it's also possible that poor development is a factor. As the Pirates conclude their season, they need to think hard about who among their baseball staff they wish to retain, and that includes Huntington and assistant general manager (and former scouting director) as well as Stark.
The point, though, is that we don't really know what effect these drills have had, and much of the laughter that's coming from those outside the situation really sounds like the guffawing certain kinds of people love to do just because someone dared to do something different. I'm not defending Stark. I don't know enough about whether I ought to. (And I'm not criticizing Kovacevic, who reported on a story that was clearly newsworthy.) But I do think that the Pirates' Navy SEAL training isn't the obvious joke it's been made to be.