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Detroit Tigers in-house Q&A with Pirates writer Matt Gajtka

Recently I was fortunate enough to rein in a colleague of mine, Pittsburgh Pirates aficionado and co-editor of fellow Fansided blog City of Champions, Matt Gajtka, to talk a bit about some former Pirates making noise in Motown. We exchanged a couple emails over the course of a few days, mostly after former Bucs manager Lloyd McClendon interviewed for the Tigers’ managerial position.

 

Hey Matt! Thanks again for helping us out with this: Even though we’ve had Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon on staff for a while, we’re still a bit wary of them as potential managers (to put things mildly…).  McClendon recently had a four-hour interview with the Tigers for the skipper position. We’ve only known him as the quasi-effective batting coach, so what does he bring to the table as manager? 

July 12, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) receives congratulations from batting coach Lloyd McClendon (8) after scoring in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Hey Grant, happy to contribute to Motor City Bengals and talk some offseason baseball. As far as Lloyd McClendon goes, he’s probably my second-favorite manager of the post-Leyland era in Pittsburgh. I’d slot him behind Clint Hurdle (obviously) and just ahead of Gene Lamont, who got as close as anyone to ending the losing streak in 1999, a team that probably could’ve contended if Jason Kendall hadn’t blown up his ankle.

Anyway, back to Legendary Lloyd: He had the honor of managing the first game in PNC Park in 2001, but that team was putrid pitching-wise and lost 100 games. That seemed to be the theme of McClendon’s five Pirates teams: decent bats, not enough arms. Outside of the talent he was handed, I liked his demeanor as a manager. He was in his late 30s and not far removed from his playing career when he took over, and I thought he did about as well as one could expect.

Everyone remembers him literally stealing first base while disputing an umpire’s call, but he was generally quite calm when dealing with players and media, at least in front of the public eye. I think it was 2002 when he handed out little cups of champagne after the Pirates were assured of not losing 90 games. Yeah, I know that sounds pathetic, but it actually made sense when you consider what this franchise has been through.

If the Tigers are going to stay in house for a managerial hire, I think McClendon is clearly the right choice. He’s still got enough youthful vigor to keep the club energized, but he’s also probably learned a lot from his first kick at the can, and that experience, along with his familiarity with the Detroit roster, could combine to make him surprisingly good if given the opportunity.

 

He does seem like he’s mellowed a bit since that base-stealing incident, and he does seems to have current Tigers player’s respect. However, I do worry about his ability to get the most out of his batters, which seems to contrast his time in Pittsburgh. Is that just a byproduct of batting coaches getting too much blame for struggles? Because if memory serves correctly, McClendon was the Pittsburgh skipper who utilized Kendall in the leadoff spot, and that in and of itself would seem to indicate that he has the ability to innovate in terms of putting batters in positions to best use skills.   

After several years of Leyland hardly ever changing a lineup card, a manager that could adapt his lineups according to matchups would definitely suit us well. 

It’s really tough to tell how McClendon has changed in the managerial sense. I get the sense that the Tigers aren’t the most progressive in dealing with data and employing it on the field, so I wouldn’t expect any great innovation from someone like Lloyd if he doesn’t have the mandate from above.

Good memory about McClendon using Kendall at the top of the lineup. Kendall was definitely a special talent for a while, and kudos to the Pirates for putting his on-base skills and speed to good use. Honestly it’s been so long since McClendon was in Pittsburgh – and I didn’t have my sabermetric awakening until after he was gone – so anything I’d predict about his bonafides would include a lot of conjecture.

To answer your question about hitting coaches taking credit or blame, it’s probably overblown on both ends. A major league hitter is essentially a finished product – with a few exceptions – when he gets the call-up, so there’s only so much a hitting coach can do. You can tinker, but that’s usually the extent of it.

 

To switch to another former Pirates manager, do you think Gene Lamont is a viable candidate, or is he doomed to be typecast as the worst third base coach of the last 20 years? 

I don’t see Lamont as a viable candidate at all. He’s gone more than 10 years since his last managerial stint (once again, with the Pirates) and we wasn’t terribly inspiring in that role. To be fair, he presided over some pretty good White Sox teams in the early 1990s, but Lamont seems like Leyland Part II to me, and I’m assuming the Tigers want to mix things up a bit.

As far as Lamont’s third-base coaching duties were concerned, there’s not much at all that translates to things he’d be doing as manager. Although, the scrutiny that comes with coaching third is probably only rivaled by being the skipper!

 

I think we’re all in agreement with your assessment of Lamont as Skipper, but some Tiger fans are still seething over his windmill performance at third in the 2011 postseason….  

The last bit of business to discuss involves someone that, I’m sure, still prompts either songs of revelry or tears of anguish from the Pittsburgh faithful: one Donald Thomas Kelly.   

It seems like over the past couple years, the Pirates can credit their turnaround to not just an excellent farm system, but to an increased emphasis on speed and defense. The Bucs have really gotten solid contributions from players like Clint Barmes, guys whose offensive contributions fall a bit short compared to their stellar defensive abilities.   

With that in mind, would it behoove the Tigers to hang onto DFK, or would the Pirates welcome a guy with his skill set back into the fold? 

I have to be honest, when Don Kelly made the Pirates roster in 2007, I thought he was one of the worst players I’d ever seen in MLB. It’s amazing that he’s become a serviceable player, and a tribute to his hard work in the offseasons since. (Most of that work happens at his alma mater, Point Park University, in Pittsburgh. He’s Neil Walker‘s brother-in-law, making him Yinzer royalty, I think. He also dated my sister-in-law’s friend for a bit, so there’s that.)

I think Kelly can still help the Tigers, and he’s an interesting player from the Pirates’ perspective, since they do place additional emphasis on defense as compared to Detroit. But both outfield corners and third base are/will be covered for the next two years, and the Bucs really need all the extra offense they can get at first base.

Kelly’s a spare part, and his only “plus” skill is his versatility. He’s probably at his highest value on a team like the Tigers, where you can plug him in at a variety of positions and get good defending, in addition to fair production at the plate most times. You might be stuck with “DFK” for the time being!

I am both encouraged and depressed with your input on that one. 

 

Big thanks again to Matt for taking the time to share his thoughts on the transplanted Pirates in Detroit, and be sure to give City of Champions a frequent read – they do great work over there, even if it does sometimes involve the Penguins. 

Topics: Detroit Tigers, Don Kelly, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Pittsburgh Pirates

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  • Matt Gajtka

    Don Kelly is from Pittsburgh! :-) Thanks for having me, Grant.