BRADENTON — Joe Kerrigan spent early Sunday morning sitting on an upside-down pail.
Acting as if he was catching, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ new pitching coach was working with his young staff, teaching them the finer points of pitching from the stretch.
“Strong hold. Strong hold,” he told righty Jason Davis. After coming to a complete stop, Davis peered over his left shoulder at the imaginary runner leading off first, lifted his left leg and delivered.
“Great job,” Kerrigan said.
One by one, they marched to the Pirate City pitching mound as Kerrigan made suggestions and gave instruction, with this sort of repetition being the standard during the early days of spring training.
Only this time, those words are coming from Kerrigan. That means something.
“He’s definitely got credibility — that’s one thing,” pitcher Sean Burnett said. “He’s knowledgeable, he’s been around the game ...”
The 55-year-old Kerrigan has run the gamut during a baseball career that began in January 1974, when the Montreal Expos made him the 10th pick of the draft.
He led the Expos in saves in 1977. Did some broadcasting. Even managed the Boston Red Sox for 43 games in 2001.
But it’s Kerrigan’s ability to work with pitching staffs that brought him to Pirates, whose team ERA was a robust 5.10 last season.
“He’s a great mechanics guy, but he’s the total package,” manager John Russell said. “He knows what else goes into pitching. You’ve got to get people out, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for — that’s what he brings.”
What he has accomplished is what has his players’ ears.
“You’re going to catch people’s eyes, and people are going to listen right away,” Burnett said, “just because the people you’ve worked with. ... When he talks to you or pulls you aside, it’s not just any other coach. He’s worked with the best guys, and the best guys have respect for him.”
Kerrigan was Montreal’s pitching coach from 1992-96, a span when the Expos finished in the top five in ERA four times and led the National League in 1994. He moved to the Red Sox in 1997, leading a staff that included former Expo Pedro Martinez (who won the Cy Young Award in 1999 and 2000) and led the American League in ERA, shutouts, strikeouts in 1999, the same year Boston hurlers allowed the fewest hits, walks and runs in the league.
Yes, the rotation was anchored by Martinez. But filling those other slots were journeymen such as Mark Portugal and Pat Rapp, and a 35-year-old Bret Saberhagen, who posted a 2.85 ERA.
“The intensity, the attention to detail, the work that he did coming in — he’s got a plan already in place,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “And he’s only going to amend it and make it better.”
Kerrigan likes to watch — whether on video, which he did during the offseason, or whether it’s 18 different pitchers throwing in front of him.
“I try to observe, because if you go up and talk to a guy, you’ve really got to know what you’re talking about. And you better be sure,” he said. “And you can only be sure by watching him throw. Sometimes, you get a guy in one outing. Other guys, it’s three weeks.”
Camp is only two days old. But Burnett has taken to Kerrigan’s approach.
“He gets back to the basics. ... It all comes back to the basics when things get in a rut and you can’t do certain things,” he said. “Break it down and go back to the basics, and you can see where you’re off. ... He’s a good baseball guy.”
Kerrigan is Pittsburgh’s third pitching coach in three years, but he isn’t too concerned with that. Kerrigan told all of his pitchers the slate has been wiped clean, and the forgettable 2008 season is in the past.
It’s time to move forward.
“This is the way we’re going to do it here, according to a plan, according to a structure, according to a discipline,” he said. “That’s the way we’re going to do it.”