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Tim Benz states that as people expect more from the Pirates team, they also raise their expectations for manager Derek Shelton

Before Friday’s home opener at PNC Park, former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland threw out the ceremonial first pitch to current manager Derek Shelton. In advance of the pregame festivities, both men discussed their strong relationship.

Before the first game in their home stadium on Friday, former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland threw the first pitch to the current manager Derek Shelton. Both men talked about their strong relationship before the game.

Leyland reached out to Shelton when he got the job, and they regularly met for breakfast at Chartiers Country Club, forming a valuable friendship.

Shelton called Leyland his mentor and expressed his excitement for Leyland's presence at the pregame event, where Leyland was recognized for his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December.

The bond between Shelton and Leyland goes beyond sharing the same job in Pittsburgh; it also involves understanding the challenges it brings. After the 5-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, Shelton's record is now 224-330, with a winning percentage of .404. He has not had a winning season in four years as Pirates manager and has endured two seasons with over 100 losses.

Leyland can relate to Shelton's struggles. In his first year on the job in 1986, the Pirates lost 98 games. Leyland's last four seasons in Pittsburgh were all below .500, following the dismantling of his three-time National League East Division championship roster in anticipation of the 1993 season.

Leyland mentioned that the manager's role can be isolating when things are not going well.

Nevertheless, the organization has supported Shelton through the ups and downs of his first MLB managerial role. He received a contract extension of unspecified length in April of last year, and the team won 14 more games than in 2022. Going from 62 wins to 76 is one thing, but making the next leap of 10 more victories to reach wild-card territory is much more challenging.

Leyland can also understand this situation. His Pirates went from 64 wins to 80 in 1987, then up to 85 in 1988, and down to 74 in '89. Moreover, in those days, there was no wild card; you either won the division or missed the playoffs.

Leyland remarked that progress can be inconsistent, with occasional setbacks before moving forward again. He believes that the team is definitely on the right track.

After the franchise's 6-2 start, expectations to build on last year's progress have increased among Pirates fans. The team appears to have a deeper lineup, a more adaptable bench, a stronger bullpen, and promising young talent in the farm system, including last year's top draft pick, LSU's Paul Skenes.

Shelton mentioned that the team has improved and now has more depth, which was a deliberate focus in adding to their young core.

So, if the team is progressing, is the manager also improving? Shelton has reflected on his personal growth.

Shelton stated that he has become more patient and a better listener, including being more patient with himself. He mentioned the importance of prioritizing and selecting the right actions when initially taking on the job.

Shelton also mentions that in the past two years, he has realized how important it is to share coaching aspects of his job with the rest of his staff.

“The way we distribute information among ourselves, who we talk to, is very similar to how NFL and NBA staffs do it. They consult the specialized skill set to hear from someone,” Shelton said. “It’s not just going to your offensive coordinator. Maybe your quarterbacks coach, maybe your receivers coach. I think we’ve done a good job with our staff over the last couple of years with dividing responsibilities and ensuring that those people are leading certain discussions.”

Six-year veteran Connor Joe says Shelton is good at explaining the method and mindset behind the decisions he makes.

“A lot happens behind the scenes that we don’t see,” Joe said. “If you delve into the numbers or the lineups or the matchups or the splits, it’s evident. As players, we don’t necessarily do that on a game-to-game basis. Just look at how he creates each lineup for that opponent or the back end of the bullpens.”

New addition Michael A. Taylor says he can already see that Shelton’s ability to keep things relaxed in the clubhouse will be beneficial as the long season progresses through the summer.

“He’s humorous. I’ve enjoyed being around him. He likes to have fun. He dishes it out. He has a good personality,” Taylor said.

Even those who have experienced a lot of defeats with Shelton insist they still have faith in him as the right person for the job.

“He’s been great,” closer David Bednar said. “We all know he has our backs. We have a lot of trust in him. That’s crucial for a manager. We all love going to battle with him.”

And for what it’s worth, Shelton still has the support of the Hall of Famer who once sat in that same solitary position that he does.

“He’s right on top of the game. He’s doing a fantastic job. The players, it shows that they have a lot of confidence in his decisions,” Leyland said.

Now we’ll see how much trust management has in Shelton to turn the franchise into a wild-card team for the first time in almost a decade.

Or even into a division winner for the first time since Leyland last did so in 1992.

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