Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Clint's Evolution...A Better Team Makes For A Better Manager

Well, heck, Clint Hurdle must be doing something right: the BBWAA joined The Sporting News in naming him Manager of the Year for 2013. Ending 20 year losing streaks is a pretty good way to get your name included in the conversation; winning 94 games and making it to the NLDS just pumps the volume. In fact, Clint was only the second Pirate manager to take the cup; Jimmy Leyland (1990, 1992) was the other.

His greatest strategic victory was getting the club to buy into his mad scientist defensive shifts, saving the Bucs a bundle of runs. And it is a hard sale; pitchers have to limit their selection and location; infielders have to get used to previously unknown patches of dirt and grass. Both are unnatural baseball acts that he sold to the team (well, maybe except for AJ).

With the support of Neal Huntington, a believer in data-aided decisions, and IT man Dan Fox, the Bucs saved 68 runs with their glovework, mainly through the use of the shift.

Communication is his strong suit. He made sure the clubhouse wasn't fixated on 82 wins, even with the self-implosions of prior years. And he reconnected the team to the fans, becoming the most recognized skipper since Jim Leyland and making it cool to wear a Pirate cap again.

Still, it was just a few short months ago that the twitterverse was riddled with #Hurdled, and not in a nice way. He couldn't put together a coherent batting order, his guys ran the bases like they were on kamakazi missions, opponents stole bases like they were a two-year old's candy, and puh-leeze, with the bunts!!!  Ends up his flaws mirrored those of the team.

He's kinda partial to a straightforward, everyday batting order, as he showed in September when Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau arrived. Before then - and we're talking a couple of seasons - he had no order to put together. Even now, if JT and/or Starling Marte is out of the lineup, the #2 hitter could be anyone from Neil Walker to Jordy Mercer, and that's a not on Hurdle but the makeup of the team.

That "play the best eight" view is supported by his use of Morneau and Pedro; they didn't get a break against lefties, though neither could hit them worth a lick. Ditto with Neil Walker, who couldn't hit righties, and Clint Barmes, who couldn't hit, well, anybody. Yet he did stick to straight platoons, like Jones/Sanchez and whomever in RF. So we'll see what kind of comfort level he finds for the lineup in coming years.

The baserunning has actually become a strong point, other than a lack of consistent base stealing, and that problem looks more and more like its roots are sunk in minor league league training. The Bucs go from first to third as well as anyone in the league on the basepaths, even with a lineup that plods with a couple of notable exceptions. They scored 141 runs by coming in from second on a single or first on a double.

As far as controlling the opponents running game, the Pirates made Hurdle look like a turn-around artist when their first free agent signing for 2013 was Russell Martin. Not a whole lot of genius involved in swapping out Rod Barajas for Russ, though the coaching staff did get more buy-in from the pitchers as far as keeping runners close and varying their delivery times to the plate.

Hurdle's maddening bunt 24/7 tactics took a sharp dive this year as he found a little added (if misplaced) confidence in the batters to score more than twice a game. The Pirates still had trouble with the contact play; only two MLB teams (Boston and Milwaukee) had more guys thrown out at home. It could be that's not Hurdle's bad; the Bucco batters roll a lot of balls to the left side with a runner on third. Still, it's incumbent on the coaching staff to have guys look to go up the middle or in the air rather than frittering away runs.

The way he handles pitchers is pretty cut and dried; he much prefers a reliever to open an inning, particularly later in the game, than jump into the fire. Hurdle is also a strict time manager. He even counts warming up in his formula for over-use. Generally, Hurdle doesn't look for pitching match-ups, and that allows him to carry a deep bullpen without a LOOGY specialist.

The only quibble we have with pitching is that he doesn't seem to have a hard line on when to pull a pitcher; second sight has given us plenty of examples of a guy yanked with an inning left in him or kept in a couple of batters too long.

Our take is that strategically, Clint is in the middle of the pack. But he does have qualities that transcend on field decisions. He's not only capable of making data-driven adjustments, but can sell them to the players. He never varies from his tomorrow is another day philosophy, and this year it paid off. Even with a couple of rough patches, the club never had a season-threatening spiral and didn't lose more than four in a row at any point of the season. He even had a three-man council of vets to serve as a sounding board during the season.

Managing is about leadership and getting players to perform. Even with a lineup that had three positions (RF, SS, 1B) in flux and pitchers pulled from the rotation, he never, at least publicly, lost the players involved in the bake-and-shake. He led the team to 94 wins, six over its Pythagorean projection of 88, and that was the difference between having the wild card at a manic, black-out PNC Park instead of on the road.

Communication, consistency, leadership and adapting to the new sabermetric/eyeball mix in baseball is the calling card of the new wave of managers. The Joe Maddons represent the breed, rather than the by the book guys like Dusty Baker. And Clint Hurdle fits right in with that movement. He connects to the team and the City, and he'll get the max out of what Neal Huntington gives him.

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