Saturday, October 1, 2011

Clint Hurdle's Opening Bow

OK, we've had time to knock down a couple of Brooklyn Brewing's best and contemplate the 2011 Pirate season. We were shaken out of our IPA reverie when we recalled that on this day in 1903, the first World Series opened in Boston. It was between the Boston Pilgrims and our Pittsburgh Pirates (The Bucs lost in eight games; it was best-of-nine), and we began wondering when the club would get into its next October Classic.

Rightly or wrongly, a team's performance is hung on the shoulders of its skipper. GW's theory has always been the players win or lose games whether it be due to or in spite of the field boss' brainstorming. The manager's job is simply to set up situations that allow the players to do their thing to the best of their abilities.

And Clint Hurdle danced through the good, bad and ugly this year.

Tactically, he relies on the bunt a little more (OK, a lot more) than we prefer and likes to use his pen by the numbers, which worked fine for four months and then caused some problems later in the year when the staff went south on him. Hanny got 40 saves, but many times was a spectator when there were high leverage innings begging for his presence while he cooled his heels waiting for a save situation that never came.

On the positive side, Hurdle showed some imagination putting together a lineup, and did a pretty good job of getting everyone involved (well, except Pedro Ciriaco) while depending on a swinging gate roster of AAA players. And Clint utilized the two-for-one and defensive switches as well as any skipper in the league. Our guess is that he'd be happier with an everyday order, even if it involved a platoon spot or two, but given the realities of 2011, he scuffled pretty well with the cards dealt to him.

And on the sunny side of the bullpen, he didn't blatantly overwork anybody with the possible exceptions of D-Mac and Jose Veras. Hurdle stuck to his three days in a row or 25-30 pitch outing limits for relievers fairly religiously, and he wasn't afraid to throw a young guy into a late-inning fire. That may not have done much for the record this season, but should prove invaluable for the growth of his staff and down-the-road evaluations. He toed the highwire of a longer-range plan without sacrificing day-to-day results as well as possible.

His work with the rotation was solid too, as he alternately stretched and protected his arms as the innings piled up. The perfect example was Jeff Karstens, who was weaned from a long-man's pitch count early in the season to a reliable inning eater within weeks, and then rested again when signs of fatigue showed late in the year. In hindsight, he could have used a sixth starter earlier in the year, but who could have predicted that his two proven workhorses, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia, would pull up lame?

His pedal to the metal running attack had its up and downs. It worked great when McCutch, Alex Presley, Chase d'Arnaud and others with their speed were on, but led to some head-banging when the more lead footed Buccos tried to stretch the bases with Lastings Milledge-like results. The team did steal 21 more sacks than last year (although with a lower success rate), made great strides in taking the extra base, and did a much better job of situational running even with the occasional fax paus.

The team seemed to adapt to the running game better in the second half of the season, both because the younger guys that got the call up had wheels and the coaches got a better read on what the players were capable of actually doing.

As far as coaching up the players, his staff did wonders with the pitching, dropping the ERA by nearly a run from last year, and he deserves credit for keeping Ray Searage aboard. But his rep as a batting guru took a hit when the attack tread water in 2011. That leads to another chicken-or-egg debate; were the results due to coaching or the performances of Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and Hanny on the hill, and Pedro Alvarez, Lyle Overbay and the injury bug at the dish?

The staff did a good job at bringing the fielding up to par. It began to break down some in the final weeks, but that probably had more to do with the shuffling of players because of injuries and performance, leading to a shaky make-shift infield, than lack of preparation. That also shows the flip; the staff had the advantage of a fairly set lineup to work with for the first four months when they were catching everything. The positioning was by-the-book, a welcome change from the JR/Gary Varsho days.

But managers don't get rated for their coaching by WAR for good reason; the lowest-percentage calls look great if the players come through and the no-brainer decisions fall flat when your guy bombs. (We're stretching, but the team's Pythagorean calculation was for 70 wins, so we'd assume Sabermetric dudes would consider Hurdle as a +2.0 WAR this year). The key to being a good manger isn't so much on-the-field generalship as much as the role of ringmaster in the clubhouse.

And Hurdle deserves good marks in that department. He let the team know who was boss quickly when he sat down Ronny Cedeno for not hustling out of the box, and doubled down when he did the same to McCutch. He was consistent in the way he handled players and assignments, even if that meant Lyle Overbay got nearly 400 at-bats, and that fostered easier dugout relations because the players knew where the boss was coming from.

His locker room is looser and more player-friendly now than in the taciturn JR days. Hurdle is a booming and gregarious presence, and communication, important to a young team, is a two-way street now. The players have a much better understanding of where they stand and what they need to improve.

Just as importantly, he put a human face to the franchise. He's approachable, quotable and sometimes downright comical in his dealings with the media, and almost singlehandedly transformed the team's PR image, previously fronted by the dour and secretive FO, into a positive.

Will Clint Hurdle become a long term fixture behind the Pirate bench?  Well, as the old chestnut goes, "managers are hired to be fired." We think he's a good fit for the team now. How long he'll remain a fit will hang on the abilities of the players he gets to manage down the road.

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