First Pitch: The Dismal Tide

“You know, if you’d have told me 20 years ago I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, bones in their noses, I just flat-out wouldn’t have believed you.”

“Signs and wonders. But I think once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon to foller.”

“Oh, it’s the tide. It’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing.”

-No Country For Old Men

After today’s loss to the Cubs — which is easily one of the worst losses of the season — I was thinking about what topic to cover tonight. Should I talk about some of the questionable decisions made by Clint Hurdle on a daily basis? How about some of the players who haven’t been performing as expected? Maybe talk about the overall makeup of the team, and whether the team could do more at the deadline.

You look around and the topics that Pirates fans and writers are talking about aren’t really concentrated on one subject. It’s Neal Huntington. It’s Clint Hurdle. It’s that the players aren’t good. It’s Barmes and Barajas specifically.

While thinking about all of the areas where you could place blame for the recent struggles, the above quote from “No Country For Old Men” popped in my head. I’m not sure why I thought of that quote. I hadn’t seen the movie for a while. And two hours later (after watching it, of course) I had my topic for tonight.

I wasn’t going to just talk about the moves made by Hurdle. Take today, for example. The Pirates had a lead, and Hurdle turned to Rick VandenHurk in the sixth inning. That’s not exactly one of the top pitchers you want protecting a lead. After VandenHurk loaded the bases with no outs, Hurdle went with Jared Hughes for the third day in a row, and the fourth time in the last five games. Hughes didn’t get an out, so Chad Qualls came in to get three outs. But the damage was done, and the lead was lost. The Pirates tried to come back the next inning, but came up empty with Gaby Sanchez at the plate. Despite Sanchez being the number five hitter, and one of the hottest hitters on the team lately, the decision was made to go for a double steal. Because why let a guy who is 2-for-4 on the day swing the bat?

You could spend an entire article questioning some of the moves that Hurdle has made over the last few weeks. But then you have to think about the players. Hurdle has been managing this team the same way all season. His moves are hurting the team now because the team was struggling. They weren’t hurting the team in June and July because the team was playing so well that the botched small ball attempts didn’t mean the difference between a win and a loss. That’s not a defense of Hurdle. Just pointing out that he’s managed the same way all year, and the team has won with that managing prior to August.

So what about the team? A lot of the players who got the team to a great record through July have struggled in the last month and a half. Andrew McCutchen is back to putting up MVP numbers in September, but really slumped in August. James McDonald has struggled since the All-Star break, and was just removed from the rotation. A.J. Burnett looked like an ace the first four months of the year, but has been hit around in a few starts lately, and definitely hasn’t been the stopper. Pedro Alvarez remains a streaky hitter. And the bullpen doesn’t look like the bullpen we saw earlier in the season, and that’s not just because they dealt away Brad Lincoln.

Then there’s the question of whether the Pirates should have done more at the deadline. I don’t think one player would make a difference when you consider how bad the Pirates have been the last month and a half. Adding a hitter isn’t going to keep the pitching staff from imploding. They added a veteran and added starting depth in Wandy Rodriguez. They added Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez, who have been better than the two biggest names traded, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. Those alternatives at the deadline might have given the impression that the Pirates were making an effort, but as we can see now, they wouldn’t have helped the team any more than the players who were acquired.

I think a bigger question than the trade deadline is the roster management. Why does Rod Barajas get 60% or more of the starts behind the plate when Michael McKenry has clearly been a better option? Why does the team pinch hit Jeff Clement for hitters who have multiple hits on the day? Why does Josh Harrison get the starts at shortstop when Clint Barmes has a day off, even though the team said Jordy Mercer is ahead of Harrison on the depth charts? Why do they turn to guys like Rick VandenHurk, or Jared Hughes pitching for the fourth time in five days, rather than Bryan Morris? Why wait so long to do something about James McDonald, all while Kyle McPherson is available to start?

A lot of those questions go back to Hurdle. But you can’t pin all of the roster management issues on Hurdle. I don’t think Hurdle has total control over who plays. If he does, that’s a problem. There should be someone stepping in from above to ask why McKenry isn’t the primary starter, or why Mercer doesn’t get the extra starts at short, or why Bryan Morris has been given no shot this year. And with no one stepping in, it only leads to the conclusion that these decisions are supported by more than just Hurdle. And that’s not an unsupported conclusion. Rob Biertempfel talked about how the Pirates have their own version of CERA that supports Barajas over McKenry, even with this offense. I have a hard time believing that the difference between McKenry and Barajas behind the plate makes Barajas a better option with an OPS over 200 points lower than McKenry.

It might not fit the “No Country” quote exactly, but when looking at the Pirates’ problems, it’s not the one thing. It’s the dismal tide. Even if you change one of the topics I mentioned above, you’re still facing a huge slump since the start of August. Everything is going wrong for this team right now. There was a stat floating around about the horrible record lately in games separated by two runs or less. That leads one to believe that the Pirates just need a bit extra in hitting. But look closer and you’ll see that’s not the case in the last month and a half. Everything is going wrong for the Pirates. When the offense shows up, the pitching implodes. When the pitching is on, the offense struggles. Some of those two run losses are low scoring games where the offense didn’t show up. But others are high scoring games where the offense was there and the pitching blew it.

For a second there today, it looked like the Pirates were starting to go back to one of their sudden hot streaks. Pedro Alvarez hit two bombs, Andrew McCutchen has been hitting like an MVP again, and the Pirates looked on their way to their second straight win, with a chance to move 1.5 games back in the wild card race tomorrow. But then the bullpen imploded, the bad strategies came in to play, and we were reminded of everything going wrong with this team lately. It’s enough to make any Pirates fan wish that Anton Chigurh would shoot them in the head with a cattle gun.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 13-9 to the Cubs.

**Pirates Notebook: Alvarez Seeking Consistency Moving Forward.

**McDonald Pulled From Rotation, McPherson Replaces Him.

**State College Splits With Pirates, Signs Two Year Deal With Cardinals.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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