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.

Tim Williams

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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • salempirate

    Would Andy Van Slyke be of help? Players should know when getting to the majors how to run the routes in the OF and where to throw in cutoffs. AVS was a good base runner, another problem area for the Bucs. Maybe he could teach the fast guys who are not nearly as succesful as they should be how to get a better lead. Coaching needs to be upgraded.
    Another problem area is hitting. It’s been wonderful having Holt at bat looking for a pitch in the strike zone. What is different about his approach than nearly everyone else’s?
    Looks like you answered your own question about McKenry not getting more starts. But all these stat heads who convince NH of such nonsense ought to be in someone else’s organization! Player development needs a big overhaul.
    Jeff Clement? Isn’t it time to wash their hands of him or do they still think he’s good for that one last HR? He quit hitting around midseason. Why do Fryer and Mercer continue to sit? Leroux is unimpressive. VandenHurk has a proven background in MLB, but maybe he’ll get better. Given the various situations with SP I’m glad the high level AAA guys are getting a chance, but is Locke going to work out?
    The clusterbomb went off and nobody in the F.O., except apparently the owner, is aware. I’d like to thank Mr. Nutting for opening his wallet to try and improve this team with a free spending draft approach and tremendously better Latin America scouting and signings. Hopefully, if he chooses to Keep the GM, he will caution him to constrain himself from the wasteful spending on FAs like he has done so frequently.
    Housecleaning should be the top priority immediately after season’s end.

    • Rob

      Andy Van Slyke? Let’s bring him in. I think it is time to give him a manager’s job and I can’t think of a better place that Pittsburgh.
      If I am cleaning house right now, I think Clint may be the only one I let go.
      I still like the deadline pickups of Wandy, Snider and Sanchez.

      • Lee Young

        I like the idea of Clint going. Not sure about AVS, tho, altho I love the guy.

        • Rob

          I think Van Slyke could manage the clubhouse as well as Hurdle.
          Remember him during his playing days? Always gave 100% and ALWAYS remembered that this is a game and he stayed loose.
          That is a big problem we have. We tighten up and do not perform.
          I felt sorry for VanderHurk and Hughes yesterday when I saw them in the dugout. Especially Hughes. He has really pitched well for us, then he has to deal with that jerk Phillips and Hurdle tossing him into the fire. All in his rookie year. I know he is a paid professional, but he pitched 11 innings last year and is currently at 71.2 this year.

        • Rob

          How about bringing back Jimmy Leyland?
          Tiger fans are growing tired of him and he still lives in Pittsburgh!

    • Lee Young

      “VandenHurk has a proven background in MLB, but maybe he’ll get better”

      Where? He’s been a AAAA pitcher!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Beam/100001016052787 Matt Beam

    Great article, I love the Pirates and have been waiting for this year (at least up to a month ago) since my freshman year of college when Sid Bream broke our hearts, but yesterday was more than I could take… you can’t lose games like yesterday, just can’t do it, and have any shot. The Pirates have been significantly worse in all phases in the 2nd half, the SP, the bullpen, the defense, the offense… if this team isn’t hitting home runs, it’s not even close to a good offensive team as their OBP stinks, base stealing stinks, and ability to get runners home from 3rd with 1 out of less stinks. The bullpen is finally being exposed and there is a genuine lack of big game experience that really hurts this late in the year. The SP has been lucky to have a quality start every other game and the defense has been far less than ideal as well lately… even with all of these problems, Clint can’t seem to manage his way out of a wet paper bag lately… which either speaks to him being a really poor in game manager or that “seeing what folks can do” in a tight spot is still viewed as the organizational goal this year vs doing whatever is necessary to win… yesterday was the game that broke the camel’s back and ensured there will be no post-season for the Pirates, Go Steelers!

  • st1300b

    Wow, those are some tough comments, and Tim I thought your best article of the year. I personally try to not analyze a game too much the day of, but this one stings the day after too.
    I’m a big fan of the steps the organization has made to get better – and also a huge fan of Clint Hurdle. I appreciate the arguments made, but after being in the middle of many sporting teams I’ve always found that it’s the person not the moves that brings guys together. I been outspoken that I felt Cole should have been brought up to be a hammer out of the pen… which would have been nice (Or Morris, Tim) yesterday… but I agree NH can only put the tools out there, Clint has to go to them.
    I also still feel like this is a building block season – they have to hit the mark and kill 82. Have to – playoffs are just a little dreamy this season, the window of opportunity is actually just opening.
    That’s how I prefer to see the tide turning.

  • Rob

    Yesterday’s loss hurt, period. And I found myself really not happy with Clint Hurdle.
    VanderHurk? Seriously? What is he thinking??
    Hughes has pitched so well for us this year, now Hurdle is burning him up. Give him a break. How about a Karstens breaking ball to induce a double play??
    I thought our defense was solid (other than Cutch’s throw home) and our offense was obviously good enough to win.
    I heard Wehner say Hurdle tried to get Locke the win, that is why he left him in. Sorry Clint, I think it is more important for the TEAM to get the win than the individual pitcher.
    I can’t believe Hurdle tried a double steal in the situation we were in.
    I am starting to think that Hurdle just tries stuff to try stuff.
    It is nice seeing Marte return to form, and you cannot tell me that Walker is 100% healthy. Watching the replay of him being thrown out at third, he did not give 100%. That isn’t Walker.
    Oh well, I’m done ranting for now, but yesterday’s loss hurt.

  • Lee Young

    Tim…I am with you 100%!!!!!!!!!!

    Clint should be gone after this year. He’s a loser. ONE winning season and that was because of an inexplicably hot month!!!

    Foo

    .

  • ecbucs

    roster management and questionable decisions by manager daily. Those are pretty big areas that could be improved. But the only way to improve is to change the people involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=759082507 Stephen Stull

    Refresh my memory, who said Locke was ready for majors? This team is just pathetic, from coaching to hustle.

  • leadoff

    Probably the biggest problem with the Pirates and for most of the media and fans is that there are no stats that can be used for the Pirate slide, the Pirates and Hurdle are still trying to use them for decisions and they are not working.
    Listen to the announcers, Walker up, man on third, no outs, 1 run behind, “he is one of the best rbi guys on the roster”, 60% or something like that, he fails. McCutchen, “he is really hot”, announcer, I know he is going to knock this run in, count 3-0, they don’t want to pitch to him? McCutchen takes call strike 3, 2 outs. Jones walk, Sanchez at the plate double steal, rookie at 3rd botches play. Hurdle put a rookie in a pivotal spot 2 games in a row, the first time he missed the sign! At third he was not coached properly and got caught off third.
    Between choking, bad managing and coaching, the Pirates are looking a lot worse than they really are.
    For the first 4 months the Pirates were near the top of baseball in come from behind wins, now when they get behind by one run half way thru a game they are finished for the most part.
    THERE IS NO STAT FOR PRESSURE! The Pirate problems can’t be fixed unless the players themselves adjust to playing under pressure. I think on this team Marte looks to me like the only player in the starting lineup that is playing loose, he steals, he takes extra bases, not playing it safe at all, if the rest would follow they might pull this thing out.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Good thing Barmes played, his UZR kept the game close.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Barmes was 2-for-3 with a walk when they pinch hit for him.

      • Rob

        Here are some interesting Barmes offensive numbers for you:
        Month Avg. OPS.
        April .149 .469
        May .189 .462
        June .247 .632
        July .233 .537
        Aug .271 .672
        Sept .281 .817
        I think if he could take away April & May, we may keep him.
        If my choice was either Barmes or Barajas, I will keep Barmes.
        Play McKenry and bring up Sanchez to see what he can do defensively and in a backup role.

        • F Lang

          Barmes is signed through next year. He will be the SS unless someone beats him out. I agree, he has played dead on his career averages since June and the defense is very good. Despite everything he is still at a 0.9 WAR this season. If he can correct the poor plate discipline he will be the same .255/10HR guy he has always been.

      • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

        By all means, let’s dust off a spot in Cooperstown for him. And hey Rob, he’s hitting .500 when he isn’t starting! So, he can be the secret weapon off the bench! Whoo hoo! Barmes is part of the SOLUTION! He’s GREAT! And Mr. Lang, that .255 isn’t supported by facts, but who cares? It feels good, and he DID have 2 seasons as a regular, or near regular where he hit OVER .255, .289 in 2005, and ,290 in 2008! Of course, those were both with the Rockies, but hey, he is CLINT BARMES! Those 5 other seasons as a regular, or near regular, .220, .245, .235, .244 and .226. Who cares if the last 4 are his last 4 seasons? He’s on FIRE in September! He’ll be well worth the $5.5 million next year, hopefully they can re-sign him to an even longer term deal for more money. It’s good to invest in aging, declining never weres.

  • http://twitter.com/TachoBill Tacho Bill

    Vandenhurk? Hughes? Qualls? Who could not succeed with such talent? It’s like the bullpen version of Murderer’s Row.

    • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

      That Vandenhurk, lucky thing he was added to the 40 man roster. I mean suckitude like that is hard to find.

  • F Lang

    I get sick of managers managing the way the game “has always been played.” Bunting a guy from 2nd to third makes me crazy. He is already in scoring position! Quit wasting outs! It would be different if we had a high team average or OBP but we can’t afford to waste outs. Also, someone should be fired for our stolen base percentage alone. It is unacceptable…and the just giving up and letting guys steal is downright embarassing. It has to be demoralizing for the players. Watch the Cardinals…sure they have a great throwing catcher but they will almost never concede a guy to 2nd…they make you work for it all the time…as it should be. Barring a total continued collapse we have moved forward this year but there are some major glaring issues that have to be addressed. Some of the things I just mentioned are laughable for a major league franchise to be doing….and i am usually one of the positive people.