First Pitch: On the Hurdle Extension and the First Day of Minor League Camp

When I looked at my calendar for a potential move to Bradenton, I had two choices. The week of January 20th would get me here a month before Spring Training, and I’d be settled in when pitchers and catchers reported. A month later would get me in after the first week of camp, and right before the games started. Plus I’d save a month of rent in the process. Since nothing usually happens early in camp (stretching, fielding drills, batting practice), I decided to hold off and move in February.

For the most part the opening of camp has been slow. But there were a few news items in the past week that I’ve been catching up on. Some of it was the product of a slow news week, specifically the Jason Grilli drama where he was quoted in a national article, then criticized bloggers for misrepresenting the exact quote that was in the article. That’s the thing about the first weeks of Spring Training. You don’t hear about things like Grilli’s opinions on the previous trade deadline at any other time during the season.

The biggest news last week was that Clint Hurdle was extended through the 2014 season. When I saw that the deal was through the 2014 season, it seemed like the typical extension you give a manager who is only under control through the end of the current season. The theory is that if Hurdle is under control through the 2014 season, he can avoid talk and speculation about losing his job if the team performs poorly in 2013. The reality is that the extra year on his contract only guarantees him more money if the Pirates do fire him.

You could look at Hurdle in two ways. The positive way is that he is a good motivator, the players seem to like him, and in the time he’s managed the team the Pirates have gone from 57 wins to 79 wins.

The not-so-positive way is that he’s managed two teams who were contenders around July, and collapsed in the second half each year. Outside of his one year with Colorado where the Rockies went on an impossible run at the end of the season (pretty much the opposite of what the Pirates have done the last two years) he hasn’t been a very successful manager. If you look at the strategy, he doesn’t look like the best manager.

The Pirates in 2013 looked like a boom or bust team. They had a lot of low average/low OBP guys with power. Hurdle was playing small ball, which wasn’t the right fit with that team. They were already giving away too many outs. The best approach would have been playing to their strength, which is the big inning. The bulk of the offense came from home runs. By giving away outs and playing for one run per inning, you’re removing the biggest strength of the offense, which is the potential for a multiple run inning. And that’s just one of the complaints of Hurdle’s questionable managing decisions.

My stance on managers has always been that they don’t matter — at least not to the extent of the attention that they receive. A good manager usually has good players behind him. A bad manager usually has bad players behind him. That’s not a correlation. It’s a causation. When the players perform, the manager gets credit. When the players struggle, the manager takes the blame.

I said all of this when John Russell was fired a few years ago. I do think that a manager can have a positive or negative impact on his team if that team is mis-managed. The manager shouldn’t be blamed for failing to steal a base, or for struggling with small ball execution. But if the manager continues these strategies after a team shows that they struggle with small ball strategies, or a player struggles with stealing bases, then that’s on the manager.

I don’t think Hurdle has managed the Pirates effectively. They were a home run heavy team and he tried to play small ball. There were situations where it was predictable what the Pirates would do — to the point where other teams were expecting it — and the Pirates did exactly what was predicted. Because the other team was expecting it, the strategy usually didn’t work. Hurdle often stuck with struggling veterans for too long, rather than switching over to prospects or younger players who might have had more upside in both the short and long-term.

The collapse was on the players. Hurdle couldn’t have stopped that. No manager could have. I don’t think the impact of a manager spans more than one or two games in either direction, with two games being in extreme cases. A different manager wasn’t turning the Pirates into a winner the last two years. However, going forward if the Pirates want to compete, they’re going to be a team that needs to fight for every win. They can’t afford to give away wins. I think Hurdle is a manager who costs his team a net win or two each season. That’s not something the Pirates can afford to have.

As for the extension, it’s meaningless. It offers the appearance of job security, but doesn’t offer real security. A lot of managers have been fired with one year remaining on their deals. John Russell was in a similar situation. If the Pirates have a horrible 2013 season, Hurdle won’t escape the talk and speculation that he could lose his job. On the flip side, if the Pirates have a winning season, we’ll hear about how Hurdle is in the running for manager of the year honors. In either case, the performance is largely going to be on the players, with little impact coming from the manager.

Links and Notes

**Minor league camp started today, although there wasn’t much going on. I watched Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes throw a bullpen. Newly signed pitcher Ramon Colon threw the first live BP to a group of catchers. Colon is a hard thrower, but struggled with his command at times. He’s too old to be a prospect, and should spend a lot of time moving between major league and minor league camp, giving the majors an extra arm when needed. Quinton Miller also threw a live BP. It was hard to get a read on him, since he didn’t throw a ton of pitches. This is also early in camp, so most pitchers are just getting warmed up.

**I spoke with Tyler Glasnow today. I’ll have an article on him tomorrow afternoon.

**I finally got my office set up at my new place, so I can get to work down here. I’ll be covering minor league camp tomorrow morning, then the Pirates game in the afternoon.

**Pirates Get Favorable Rankings in the Baseball Prospectus Top 101.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Two Recap.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Minor League Spring Training Roster.

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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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  • Steve Zielinski

    It’s difficult to quantify the effect a bad manager has on a team. But a manager who uses poor in-game strategies and keeps a messy clubhouse probably can destroy a potentially good team.

    Hurdle seems to have gotten the players to play for him. So there’s that to say about him.

    • kevin21

      I’d argue that the players play more for themselves, or their future contract rather.
      And for as long as I can remember I don’t recall ever seeing a manager strike out with RISP or walk the bases loaded.

      • whiteAngus

        I do recall Hurdle costing the Bucs a game when he ordered a suicide squeeze when everyone, and I mean everyone, guessed that it was coming.

        • kevin21

          So you think that game was won/lost in a blown squeeze play?

  • SmokyB

    Glasnow Nice!

  • Lee Young

    Hurdle is a great clubhouse manager and a lousy on field manager.

    Those two probably cancel each other out.


    • wkkortas

      I agree–he’s essentially this generation’s version of Chuck Tanner; he’s great at pumping guys up and building a positive attitude, but he’s a pretty lousy judge of talent and an awful in-game manager. He was the right guy for a team coming off an 100-loss season, but he’s wrong guy to take you to the promised land.

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