My feelings on managers have been made known on this site: I think that a good manager is usually the result of a good team. A bad manager is usually the result of a bad team. I think that managers can do things to help or hurt the current team, but that their impact is overblown.
Major League Baseball announced their awards schedules today. One of the first awards to come out will be the Manager of the Year awards, on November 12th. Usually that award goes to a manager with a winning team. If that winning team is a surprise team, like the Pirates, then the manager of that team is almost a lock to win the award.
Clint Hurdle looks like a lock to win the 2013 NL Manager of the Year award. And he deserves it.
I’ve been critical of Hurdle a lot over the last three seasons. There are a lot of things I disagree with. There’s his usage of bunting, the reliance on small sample sizes when creating lineups, a tendency to be more comfortable with veterans, bunting too often, leaving pitchers in too long, the bunting, questionable usage of platoon players, and did I mention too much bunting?
But when you think about it, those aren’t Clint Hurdle problems. Those are MLB manager problems. All managers run off the same playbook. Starting pitchers can only go X amount of pitches. Relief pitchers can only throw in pre-designated innings. You can only pinch hit certain guys at certain times. The lineup has to be set a certain way. Players have to play specific positions on the field. When a guy is on first, you bunt him over to scoring position. If a guy is a name player, you wouldn’t dream of platooning him. Veterans provide more comfort than unknown prospects.
Every manager runs their team with most, if not all of the above characteristics. It’s a big reason why I think the impact of managers is minimal. All managers run off the same playbook, and when everyone is running the same strategy, then the only variable is the players who are expected to execute that strategy. If you have good players, those players will execute and the manager will look good. If you have bad players, they won’t execute and the manager will be blamed. Very few managers are willing to think outside of the box, usually because any time a manager does something unconventional, it is mocked and his job goes in jeopardy.
The Pirates did something unconventional this year. They used defensive shifts, which led to better defensive numbers and better numbers from their pitching staff. The Pirates weren’t the only team to employ an extreme use of defensive shifts. But the method isn’t widely accepted, and arguably played a big role in the success the Pirates had this season, despite their small payroll and lack of household names.
Clint Hurdle didn’t come up with the idea to use defensive shifts. That was on the stats department. He wasn’t the only person who had to sign off on the plan. The Pirates needed everyone, including the players, to buy in. But it would have been easy for Hurdle to reject the plan. And if Hurdle rejects the plan, then it would have been easy for the players to reject the plan. And if the players reject the plan, then the Pirates just have an idea from the stats department that isn’t used, and doesn’t help lead them to the playoffs.
One of Hurdle’s biggest assets is his ability to control the clubhouse. When you look at the 2013 Pirates, you can see Hurdle’s impact. The team repeatedly bounced back from bad losses. They didn’t have a losing streak longer than four games all year. Credit goes to the players who performed in these circumstances, but someone had to be keeping the spirits of the clubhouse up, and that someone was Hurdle.
In the case of the defensive shifts, we know that they worked. But if they didn’t work, it would have been Hurdle taking the blame. We saw the same thing in 2009 when the Pirates employed the no-triples defense, with the left fielder positioned in the notch, and thus giving up an automatic double down the line on a play that would normally be a single. John Russell took a lot of blame for that, even though it was the stats department that came up with the strategy. If the shifting didn’t work, Hurdle would have taken the blame.
In my book, Hurdle gets a lot of credit for going against the manager’s book and allowing this unconventional strategy, as does any other manager that employs extreme usage of defensive shifts. It’s not easy to sign off on that, knowing that these unconventional tactics are mocked. It’s not easy to sign off when the leader of your pitching staff publicly expresses his disdain for the defensive shifts. It’s not easy to sign off on the strategy when you’re coming off back to back years where you led a team that collapsed down the stretch. But Hurdle signed off on it, helped convince the players to sign off on it, and the Pirates used this strategy to win 94 games and make the playoffs.
If Hurdle is announced as the NL Manager of the Year next month, it might be only because he was the manager of a team that wasn’t expected to win, but won 94 games. However, he will be deserving of that award, simply because he went against the book and accepted a strategy that led to the Pirates winning those 94 games.
Now if the stats department could just do something to convince him that bunting and giving away outs is almost always a bad strategy…
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