First Pitch: Clint Hurdle Deserves to be the Manager of the Year

Clint Hurdle didn't completely go by the book this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Clint Hurdle didn’t completely go by the book this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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…

Links and Notes

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap Index

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 40-Man Payroll Projection

**Pirates Have a Lot of Talented Pitchers Available in the 2014 Draft

**2013 Indianapolis Indians Season Recap and Top 10 Prospects

**AFL Recap: Alex Dickerson and Gift Ngoepe Double in Loss

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.

Share This Post On
  • Heckler1

    I agree 1,000 percent! To take a team that was akin to the Chicago Cubs in 2011 and convert them to playoff contenders just 2 years later borders on miraculous. Just watcing Pirates in spring training in 2010 and 2011 and compare their demeanors now is like night and day. The transition and the change came from Clint and his influence on and off the field. No the Pirates didnt win the League Champtionship this year (that will be in 2014) or did they win the World Series (that will be in 2014 and 2015) . But what they did was rekindle the family fire of Pirates fans that had laid dormant for 20 years. Clint Hurdle gets much of the credit for revitalizing the Pirates and the fans andfor that alone he deserves to be NL Manager of the Year.

  • leadoff

    Hurdle did sign off on the defensive shifts, it was a request from Huntington. Huntington said he went to Hurdles house after last season to talk to him about employing the shift situation they use now. When the boss talks to you, it takes on more of a meaning than just saying the shifts were his idea, if they were not his idea and he personally does not do the shifts, (His coaches do), I don’t know if that is high on my list of his credits.
    IMO, the shifts are not radical enough, I can think of all kinds of configurations they could use, but I understand that players get upset when they do not work.
    These shifts are far from new, we used them all the time on the playgrounds.
    Russell’s no triples defense was a joke from the beginning, the 27 Yankees would have lost big time with that defense. Russell lost a lot of games because of crap like that, not bad players, although he did have some players that were not good enough and some that were very young in their development. I can remember Steve Blass talking about trying to move Clemente over one day and Clemente moved right where he told him to move, then Blass pitched and the ball headed right where Clemente was before Blass moved him, only to Blass’s joy Clemente was standing under the ball, he moved after Blass went back into his windup.
    Much to this day I do not believe Hurdle made the decision to go with Cole instead of A.J. against the Cards, I think that decision came from above.
    What I am saying is, all that Hurdles is getting credit for, I am not so sure he is right guy for the credit.
    IMO, Hurdle is the best manager in baseball before the game, after that not even close.

  • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

    While I don’t know if you can quantify what a manager does enough to say one guy is the best manager in any league, you have to give Hurdle credit for adapting, which is the exact opposite of what most managers do when they get older. He accepted and/or embraced the concept of the shift. He was more willing to give young players a chance this go-round after doing things like burying Mercer in 2012. He didn’t play the “proven veteran” card in a do-or-die game, going with what was clearly a better option in Cole. That’s pretty impressive flexibility from a veteran manager.