People are imperfect, even people who rise to significant levels of personal accomplishment.
Regardless of how good, how talented, how insightful or how experienced a person becomes throughout the course of their achievement, it’s simply human nation to retain, and even develop, certain biases, ticks and habits.
I just wrote a one-sentence lede. That happens to be one of mine.
For Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, one of the things he’s developed over 43 years in professional baseball is that being a productive bench player in the majors is really, really hard.
Hurdle should know. In his 10 seasons as a player in the majors, he started more than a third of the schedule just twice. The rest of the time, he was a back-up, substitute, fill-in, pinch-hitter and jack of all trades willing to do whatever it took to stay on an MLB roster.
That experience has greatly shaped the way Hurdle manages his bench players. Hurdle seems to feel that the way managers of his playing era handled him and other bench players wasn’t particularly conducive to getting top performances out of them and that there is a better way forward for getting the most out of all 25 men on the roster. It’s a topic that he’s particularly passionate about, and when asked about it in late May, here’s what Hurdle had to say:
“I’m fortunate that I have that experience myself personally. There are personal experiences you can draw from. Sometimes, the night before or the day before you know you’re playing them, to give them an at-bat, just to freshen them up before they get their three or four at-bats. Sometimes, you just look at the matchups as we’re moving forward on whether there’s going to be a fit, so you wait for that fit. Sometimes, you can find a fit, a double switch opportunity you just stay aware of them to get the in a game and get them a couple at-bats.
“It comes down to experience, awareness and knowing your players and not being the guy that puts them in (in a tough spot). I’ve been the guy that’s hit after not playing for 15, 16 days, off the closer, with runners on second and third and two outs. Everybody’s cheering for you in the dugout and then you ground out to second. When you get back, there’s nobody in the dugout. It’s a very hollow feeling and one that I re-visit to never be that guy to put them in that situation, to try to find opportunities for them to have success in a hard situation. A lot of times, I’ll be the guy that’s still in the dugout when it’s partially cleared out. I’ll be down there giving them a tap or something, just to let them know that I have some empathy.”
That managerial theory goes a long way to explaining why, in the midst of a horrific slump, Hurdle decided the best thing for Sean Rodriguez was to play him more often, instead of less.
Of course, it’s awfully difficult to suss out any actual results of this strategy. Team results don’t take into account the talents of the individual players. But individual players do come and go. If Hurdle’s theory is correct, players that have been bench players on multiple teams will end up with better performances with the Pirates than under some other managers.
Rodriguez is a readily available case study. In his 11 seasons, he’s started more than half of his team’s games three times, from 2010 to 2012 in Tampa Bay. The rest of the time, he can safely be considered a bench player.
In 2014 in Tampa, Rodriguez got 259 plate appearances over 96 games and posted a .701 OPS. The following season in Pittsburgh, he had 19 fewer at-bats, but got them over 45 more games. His OPS fell 60 points.
On the whole, Rodriguez played 553 games in Tampa with a .678 OPS, 371 with Pittsburgh with a .701 OPS, 15 in Atlanta with a .677 OPS and 71 with the Angels with a .609 OPS. So perhaps there is something to Hurdle’s plan, but it seems far from a dramatic shift.
David Freese is the other Pirates player that’s currently in a bench role and has had playing time elsewhere, but most of his other experience was as a starter. Last season, the Pirates had John Jaso in a similar spot. He’d never started more than 88 games in a season before coming to Pittsburgh. His first season with the Pirates, his .766 OPS was the worst he’d posted in four years. Last year, his .730 OPS was a career low.
Those are just two examples, and don’t even scratch the surface of proving or disproving Hurdle’s theory, but at least as far as recent results go, Pittsburgh isn’t seeing any increase in production levels to coincide with the extra playing time its bench players are getting.
When the bench player in question is a moderate downgrade — Freese is a good example — it might make sense to try things Hurdle’s way and see how they go. When the bench player involved has an OPS 150 points worse than the player he’s replacing, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Rodriguez has always had a solid platoon split. For his career, he has a .762 OPS against left-handed pitchers. Since his 2017 accident, as his overall numbers have cratered, he’s actually done better against lefties, posting an .832 OPS.
When Hurdle looks for opportunities for Rodriguez, the only factor that should come into play is the handedness of the opposing pitcher.