LEBO – Anchor and analyst Brian Kenny offered an interesting anecdote leading up to the manager of the year awards yesterday on his Clubhouse Confidential program on MLB Network.
Kenny noted when attending sabermetric conferences over the past several years he would hear a common refrain from frustration analysts working in major league front offices: too little of their work was making its way to the playing surface. Too many old-school coaches and manager were resistant to the data they were receiving from the front office.
That was not the case in Pittsburgh in 2013 and that is a key reason why the Pirates won 94 games and why Hurdle was a deserving NL Manager of the Year winner on Tuesday.
Quite simply, in 2013 Hurdle gave the Pirates a competitive advantage many other managers in baseball did not.
Many major league coaching staffs are either ignoring or only partially employing the data they receive from their in-house analytics departments.
Under Hurdle, the Pirates had a full buy-in in 2013.
As you might have read earlier this year, Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington agreed to implement perhaps the most aggressive defensive plan in major league history this season.
The Pirates increased their use of shifts by 500 percent and ranked near the top of the game with 494 shifts. The Pirates fully embraced the opponent batted-ball data from Dan Fox and the analytics department. And into those shifts, the Hurdle and Ray Searage had their pitchers increase their groundball rate by throwing more two-seam fastballs. The Pirates’ staff combined for 52.5 groundball rate which was the tops in the major leagues and the highest groundball rate since Fangraphs.com began keeping batted ball data in 2001.
Hurdle said many times this year he didn’t “have all the answers” and has said this season was an organizational effort from top to bottom. But Hurdle was the key bridge to making it happen.
The Pirates’ defensive plan resulted in 68 more defensive runs saved in 2013 vs. 2012. That’s significant impact and a considerable amount of wins added. That’s the difference between making the playoffs and not advancing.
And had Hurdle not evolved as a manager, had he been a close-minded old school type, this buy-in would not have happened.
Said Huntington earlier this year:
“Clint had a multitude of strengths but intelligence and willingness to learn and hear different ideas were some of the things that were very intriguing to us about him. He’s an avid learner and he has a great professional filter. There are some things that don’t work for him. But he is very open to information.”
From the story:
Hurdle is a product of 20th century baseball thought. To earn another job in the 21st century, he knew he had to embrace new-age information. He saw how the game was trending toward a greater acceptance of sabermetrics. He spent time on websites like Fangraphs.com, and he took a job as an MLB analyst where he was exposed to even more cutting-edge information.
“It was definitely a transformation in understanding the game. It has been for me for the last 10 years, especially the last five years,” Hurdle said. “You have to get involved in the information. You’ve got to read. You’ve got to study. You can’t just stick your head in the sand and just say, ‘It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t count. It doesn’t make sense.’ ”
Hurdle had other strengths besides employing data.
He had to be an excellent communicator to have veteran players like Clint Barmes and Neil Walker shift to foreign places on the field. He had to be an excellent communicator to have a veteran pitcher like AJ Burnett trade in reliance of a four-seam fastball for a two-seam fastball.
As Baseball Prospectus editor Ben Lindberg noted Hurdle also kept his pitchers fresh. The Pirates starters had the fewest numbers of pitchers per start this season in baseball, perhaps one reason why there was no second-half collapse.
This is what the 21st century manager should be: an extension of the front office who is an also an excellent communicator with players and can teach concepts and get buy-in. A manager who is not afraid to experiment and go against orthodoxy. Joe Maddon represents this type of leadership in American League.
While some of Hurdle’s value is able to be quantified, his value in the clubhouse and keeping a team loose and focused and avoiding the public’s fascination with win No. 82 and the 20-year playoff drought is impossible to measure. But there might well be value there to.
Quite simply, Hurdle’s openness and ability to adapt to the times and the data gave the Pirates an edge over a team like the Cardinals, which were quite traditional under Mike Matheny. The Cardinals are more talented than the Pirates, but the two teams went 11-11 against each other in 2013.
Yes, you can question some of Hurdle’s lineups and in-game decisions, but on a macro level Hurdle was not just along for the ride he added value to a club.
The Pirates might very well have the NL’s most valuable player and most valuable manager.