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Why Clint Hurdle was a deserving NL Manager of the Year, and why he is the archetype of a 21st century manager

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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.

 

- TS

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Comments

  1. NorthPirateFan says:

    Sorry Travis, but while I agree with a lot of what you say, so long as I’m looking at Pirate lineups with Starling Marte hitting lead off and against RHP, with “speed” in the top of it instead of walks and higher on base percentages and games with far to many innings ending with caught stealings, busted hit & runs and bunt attempts …

    I’m not buying into to the claims of a “full buy-in” by Hurdle.

    I’ll give the man credit where it’s due, he’s efforts on the defensive side and the latitude he’s given Ray Searage with the pitching, but on the offensive side of the game everything he did last year from his roster choices to his lineups (not only the order but routinely starting players in defiance of their clear and obvious platoon limitations) to his in game strategy still wreaks of old school tom-foolery and seems very anti-sabermetrics to me.

    The discrepancy between the Pirates result in statistics we know correlate very strongly with run production and the actual number of runs they scored last year suggests that it’s not lack of available resources and talent that’s keeping the run totals down but how the players available to Hurdle were used.

  2. Steve D says:

    i agree somewhat…bat Walker leadoff against RHP

  3. leefoo says:

    I am still not too thrilled with Hurdle’s in game moves, but as ESPN INsider writer Tim Keating opined, managers have the most effect on their teams within the clubhouse.

    And I have ALWAYS been impressed with Hurdle’s clubhouse acumen, so he has won me over as our manager. At least until he does some stupid in-game move….:) :)

    (pls don’t relay this news to my good buddy Arriba Wilver….and if you do, pls remind him that NH is god. :) )

  4. leefoo says:

    Travis…stupid question…why does your blog entry start with LEBO? There’s a Lebo, Pa, but it is out near where I live. Are you writing from there?

    Foo

  5. BostonsCommon says:

    “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.”
    .
    Some would argue that this lead to an overworked pullpen that logged the second most innings in the NL, and 4th most in MLB (545.2). What I think is interesting, is that of the six guys that carried the load (Wilson, Mazzaro, Watson, Melancon, Morris, and Grilli), not one of them reached career highs in IP. At the big league level maybe they did, but Wilson, Mazzaro, Watson, and Morris were all former starters who didn’t even come close to previous IP totals.
    .
    For all the barking about Melancon being overworked, and his arm was going to fall off…. in 2011 and 2012, he averaged 70.1 IP. His 2013 total…? 71 IP.
    .
    Grilli is the only guy you could make an argument about being overworked, and I think that’s more about his age than his actual pitch counts or inning totals.
    .
    IMO, Hurdle really did a masterful job with the entire staff. You can argue about pulling starters too early, or leaving them in one batter too long. But the bottom line is that those guys got it done…. With the help of the defensive shifts of course :)

  6. Travis Sawchik says:

    NorthPirate,

    Is Marte an ideal lead-off hitter? No. But was he really a bad option for the Pirates? I don’t think so.

    Here’s the OBP leaders for 2013″

    1 Andrew McCutchen .404
    2 Justin Morneau .370
    3 Gaby Sanchez .361
    4 Marlon Byrd .357
    5 Starling Marte .343

    Hurdle elevated Walker to the No. 2 spot against right-handed pitching. I’d have preferred he bat lead-off against right-handers, but he was one slot off.

    And while OBP is king, speed does matter, especially in front of McCutchen.

    Moreover, Marte was also 30th in pitchers seen per plate appearance in the NL and third in the Pirates after Russell Martin and Pedro Alvarez.
    http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/batting/_/league/nl/sort/pitchesPerPlateAppearance/type/expanded

  7. Travis Sawchik says:

    I thought Hurdle did a pretty solid of platooning, too, within the lineup.

    Biggest knock, imo, is traditional alignment of bullpen roles but I think just about every manager deploys closer in the ninth inning.

  8. Travis Sawchik says:

    Good points Boston,

    Hurdle and the Pirates were very careful about not only starter workloads but bullpen workloads. They tracked just about everything including how many times relievers were up warming in the bullpen.

  9. Travis Sawchik says:

    Lebo for Mt. Lebanon

  10. NorthPirateFan says:

    Still not buying it Travis. Your claim was that Clint Hurdle was full in for 2013, using the results from 2013 certainly isn’t going to bolster that claim.

    If Clint Hurdle had fully embraced the sabermetric approach for the season the numbers would have dictated that Travis Snider should been playing in RF full time, as he claimed he would be but didn’t, and would have hit lead off against every RH starter at the very least with Neil Walker as the second most obvious choice.

    Starling Marte is not only not the ideal lead off hitter, his utter lack of plate discipline and low OBP would never pass muster as a lead off candidate by any sabremetric analysis. Heck Russell Martin would probably show as a better choice.

    Seriously, I’ve listed numerous example of Hurdle’s refusal to employ any sort of statistical rational on the offensive side of the game …

    Can you point to a single thing over the course of the 2013 season that would stand up to sabermetric scrutiny?

  11. Nate83 says:

    I will be the first to admit that I was not a huge fan of Hurdle’s at the end of last year. I didn’t like some of the in game decisions he made and thought he cost them a few games and actually considered it a coin flip on if he should be back or not. Boy was I wrong. I still don’t agree with some of the decisions he makes but the good he brings to this franchise far outweights any in game decisions he makes. He truly does have his finger on the pulse of the team and knows which buttons to push and at what time. The Pirates and their fans are fortunate to have such a great man leading the team.

  12. Travis Sawchik says:

    Again, Marte’s OBP was third among Pirates who played the majority of the season with the team. Only McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez were better. Is he the prototype leadoff hitter? No. The point is the Pirates don’t have one. If the Pirates had Kenny Lofton in his prime, he’d be batting lead off. Perhaps Polanco is a candidate to bad lead off when he arrives.

    (Also, when Marte does get on base, he’s the best baserunner the Pirates have so there’s value there, too.)

    Hurdle’s approach to defense and limiting pitching workloads is a complete buy-in to new-age concepts. Yes, some of the day-to-day lineups and decisions were more traditional. But some weren’t. Hurdle did platoon positions and he did bat Neil Walker No. 2 in the lineup vs. RHP.

    Overall, I can’t think of another NL manager who did a better job of positively impacting the team. (Joe Maddon is still the best in baseball).

  13. NorthPirateFan says:

    Really, I thought exactly the opposite. I’m sure there are some more detailed stats available to confirm or deny that I don’t have access to, but Travis Snider got a mere 68 plate appearances in April. How does the the left handed player we were told had the starting RF job to lose find himself on the bench the first two games of the season against RH starters if platoons and sabermetrics are in play? Because Clint Hurdle was convinced against reason, logic and the numbers Gabby Sanchez could be the everyday first baseman and he started pushing Jones to RF.

    Pick any three games randomly through the season I’ll bet you’ll find either Snider, Jones or both are not starting against a RH pitcher. Neither Jones nor Snider were given consistent playing time when the platoon splits called for it and there were several instance when Jones after getting back to back starts and performing well was inexplicably on the bench again for no apparent reason against the next RH pitcher the team faced.

    Garret Jones with 431 plate appearances saw his fewest numbers of starts and plate appearances since 09 and Snider with 285, well that’s just baffling lack of playing time for a left handed hitter they traded for to start in RF.

    Even in the playoffs against the Cardinals who started all RH pitchers, how does Jones not get a single start based simply on the platoon situation but especially after Marte just melts down at the plate night after night?

  14. Nate83 says:

    I don’t completely disagree with you on the Jones comments, but 431 is a pretty good amount still especially since he only had a handful over the last 30 games. So probably about 400 over the first 132 games isn’t exactly riding the bench.
    .
    I’m not sure I completely understand your Snider comments. No platoon split would say play this guy who has consistantly underperformed over periods of 4 years now. It’s pretty obvious that Snider is a 4th or 5th outfielder at this point. He shouldn’t get any more then 200 at bats in any one year. I’m saying that as a person who was a fan of Snider but he just doesn’t have it. Could he become Brandon Moss? Sure I guess he could but he seems to have had his chances and proved he wasn’t good enough.

  15. NorthPirateFan says:

    Again, as someone with a sabermetric background you know that’s superficial analysis of Marte’s performance. His overall on base looks quite acceptable for one reason and one reason only – the degree to which he mangles LHP, to a tune of .466, which covers his completely inadequate .315 against RHP.

    Since we know that in any given year a full time player will face more RHP than LHP we can look as see that indeed Starling Marte in 103 plate appearances against LHP he hit .402/.466/.587 – 1.053 while in the 456 plate appearances against RHP hit hit .254/.315/.409 – .724

    We’re not talking here about Marte’s over all production, we’re talking about whether Clint Hurdle is employing sabermetric principles and ideas in all facets of his job. If you take those numbers sans the name and given them to any sabermetrician or subject them to any rigorous analysis you will come up with the same answer every time: that this guy should not ever be hitting lead off and putting up a .724 OPS in 80% of his teams games and he’s prime candidate for a full time platoon.

    But Clint Hurdle doesn’t see that, he see speed, he sees stolen base totals and in his very non-sabermetric approach to offense those two things = lead off hitter.

  16. NorthPirateFan says:

    My comments regarding Snider are this, he may be a 4 or 5 outfield but until he is consistent, regular playing time nobody is ever going to know for certain. And since the Pirate have a left fielder who hits abysmally against RHP and he is left handed a much sounder sabermetric approach last which is what is being debated whether Clint Hurdle has indeed embraced the statistical approach in all things, would have been to platoon them.

    A manager claiming to have embraced sabermetrics does not sit his LH hitting “starting right fielder” choosing to start poorly performing RH hitters ahead of him … and the use of Travis Snider this past season is merely evidence contradicting Hurdle’s supposed full embrace of a statistical approach to the game.

  17. NMR says:

    What is the classic line about a manager being as good as the players in front of him?

    Pretty much sums up Hurdle’s tenure as Pirate manager to a T, does it not?

    I truly do like the guy, think he is a fine manager, and love him representing Pittsburgh’s baseball team…

    But come on.

    All these intangibles he possesses didn’t mean squat in ’11 and ’12, did they. Amazing how much better he “managed” when Huntington put a complete team on the field.

  18. I will repeat what I wrote when you initially made these narrow-vision comments: to say that Hurdle presented “the most aggressive defensive plan in major league history” belittles history. The Milwaukee Brewers have been using this aggressive deployment of fielders for 3 seasons now.

    I’ll bet you think you married “the most beautiful girl in the history of the world.”

    It seems to me that Hurdle’s conservation of his starting pitchers may have played a more significant part in the Pirates’ success in 2014.

    Over-statements take away from what you were trying to excellently present. Over-statements may even get you in Bleacher Report. Yet they do not do your credibility any good. See Ian Rappaport.

  19. Brian Kenny was the one who I heard say yesterday afternoon that Max Scherzer deserved to finish no better than 3rd in American League Cy Young voting, because 21 – 3 doesn’t matter.

  20. Ghost says:

    I honestly don’t get what you’re saying about Travis Snider. You state Snider should have been leadoff and the starter in right field. You preach OBP. But Jose Tabata had a higher OBP against righties than Snider’s unimpressive .280. When Byrd came, his was higher too. Heck, even Alex Presley had a higher OBP against righties (and against lefties) than Snider did. Snider’s a nice guy, but he’s not a starter at any position on any team.

  21. Vic says:

    >>>He had to be an excellent communicator to have veteran players like Clint Barmes and Neil Walker shift to foreign places on the field. <<<

    Are you kidding me? What are they going to do, stay where they want to and defy the manager? That's like saying he convinced Walker to bat 6th.

  22. Ghost says:

    Groaty,
    In a vacuum, I don’t highly regard W-L records either. How many times did A.J. lose this year after pitching superbly, but not getting any run support. Meanwhile, Melancon picked up a win or two this year after first blowing a save.

  23. BMTIB thinks so highly of A.J.’s season performance that they did not offer him a Qualifying Offer and have not yet even offered him any kind of contract for next year.

    So much for considering him so important that they push to have him part of team.

    Guess that “best K per 9 innings” and “Highest groundball %” in NL are like “Wins”———they don’t matter!

  24. Nate83 says:

    His importance to the front office has nothing to do with the QO. They are not going to spend 1/6th of their payroll on one player which 14.2 million would have been. They like him but they want him back for 10-12 million. Their market size and annual payroll doesn’t allow them to spend 14 million on any one player. No player has ever made that much for the Pirates and they are not going to start with a 34 year old pitcher.

  25. NMR says:

    Come on buddy, you should know better than to engage Groat when he’s on a roll. :)

  26. Travis Sawchik says:

    Groat,

    While it’s true other teams shifted before the Pirates, no other team had their pitchers focus on throwing two-seam fastballs while combining it with the shifts. That was a first. The Pirates’ staff combined for an MLB record 52.5 percent groundball rate in 2013

  27. Travis Sawchik says:

    The Cardinals rarely shifted this year because Mike Matheny said his pitchers were not comfortable with it. But it’s a manager’s job to communicate why doing that would be beneficial.

    Hurdle and his staff showed players the data this spring. They showed them why they were going to be doing this, it wasn’t just an order with no explanation. I think getting the players to understand and buy in has to carry some meaning.

  28. Travis Sawchik says:

    Ideally, Walker would bat lead off against RHP and Marte would bat leadoff against LHP. I agree. And I wrote earlier this year about how Walker would be the team’s lead-off hitter against RHP.

    My point is this was a club with lacking offensive components so I think the Marte batting lead-off thing was overblown. Particularly since he is by far the team’s best baserunner. You want his speed to impact games as often as possible.

    A full sabermetric buy-in by Hurdle is perhaps hyperbolic on my part. … But I don’t think any other manager in the NL did a better job of impacting games at a macro level better than Hurdle in large part because of the full commitment to the defensive plan and keeping pitchers fresh.

  29. NorthPirateFan says:

    @Travis Okay I can live with that :-) Really my intent is not to rag on you and pick apart your point so much as it is to hopefully raise the issue and by doing so maybe, with the great success he had employing sabermetric principles on the defensive side of thing, maybe Clint Hurdle will be compelled (or goaded) into embracing it a little more on the offensive side.

    Here’s hoping.

 
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