Read Part 1 of the series right here.
Last time, we examined the good and bad of Pittsburgh Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting, President Frank Coonelly, and General Manager Neal Huntington. Here, we’ll take a look at the positives and negatives of some of the Pirates’ other decision makers.
Clint Hurdle, Manager
The Good: Hurdle was a well-respected man around baseball when joining the Pirates in 2011, and the fans and media took to him immediately. This author still recalls watching all of PNC Park give Hurdle’s jumbotron “thank you” to the fans a standing ovation at the conclusion of 2011- when the Pirates finished 72-90, and suffered the worst late-season collapse in MLB history. The Pittsburgh media are just as Hurdle-philic, rarely questioning any of the manager’s in-game decisions. Unlike previous skipper Jim Tracy, Hurdle keeps clubhouse conflicts out of the media spotlight, and rarely if ever calls his players out publicly. The Pirates seem to enjoy playing for him.
The Bad: While this author generally considers the importance of an MLB manager to be significantly overblown, there is unfortunately still a lot here. Hurdle has now managed 10 seasons in the Majors (8 full), and only has a .461 winning % to show for it. This includes only 1 trip to the playoffs (managing the Colorado Rockies in 2007), and only 1 above .500 finish (also 2007). Hurdle seems to have just as much trouble breaking .500 over the past 10 years, as the Pirates have had over the past 20.
Hurdle’s in-game managerial skills are unfortunately archaic. His “by the book” beliefs include bunting frequently- even with the heart of his order- despite a wealth of more recent statistical evaluation which shows that extensive bunting hurts a team’s offensive production. He’s run the Pirates out of many innings with overly-aggressive, poorly-timed steal attempts. Most significantly, his late-game bullpen management drew the ire of many fans this past August and September. Hurdle refused to call upon the team’s best relievers- Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli- if not a textbook hold situation for Grilli, or save opportunity for Hanrahan. This led to a wealth of situations in which poor relievers were asked to succeed in game-defining appearances. Hanrahan and Grilli watched the Pirates blow too many leads while parked on the bench, waiting for their “ideal” situations that never came.
Included in Hurdle’s “old school” mentality is a loyalty to underperforming veterans like C Rod Barajas and SS Clint Barmes, who, despite being 2 of the worst regulars in all of Major League Baseball, still received the majority of starting nods from Hurdle without question.
Lastly, at some point fans need to question Hurdle’s role in overseeing the two biggest collapses in MLB history, and in consecutive seasons no less! Here in 2012, the Pirates became the first team to ever be 16 games over .500, and still finish below .500. Despite only being 2 games or less out of the Wild Card spot throughout much of September, the team generally appeared listless and unmotivated. Some of that has to fall on Hurdle.
Kyle Stark and Greg Smith, Assistant GMs
The Good: The hirings of both men in 2007 were generally well-received. Greg Smith (41 at the time) was initially hired as the Pirates’ Scouting Director. He had 16 years of experience, spending the previous 11 helping build a very strong farm system for the Detroit Tigers, the benefits of which Tigers’ fans still see today.Despite far less MLB experience, Stark (then only 29) was hired away from Huntington’s former employer, the Cleveland Indians. Assisting in scouting, player development, and big-league operations, Huntington considered Stark a rising star with “very high upside”, hiring him as the Pirates’ Player Development Director.
The Bad: Even if we overlook the incredibly embarrassing Stark-led Navy seal training and subsequently leaked “Hoka Hey!” Hell’s Angel/Hippie e-mail of this past fall, there is still concern. Simply put:
- The Pirates have drafted poorly over the past 5 years (Smith’s realm).
- And of their few well-regarded selections, the majority have struggled, regressed, or simply not lived up to their potential. Some have even been seriously injured in non-baseball-related team activities (Stark’s realm).
Unlike a General Manager, whose decisions are directly attributable to him, it’s difficult to lay all of the blame on Stark and Smith, as both represent the efforts of hundreds of coaches, scouts, trainers, and other personnel. Still, they represent the system, and the system has produced little over the past 5 seasons.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ Players
The Good: Despite the record-setting collapse, one could argue that the 2012 club still exceeded beginning-of-year expectations. The majority of players reached or surpassed their production estimates. CF Andrew McCutchen enjoyed a career year that garnered him MVP consideration. 2B Neil Walker proved to be an above-average MLB regular, while 3B Pedro Alvarez rebounded from a disastrous 2011 to show flashes of the potent power bat he could be for years to come. For a time, SP James McDonald and A.J. Burnett were the best 1-2 punch in the National League, and the aforementioned Hanrahan and Grilli preserved the majority of late-inning leads.
The Bad: Even with nearly every player on the roster playing to their abilities, there simply isn’t enough talent on this club to be a serious playoff contender. The “collapse” of August-September was arguably more a regression to the mean than a bona fide failure of an elite team. While the players enjoyed many successes, there were exceptions. While no one can fault Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas for accepting the ridiculous contracts given to them by GM Neal Huntington in the offseason, both players were far worse than they’d ever been before. SP Erik Bedard should’ve been a solid free agent get on Huntington’s part, but he had by far his worst season since his rookie debut in 2002.
Finally, watching this collection of players limp through September was infuriating for many fans. Had you told the team in March that they would only be 2 games out of the Wild Card spot in mid-September, the players probably would’ve been ecstatic. But when it finally happened, it looked as if the team lacked any confidence or motivation, as if they knew they were destined to miss the playoffs, so they were just going through the motions until it was over.
Thanks for reading. In Part 3, we’ll rank where the blame for the Pirates’ struggles should be assigned. All of our choices are:
Owner Bob Nutting (part 1)
President Frank Coonelly (part 1)
General Manager Neal Huntington (part 1)
Manager Clint Hurdle
Greg Smith and Kyle Stark, Assistant GMs