Pittsburgh Pirates: Were 3-year Huntington/Hurdle extensions justified?, part 2

Part 2 in a 2-part series; opening image credit Sports Illustrated.  Read Part 1- weighing GM Neal Huntington’s extension- right here.  Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug

After steering his 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates through a previously tumultuous August-September stretch to clinch the club’s first playoff appearance in 21 years, the club kicked off the 2014 campaign by extending Manager Clint Hurdle through 2017, with a 2018 option.  But is the veteran skipper the right man to guide this franchise through almost the remainder of the 20-teens?

Manager Clint Hurdle:  Positives

Image credit bp.blogspot.com

1.  Hurdle is very likeable to the fans and media alike.  And that may not seem like it’s really important, but when you compare him to his predecessors like the robotic John Russell and neurotic, roleplay-philic Jim Tracy, it’s a huge step in the right direction.  The only danger here is that Pittsburgh fawns over Hurdle so much that they often avoid asking him questions that need asked, but more on that later.

2.  He’s shown a willingness to embrace *some* sabermetric thinking, like the much-heralded defensive shifts the Pirates showcased throughout 2013.  Although some studies show that the value of such shifts are overblown, it’s important that a largely “old school” manager is willing to consider some change.

3.  Unlike previous Pirates’ skippers, Hurdle rarely if ever is critical of his players in the public, nor airs the team’s dirty laundry openly.  While some of his press conference answers often come off as cliché manager-speak, Clint Hurdle rarely says the wrong things to the media (call him the “anti-Frank Coonelly“).  If there are conflicts within the team, they stay in the locker room, and his players seem to respect him.

4.  The normally veteran-philic manager is ever so slowly beginning to give younger Pirates the chances they need to prove themselves part of the club.  While there were clearly no better options than OF Starling Marte or SP Gerrit Cole, it is impressive that Hurdle continues to start 2nd year SS Jordy Mercer despite his early-season struggles, while the tempting gloved specter of veteran Clint Barmes lingers on the bench.  Further, Hurdle gave the surprising nod to Cole over veteran A.J. Burnett in the deciding Game 5 of the 2013 NLDS against the St. Louis CardinalsCole took the loss, but the rookie did everything he could to keep the Bucs within striking distance against a dialed in Adam Wainright.

Great scenes of 2013; image credit zimbio

5.  Hurdle has handled his pitching staff exceptionally well.  Injuries to the starting rotation have been kept to a minimum, outside of what was probably a chronic forearm situation with Wandy Rodriguez in 2013.  Hurdle got the most out of a bullpen relatively thin on experience, and the 8th-9th combo of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli had only 7 blown saves between them in 2013.

6.  The 3rd time was a charm, as Hurdle skippered the 2013 team through the treacherous August-September waters which permanently moored their playoff ships in both 2011 and 2012.  Regardless of how much you personally believe MLB managers affect the outcomes of games, a 94-win season out of a low payroll team is very impressive.

Manager Clint Hurdle:  Negatives

Ruh-oh; image credit sportsillustrated

1.  While the 2013 season was a thing of beauty, the Pirates under Hurdle also set the wrong types of MLB records in 2011 and 2012, becoming the 1st team in MLB history to be at least 16 games over .500 at any point, and still finish below .500 (2011), and setting a MLB record for furthest finish behind 1st place (18 games) after being in 1st place as late in the season as they were.  These were significant collapses.  The 2011 season in particular represented a gigantic swing of 34 games (16 over -> 18 under), and despite all of his motivational gumption in the world, Clint Hurdle wasn’t able to do anything to stop these free falls.

2.  Much like Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin, this fellow Pittsburgh coach is so embraced by the city that he can often give canned answers to avoid meaningful questions, and nobody in the media will call him out on it.  During a press conference after a controversial play at the plate during the Pirates’ 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs on April 10th, Hurdle remarked that he didn’t feel like challenging the call, and was simply dismissive about it to the media, despite it being a critical juncture in the game.  That’s the double-edged sword of having a popular coach- nobody presses them to provide depth to surficial or even contradictory statements!

Bonk; image credit businessinsider

3.  While Hurdle has come around to defensive sabermetrics, he continues to fall into the doldrums of classic NL managing, including an over-reliance on bunts and “small ball” tactics that often hinder his club from potential breakout innings.  In fairness, GM Neal Huntington has done relatively little to provide Hurdle with legitimate middle-of-the-order hitters to complement Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, including completely punting on the entire 2013-2014 offseason.  A hallmark of many National League managers is a desire to “insert themselves into the game”, and Hurdle is no different, despite a growing mountain of evidence indicating that an abundance of sac bunts hinders an offense more than they help.

So are the Pirates in good hands with Hurdle, or are there enough concerns to make his 3-4 year extension a gamble?  Make your vote heard!  Thanks for reading.

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