The Pirates have lost a bunch lately – 14 of their last 19 games, to be exact – and have fallen precipitously since reaching the season’s high water mark of 29-18 on May 27th. Losing streaks happen, but for the past few seasons this is where the Pirates have started to pick things up rather than slump. So fans are concerned and they’re looking for somebody to blame.
Certainly, there is plenty of blame to go around. Every member of the bullpen other than Mark Melancon has had one or more bad outings in that stretch. The starting rotation has been lackluster and now has to deal with their best pitcher, Gerrit Cole, being put on the disabled list. But most of the time, the ire of the Pirates fan base most frequently goes toward Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
Taking criticism is part of a manager’s job. Twice a day, Hurdle meets with the media to answer for his decisions on the playing field. While these interactions are certainly more civil than some of the opinions that get thrown around on the internet and on radio talk shows, Hurdle is immediately critiqued after every game and again before the game the next day.
To Hurdle’s credit, he has been a great coach for the Pirates. Hurdle’s unique positivity has helped foster a family-like clubhouse environment that has become helped acquire free agents and convince homegrown stars to stay put. The Pirates skipper has been willing to shirk many of his old school tendencies in favor of nu-baseball analytics in order to help the organization grow.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that Hurdle’s coaching decisions are always perfect. On Twitter, #Hurdled trended at one point, most prominently before the Pirates were a winning team. The hash tag referred to coaching decisions of Hurdle’s that turned out to have a negative impact on the ball game. While #Hurdled is most frequently used without reasonability, there were three notable situations in recent weeks, two of which strangely involved utility player Sean Rodriguez, where that hash tag would have been quite relevant.
In response to the recent outcry over Hurdle’s coaching antics, I have taken the liberty to painstakingly create the scientific #Hurdled System. The Pirates manager’s decisions will be ranked on the following scale:
One Hurdle indicates that the manager made the right call, but it just didn’t work out. Baseball is a game where the best players are often only successful 30 percent of the time. We live in a results-oriented society, however, and the blame has to go somewhere. So it often falls onto the manager even if his decisions are defensible.
Two Hurdles represent the variety of disheartening decisions that Pirates fans have become accustomed to seeing from their team’s manager. Having Rodriguez, Chris Stewart, and Cole Figueroa compiling the bottom half of a Sunday lineup? That’s Two Hurdles. Bunting Starling Marte? Two Hurdles. These are the lingering old school manager techniques that we all hope would have been beaten out of the Buccos skipper by now.
Three Hurdles is the worst. These are the decisions that simply don’t make sense through the traditional or analytical sense. Three Hurdles are nuclear. They aren’t reasonable or defensible.
Why Not Cutch?
The first happened on Sunday June 5th against the annoyingly named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. After long forgotten enemy Albert Pujols hit his 30th career homer versus the Pirates to give the Angels a 5-4 lead in the eighth inning, the Pirates had an opportunity to tie or possibly win the game in the bottom of the ninth.
With one out, Gregory Polanco walked and advanced to third on Jung-ho Kang’s double to right field. Angels closer Huston Street walked Starling Marte to get to Rodriguez, who promptly grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game. On the surface, this doesn’t seem too offensive. Rodriguez was in the lineup and had to come up to bat sometime. It was just unfortunate that his spot came up in the ninth inning with the game on the line. That’s baseball.
Except Hurdle had one particularly appealing option sitting on his bench: Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh’s star center fielder had the day off, but was available to come off of the bench. Now it’s been documented here and elsewhere that McCutchen is having a down year. But in no universe is Sean Rodriguez a better option to hit with the bases loaded in the ninth inning than the former National League Most Valuable Player.
Hurdle’s defense: “Everybody was available. I think we made the moves we wanted to make today, we just didn’t get the results that we wanted.”
Verdict: One defense of Hurdle’s decision could be that McCutchen just does not pinch hit very much. Coming into a game cold to hit live pitching is very difficult. The Pirates also would have been stuck with, presumably, Matt Joyce playing first base. That is certainly not ideal.
But there is a point in a baseball game, particularly the 24th of 31 straight baseball games, where a team has to put all of their chips on the table and go for the win. And when a manager has a choice between his franchise player and a career .242/.296/.410 hitter, that manager should probably go for the gusto. This is a classic Two Hurdle decision, right here.
He didn’t bunt?
Three days later, things were looking up for the Pirates. They had just swept the New York Mets in a double header and were on their way toward completing the series sweep on Wednesday June 8th in Jameson Taillon’s big league debut. The Bucs were up 5-3 headed into the top of the eighth inning when Jared Hughes, who was pitching with a blister on his finger, allowed a two-run home run to Michael Conforto that tied the game and eventually forced it into extra innings.
New York scored a run in the top of the 10th inning to take a 6-5 lead, but two walks by Mets closer Jeurys Familia put runners at first and second. Rodriguez, who began the game at shortstop and eventually moved to left field, came up to bat and, again, promptly grounded into a double play. Francisco Cervelli moved to third, but was stranded there when David Freese was called out on strikes. Game over.
The argument to be made here is whether or not Hurdle should have had Rodriguez bunt with nobody out and runners on first and second. It’s important to note that the player behind Rodriguez, Chris Stewart, is no wizard with the bat himself and that the Pirates were totally out of pitchers. After the game, Hurdle said that if the inning had remained tied, Rodriguez would have been out on the mound to start the 11th.
Hurdle’s Defense: “If you’re looking at our situation, [Cory] Luebke is our last pitcher … You can bunt him, and then what do you do? Do you let Luebke hit because he’s your only pitcher or do you let Stewart hit to drive him in knowing that your next pitcher is going to be Sean Rodriguez? Or do you let Sean Rodriguez hit, drive in the run, and then let Luebke bunt? I decided to gamble and let Rodriguez swing the bat.”
Verdict: This situation does not seem too offensive. Anybody who has read Moneyball, or has even seen the movie, knows two things: That on-base percentage is king and that a team should never, ever bunt. While that’s exaggerated, especially in the National League, an out is indeed often more important than moving runners forward.
In 2016, situations where teams have runners on 1st and 2nd and no outs have yielded an average of 1.45 runs. Situations where teams have runners at 2nd and 3rd and one out have yielded 1.32 runs. Rodriguez grounded into a double play, which was a bad outcome. But the tying run still advanced to third base and the Pirates still had a chance to win. This obviously wasn’t the ideal situation, and maybe Hurdle could have utilized his bench better earlier in the game, but his decision was perfectly defensible. One Hurdle.
Walking for Waino
Pittsburgh’s June 10th game against the St. Louis Cardinals was a wild one. Gerrit Cole left in the second inning with an injury, but relievers A.J. Schugel and Tony Watson held down the fort to allow the Pirates to head into the eighth inning with a 2-0 lead. Unfortunately, Neftali Feliz served up a three-run bomb to Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter in the eighth inning and St. Louis turned the ball over to closer Trevor Rosenthal for the save.
Rosenthal, however, wasn’t able to get it done. The Pirates tied the game in the ninth and almost won (Rodriguez, again, failed in a crucial late-game situation), but the game went to extra innings. In the 12th inning, with a shallow bullpen, usual starter Juan Nicasio made a relief appearance. The righty easily dispatched of the first two batters, but walked Carpenter with hard-hitting shortstop Aledmys Diaz on deck.
This is where things get weird. With two outs and a runner on first, Hurdle decided to intentionally walk Diaz in order to get to Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who was pinch hitting for relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton. Wainwright promptly crushed a two-run double into the North Side Notch and gave the Cardinals the lead. St. Louis would add four more runs that inning and defeat the Pirates 9-3.
Hurdle: “I had a tough decision to make with Diaz. There was a game a few years ago where [Jose] Tabata hit a triple off of the right field wall to beat the Rockies with the pitcher on deck. Not that it was the sole reason, but I figured we would take our chances.”
Verdict: It’s funny that Hurdle’s explanation for this gaffe was essentially, “If Tabata can succeed in this situation, imagine what a capable major league hitter could do!” This was a bad call by Hurdle. Wainwright is surely a higher percentage out than Diaz, but walking the potential game winning run into scoring position just does not make any sense at all. With the speed and power arms that reside in the Pirates outfield, Diaz would have had to hit a double to drive in Carpenter. All Wainwright would have had to do was run into a single to put St. Louis in front. Of course, he did much more than that which solidified this as a Three Hurdle move.