How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Tolerate Clint Hurdle

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At 10:46 in the morning on the last day of baseball’s regular season, the fateful decision was handed down: the Pirates would start Gerrit Cole to stay alive for the NL Central title. This caused no small amount of consternation among Pirate fans because even with a win, the odds of winning the NL Central were pretty long. It was, also, not really a very surprising decision given the person making it. More on this in a minute.

All of the feelings that Clint Hurdle evokes in Pirates fans are brought out by this call, and these feelings are not unjustified. And yet here I am, surprisingly at ease. I am not entirely sure how I got here, but I did and I’d like to share my secret.

Clint Hurdle is an infuriating figure to sabermatrically inclined Pirate fans. He makes a lot of decisions that go against contemporary baseball wisdom, choosing instead the path of hoary tradition; he does this not merely sometimes, but more or less exclusively and all the time. Here is an incomplete list of how this manifests:

  • Hurdle bunts too often

    • with good hitters

      • even though the Pirates are collectively bad at bunting

        • which is surprising, since it is so critical to the strategy of “bunting often”

  • Hurdle saves his closer for the save in tie games on the road

    • for example, last night closer Mark Melancon and everyone else watched John Axford load the bases in the 10th inning and then hand the ball to Bobby LaFramboise

      • The Pirates lost in the 10th

  • Hurdle bats Starling Marte -- second half OPS of .985 -- 6th because “he has hit well in that spot” and reserves the second slot for whoever is playing left field

    • he’s not wrong! Marte’s OPS batting 6th is 1.118

      • but, come on, he’s wrong

So why and how have I come to love this man? Because he fills a very specific role, one often denigrated but I think more important than is generally understood or admitted: Hurdle absorbs the sabermetric message of the front office, puts it in to action, and creates an atmosphere that makes the Pittsburgh Pirates the happiest fucking team in baseball. Here is an incomplete list of how this manifests:

  • The Pirates are among the most aggressive shifting defenses in baseball

    • Hurdle was convinced by the data the team provided to him

      • even though it alienated A.J. Burnett

        • who they did not really try to resign

  • The pitching staff is full of extreme ground ball pitchers that outperform their FIP because FIP assumes that all contact is the same, but the Pirates don’t

  • The team has more goofy rituals than a little league squad

    • the Z after every hit

    • the gauntlet after every home run

    • the outfield brushing off each other’s shoulders after a win

    • this weird infield thing I can’t even describe after a win

    • chasing down and mobbing any player who gets a walk-off hit as soon as the run crosses the plate

      • the team truly loves the old guy who is notionally their boss, and love each other

        • I think it matters, even if that makes me look silly

General Manager Neal Huntington telegraphed what he was looking for in a Q&A back in 2007. Take a look at the first question about utilizing advanced statistics (he will) and then a little farther down, for what he was looking for in a manager:

“We are looking for a manager that brings positive energy and passion to the clubhouse. He will be a tireless instructor, an exhaustive communicator and will instill discipline and a sense of pride in the Pirates, what we stand for and how we play the game.”

In other words: Clint Hurdle. A clubhouse guy who will pass along what the front office believes in. A leader who isn’t also expected to be the stats guy, appreciates the wisdom of the nerds and will manage a game like a human. Which gets us back to the decision to start Cole in Game 162.

The Giants are pitching Madison Bumgarner in the wild card game, full stop. They announced what seems like ages ago that they were not going to try for the home wild card game if it meant making Bumgarner unavailable to pitch that day. Meanwhile, the Pirates stuck to their rotation, chased down the Giants and find themselves within a game of the Cardinals on the last day of the season. But:

  • the Pirates are facing Johnny Cueto as he tries for 20 wins this afternoon

  • the Cardinals are scheduled to start Adam Wainwright against the last place Diamondbacks tonight, so the Cardinals can watch and decide what to do

  • even if today’s games go well, that means a trip to St. Louis for the tiebreaker tomorrow, with either Jeff Locke or Vance Worley on the mound

    • possibly against a held-back Wainwright

  • if any of this doesn’t go right, Liriano and Cole will watch Edinson Volquez face Madison Bumgarner in the wild card game

Given all of what is going on in those bullet points, the consensus among Pirate fans was “forget the division; save Francisco Liriano or Cole to face Bumgarner, since that is the must-win game.” Chasing an unlikely division win may blow up in the team’s face twice, first with a failure to win the division and ALSO ending up with a suboptimal lineup for the wild card game. I am sympathetic to this point of view. I feel in my bones that it is probably right. But I also knew this wasn’t what Hurdle would choose, and that is why I love him for it.

The proposed plan is defeatist. It says that the third starter on our team -- a pitcher who has given up 0 runs in 14 innings in his last two starts -- is not good enough to pitch in an important game. It distrusts an offense that has proven itself over the course of a season. It is simply not the way a team of proud and confident men, for all the unfortunate side effects of disordered masculinity, is going to choose to approach the situation. This was a team-wide decision that also reflects the thinking of its coach. Unlike the Giants’ decision to ignore home field advantage, winning the NL Central would pay real dividends.

So Hurdle will try to win. The Pirates will give up on nothing, let the games play out and trust the rotation five deep. Never give up, never surrender. Any other decision is inconceivable.

Their leader believes in them, they believe in themselves. This is the team we have chosen. The Pirates built the team with a statistical plan and then put it in the hands of a manager who will integrate that plan with the help of the living, breathing people in his charge. Whatever inefficiencies there are come packaged in the same DNA that made the team the whole that it is, like pale sun-averse skin with sexy red hair.

Clint Hurdle is the manager that brought this team here. I have no choice but to believe in him.

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