Clint Hurdle’s managerial record:
first half: 407-449 (.475 winning %)
second half: 365-417 (.466 winning %)
137-106 first half (.563 winning %)
91-123 second half (.425 winning %)
t’s easy to look at Clint Hurdle’s time as head coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates and say he’s been instrumental in bringing the team back to respectability. In the 15 years before Hurdle arrived, the team never really flirted with finishing over .500. They hadn’t been more than a few games over .500 at any point in a season since 1992 and only participated in a division-championship race one time (1997) between Barry Bonds’ departure and Hurdle’s arrival in 2011 because the NL Central was so bad in 1997. Under Hurdle, the team has performed well in the first half and performed poorly – sometimes extremely, depressingly, historically poorly – in the second half.
What’s not easy – especially when talking to Pirates fans and Pittsburgh media – is bringing up Hurdle’s managerial record (one winning season in 10 years as an MLB head coach before 2013) and suggesting maybe he’s not such a great manager. Maybe Hurdle isn’t even a good manager. Everyone knows the Pirates have not finished over .500 since 1992, so their constant flirtations with .500 (and with the playoffs) since Hurdle arrived are tantalizing, and make it seem like he has single-handedly turned things around. But GM Neil Huntington has brought in good-to-great pitching, and that is the reason the Pirates have been more competitive since Hurdle arrived, though they haven’t accomplished anything under Hurdle yet – not a winning season (which will come this year), a wildcard berth (which will probably come this year), a division championship or a playoff win.
In fact, under Hurdle the Pirates have accomplished only one thing – their performance has declined sharply in the second half. Is it a mystery why that’s happened? Is it the players? Is it the hitting coach? Faulty minor-league development? Are PNC Park’s luxurious player facilities too coddling? Seriously, is it a surprise that a manager whose career winning percentage is .475 would have trouble leading a team of misfits through a 162-game season?
Hurdle has not been blessed with great hitters in his time with the Pirates, besides Andrew McCutchen. And even Cutch, before this year, performed better in the first half than the second half in Hurdle’s first two seasons as Pirates manager, when he coached the team to two of the worst collapses in the history of baseball. Garrett Jones is dying alive at the plate this year but continues to get starts against righties. Pittsburgh native Neil Walker, the Pirates’ starting second baseman, absurdly insists (with apparently no pushback from coaches) on batting right-handed against left-handed pitchers when that routine is clearly cutting his OPS in half. Slugger Pedro Alvarez, the team’s second-best hitter during Hurdle’s time with the Bucs, is a manager’s nightmare. “El Toro” might be the worst 30-homer hitter in modern baseball. He strikes out much more than Dave Kingman; gets on base far less than Mark Reynolds; and, despite leading the NL in home runs this year, has an OPS in the .700s and an OBP under .300. That is maddening and makes you wonder what a good hitting coach (or sports psychologist) could do for Alvarez, who might win MVP someday if he can even muster a .250 batting average.
But in any situation, any job, any project, school, whatever…repeated declines in the second half of your journey are alarming. Hurdle’s first-half winning percentage as a manager is .475, and is second-half winning percentage is .466. In his time with the Pirates, those numbers are an incredible .563 and .425. It is impossible not to wonder why this man has had such a problem getting consistency from his players in Pittsburgh. Then again, the Pirates have been consistent under Hurdle – good in the first half, mediocre-to-awful in the second. That screams of a leadership problem.
The trait Hurdle supporters, and his players, point to most as his best is that no matter the outcome of a game, no matter what kind of losing streak his team is mired in, he has the same smiling, positive, player-friendly manner. To me, that’s Hurdle’s worst trait. When things go wrong, when an approach (or lack thereof) is not working, it is necessary to change. To do things differently. On that note, demoting Jeff Locke was a good start, after the young starter had an All-Star first half and fell apart after the All-Star break. James McDonald was allowed to struggle in the bigs way too long last year. Trading for Marlon Byrd was another big positive, as in 2012 the Pirates disappointed fans, and some players, by not doing nearly enough to improve the team at the trade deadline.
But those moves were ultimately up to GM Neal Huntington, who made a slick move to get Byrd and the underrated John Buck. Not to mention Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett. Who knows, maybe Hurdle would’ve treated Jeff Locke like he did McDonald last year and keep not only sending him out every five days even when his performance was hurting the team but keeping him on the mound to blow leads in crucial games. We’ll never know.
What I’m curious about is what the Pirates were thinking in extending Hurdle’s contract after last season, his second consecutive season leading the Pirates to an ugly collapse. Why not wait until he helps the team to 82 wins, which hasn’t happened in Pittsburgh for 21 years, or leads them to a playoff berth? One wonders how a different result can come with the same leadership, although the ultimate result for the Pirates has been higher attendance, more merchandise sales and much, much bigger national attention. There will be no epic collapse this year, but the Pirates are .500 in the second half after going 20 over .500 in the first half. That is not good by any standards. Though they will almost definitely win the second wildcard spot, Pittsburgh is in danger of missing the playoffs after having a double-digit lead over Arizona earlier this month. It is more of a slow, obvious decline this year than an epic collapse.
Still, with a month to go the Pirates are one game out of first place and 21 games over .500. I would take that every single season as a card-carrying baseball fanatic born and raised in the Steel City. Clint Hurdle’s affability and positivity, perhaps his belief in his players, has obviously helped the team to impressive first halves in his three years so far. But it should be OK to wonder whether those same unflappably positive ways – the antithesis of Jim Leyland, who called out his players viciously in his first year in Detroit, when they reached the World Series, and has been known to publicly call out even his best players – have contributed to not only the Pirates’ second-half drop-offs under Hurdle but Hurdle’s terrible career record as a manager, which I’ll list below.
Maybe this year is different. Maybe, in the face of the Pirates’ ongoing slump, which finds them 1-4 in their last five games (all against bad teams), Hurdle will constructively voice his displeasure with the woeful offensive performances the Pirates regularly display against crappy starting pitchers, who too often put up career numbers when facing Pittsburgh. Maybe Hurdle will start managing the bullpen and starting pitchers better, not leaving aging starter