The eye test versus the cold, hard stats is yesterday's war. But when the Pirates' manager reveals he is drawing on everyone from quants to Dorothy Gale, it leaves you a little slack-jawed
This is an article from the March 30, 2015 issue
THERE'S A quote, from that old baseball sage Nietzsche, scribbled on the whiteboard. There are books piled high on the desk—a John Wooden bio; a tome on the Japanese art of continuous improvement, kaizen; and more leadership titles than you'd find on an MBA candidate's Kindle. One step into the manager's office at Pirate City is confirmation that the silver-haired, perma-tanned man behind the desk is not the incurious old-school cliché you once thought he was. Office hours have begun, and as always, the conversation wanders and bends like the Allegheny: When Clint Hurdle opens his mouth, you're never quite sure if what tumbles out next will be a line from Shakespeare or the unlocking of a great baseball mystery.
"I was reading something very interesting recently about the Golden State Warriors," Hurdle, manager of the Pirates, is saying on this spring training morning in Bradenton, Fla. This is how the digressions almost always begin: "I was reading...." Hurdle carries with him on road trips four books at a time (rarely baseball-related) and meticulously studies every scouting report and statistical analysis put in front of him. ("We joke about how efficiently he zeroes in on any inconsistencies or errors," says the team's director of baseball systems development and lead in-house quant, Dan Fox.) This past winter, Hurdle explains, he came across a study of the top team in the NBA. "The Warriors, you look at their best players," the manager continues, "and they are playing fewer minutes but playing better." The piece was about how the Warriors' balanced lineup rotation had fueled their success, which led him to look into the habits of the admittedly less successful Sacramento Kings ("They have something going on too"), which led him to take a close look into player usage in the NHL. "Line changes, the rotation systems—you see their coaches with a stopwatch measuring ice time. I believe there is something to it," Hurdle says. So what, exactly, does this mean for a ball club looking for ways to keep its players performing at an optimal level through a 162-game season? He doesn't yet know (or if he does, he's not telling), but he does know this: "As an organization we always have to be seeking out new and creative ways to stay ahead of the curve."
It's always seemed so easy to peg Clint Hurdle, going all the way back to the late 1970s when he broke into the majors as a hot prospect with the Royals, a cover boy of this magazine before he'd played a full major league season: Too slick, too loud, too entitled—his old roommate, George Brett, not exactly a choirboy himself, was so fed up with the hotshot's partying that he kicked him out of their apartment—the kid seemed like just another overhyped phenom. Which indeed he was: Within four years he was out of Kansas City, and within another five, gone from the game completely. When Hurdle surfaced as a manager 15 years later in Colorado, after a series of minor league positions and a stint as hitting coach, and even after he led those Rockies to a surprise World Series run in 2007 and was hired by the Pirates before the 2011 season, he could never shake another label—Hopelessly Traditional Manager. As he—and he by no means was the only one—sermonized on grit and gushed over "grinders" like Clint Barmes and Brandon Inge, statistical analysts delighted in mocking him and lambasting the Pirates for signing him to an extension in the spring of 2013, after the franchise's 20th straight losing campaign. Then that season the Pirates became one of the best stories in baseball, with a 94-win season in which they began deploying radical defensive shifts, aggressive platooning and creative lineup construction (based not just on traditional batter-pitcher matchup data but also on a hitter's historic performance against pitchers with similar arsenals and arm slots). Along the way they shattered the long-held image of their skipper. "The Clint Hurdle implanted in my mind, and the Clint Hurdle I half-wittingly attempted to plant in your mind, might bear little relation to the real Clint Hurdle," wrote Rob Neyer, then at SB Nation.
Last year the club won 88 games and returned to the postseason, further elevating Hurdle's reputation. The real Clint Hurdle is a baseball lifer who, in his fourth decade in the game, has evolved into an intriguing blend of old school and new school, a perfect fit for a team that has similarly transformed its laughingstock status.
In the hallway of the player clubhouse at Pirate City, inspirational posters line the walls. WE DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR JUST ANOTHER DAY, reads one, over the mug of that great philosopher, Bill Murray. Just outside the clubhouse there are silhouettes of pitchers in action with vision heat maps to indicate where the hitter's eye should be trained. SEE THE BALL, HIT THE PITCH, reads the sign next to a ranking of the Pirates' top hitters by reaction time.
A surrender to innovation is part of the reason the Pirates, after decades of futility, have become the National League's version of the Tampa Bay Rays: a club that has figured out how to win with a shoestring budget. With a payroll that perennially ranks in the bottom third (22nd last year), the Pirates over the last two years have won more games than every club in baseball but the Dodgers, Cardinals, A's and Tigers. They have built a loaded minor league system and, after years of investment, one of the premier programs in Latin America. But the biggest key to their success may be this: The front office and major league coaching staff are on the same page with organizationwide, data-driven decision making.
The turning point for the franchise that was a disgrace not so long ago? You could point to the fall of 2007, when the Pirates tabbed a new general manager: Neal Huntington, a 38-year-old Amherst-educated special assistant to the GM with the Indians, who cleaned house upon his arrival and instilled an emphasis on scouting and player development while simultaneously creating an analytics department headed by former Baseball Prospectus writer Fox. Or you could point to the winter of '10, when the Pirates persuaded Hurdle to turn down an offer from the Mets and instead become the face of a woebegone franchise that hadn't finished above .500 since 1992. Or perhaps it was the moment, two years into Hurdle's tenure, that the manager decided to make what he calls "a lane change"—to "recognize that there was a way the game was going, and it was going to go with me or without me."
Coming off a second straight losing season, Huntington and Hurdle were looking for answers when they met a week after the 2012 season at Hurdle's home in Hampton, Pa. A state-of-the-organization discussion eventually turned into a conversation about the Pirates' coaching staff embracing analytics.
Every team in baseball now has some form of an analytics department (the Phillies being the last to capitulate after the 2013 season). The scouts vs. stats dichotomy, a narrative made famous by Moneyball a decade ago, doesn't really exist in baseball anymore. Every team to some degree is marrying scouting information with analytics. The challenge for teams is no longer in the quest for the best data but rather in the communication between the front office and the coaching staff. A club could have a number-crunching army with the brain power of a billion-dollar hedge fund, and it wouldn't matter if the manager viewed the geeks as an intrusion into the coaching staff's domain. In his first two years with the franchise Hurdle "got his feet wet," as he describes it, meeting regularly with Fox, but during his meeting with Huntington, Hurdle decided it was time to go "all-in." "It was time for me to say, 'You know what, your guys are our guys,'" he says. " 'I want them involved.'"
At the start of the 2013 season Hurdle took it further than anyone imagined: He insisted that Fox and analyst Mike Fitzgerald be present in the coaching room for every advance scouting meeting. At least one of the two would travel with the team, and if they were not in on a meeting in person, they would be on speaker phone. Not only are their voices heard on roster decisions, but they are also part of the coaching staff's day-to-day decision making. The clearest manifestation has been the Pirates' embrace of defensive shifts—they increased their use of shifts in '13 by 400% and last year ranked sixth in baseball—but analytics have also had a clear impact on the pitching staff. Under pitching coach Ray Searage, Pittsburgh has become a Lourdes for pitchers, with veteran hurlers like Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett and Vance Worley finding new success in the Steel City. "As far as we're concerned, [Fox and Fitzgerald] are part of the coaching staff, and they are awesome," says Searage.
It might not be possible to find another organization in which the front office and coaching staff work together as seamlessly as in Pittsburgh. "Clint's willingness to learn is one of his great strengths," says Huntington. "You're talking about a guy with a number of years in the dugout who could very easily be the old-school guy that's done it for a number of years and has his own way. He's the exact opposite. He's always hungering to find ways to make everyone better."
THE SUBJECT in the professor's office has turned to great leaders; Hurdle has been obsessed with this subject lately. This winter he finished off every book written by the pastor John C. Maxwell, and he did a deep dive on Wooden, reading biographies and watching every documentary he could get his hands on. "Let me tell you something," Hurdle is now saying, "Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz was one of the great alltime leaders."
Hurdle is physically imposing, still carrying a football player's build (out of Merritt High School in Florida he had a scholarship to play quarterback at Miami), and with his booming baritone, which would scatter a sidewalk of pigeons, you want to buy whatever the man is selling, even when he's comparing Dorothy Gale to George Patton. "She took three people that were missing something and had them look back inside themselves to find something they thought they never had," he says. "She wanted to go home, that was mission No. 1, but in the end it was all about everyone else."
Every month autograph seekers still send Hurdle a dozen copies of the 1978 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED issue with him on the cover, being hailed as "This Year's Phenom." It was a cover that changed his life, and not for the better. "It is what it is," he says. "I look at that cat, and I'd love to sit down and have a talk with him." After Hurdle failed to live up to the expectations, "there were a number of things that I had to let go of and get over, just because I'd hung on to a lot of things too long. Not being the player everyone thought I should be. Getting the tag of unlimited potential early on, I thought I was bulletproof and was one of those guys that took for granted doing well, and beat myself up when I didn't.
"I've had to be challenged in this game. There probably hasn't been an emotion that hasn't crossed my lap."
The humbling in Kansas City, and again three decades later in Colorado, where he was fired just two years after leading the team to the World Series, has, he will tell you, shaped him into the man who can relate to every kind of player. And that ability has turned even the most analytical minds in the Pirates' organization into believers in the unquantifiable but real power of leadership from the manager's chair. "I will argue that things that take place before seven o'clock and after 10 o'clock are more important than actually what happens during a game," says Huntington. "There are a lot of people who could manage baseball games and make the right tactical decisions, but the ability to understand how to reach different players, motivate a staff and work with a front office and ownership and the media, not many can do that." Says Fox, "There are so many things that I think differently about since my BASEBALL PROSPECTUS days, but certainly the impact that a manager has on the culture of a clubhouse would be near the top."
For much of last season the Pirates wondered whether their manager would even make it through the season. Hurdle's hip began to give out a year ago—by midsummer it was "cartilage on cartilage and the worst physical pain I've ever been in," he says. He went as far as to tell the Pirates' front office to come up with a contingency plan. "There were days where I had to say, if there's another day like this, I'm out," he says.
He powered through, much like his team, which was decimated by injuries—Pittsburgh lost three fifths of its rotation to the disabled list, saw stars Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin shelved for several weeks and still reached the postseason for a second straight year. "We dug one out of the dirt last year," Hurdle says and nods to that Nietzsche quote above him: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."
Hurdle had two hip surgeries this winter, and the limp he'll take out onto the practice field on this morning in Bradenton suggests that his days in the manager's seat may be numbered. But while his 57-year-old body may be betraying him, he has never felt more invigorated with the promise of a new season and, with what he calls the most talented team he's had in Pittsburgh, the possibility of a World Series ring. "I was reading a lot of Wooden this winter," he says. "Something he said really struck me: When your past becomes more significant than your future, you're done. That's Wooden at 92 years old, and it was a lightning bolt for me this winter, because at my age I'm thinking, Wow, what's in front of me still? Running out of time, right now, that's not even a thought for me."
There is still so much left to learn.