I was just wrong about Clint Hurdle

Joe Sargent

I've written a great number of words over the years. It's possible that I've written as many words about baseball over the last 15 or 20 years as anyone. For the InterWebs, anyway. I have completely forgotten at least 99 percent of those words. That's partly due to the semi-ephemeral nature of the medium, but mostly due to the sheer volume of the words. One just can't remember everything.

You know what does tend to stay with me, though? The negative words. You might think those come easy, but they don't. But that's not precisely true. They come easily to me. Maybe too easily. But the publication of those words doesn't sit easily within me. I have written, many times over the years, that this fellow or that is incompetent and doesn't deserve his job. Should be fired, no less.

This isn't something that should easily be said about anyone who's not a crooked, hypocritical politician.

And yet, I've said it. Many times. And I carry many of those words with me. Here's something I wrote last winter when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle's contract was extended one year, through 2014:

To be sure, Hurdle's not been blessed with star-studded rosters. Still, you have to wonder if, when you've got a manager who's had 10 shots at a winning season and converted just once, maybe it's time to give somebody else a shot. Now, Hurdle was already signed through 2013; this latest news doesn't change anything at all for this season. But from my admittedly 2,500-miles-away perspective, I probably would have jettisoned Hurdle after two straight second-half collapses. Even if I couldn't put my finger on exactly what, if anything, Hurdle contributed to those collapses.

Earlier this season, even as the Pirates played like a playoff team, I still had serious doubts about Hurdle. Why did he take so long to replace Clint Barmes with a shortstop who could hit? Why did he show so much faith in Brandon Inge? Didn't the Pirates need a manager who could anticipate these obvious personnel moves long before some joker on the Internet?

But of course, the manager makes out the lineups but not the roster. Hurdle couldn't play Jordy Joe Mercer at shortstop when Jordy Joe Mercer was playing for the Indianapolis Indians. Hurdle didn't have to play Inge as often as he did, but there are only so many roster spots and someone has to play.

That isn't why I'm writing, though. I'm writing because 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.

Monday, TribLive.com published a highly interesting article about the Pirates' defensive shifting, which seems to be one of the many important reasons for their wonderfully surprising season. Now, you might guess that Clint Hurdle did not devise these shifts. As I wrote last week, managers aren't really expected to innovate. At best, they are expected to consider and sometimes even embrace innovative ideas from the guys who don't wear uniforms. At worst, which actually means most of the time, their first impulse is to reject just about anything they weren't taught 30 years ago by some baseball lifer who played for Casey Stengel before he was a genius.

In 2008, the Pirates hired Dan Fox away from Baseball Prospectus. Fox's work didn't show up on the field immediately. In 2010, the Pirates' defense was terrible. But help was on the way ...

The philosophy was not immediately accepted at the major league level, but the Pirates began shifting their base defense in the minor leagues in 2009. Since then, the club's minor league teams often have ranked first or second in defensive efficiency, Huntington said.

"That foundation was laid because of (assistant GM) Kyle (Stark) and Dan's willingness to implement it at the minor league level, those two recognizing where balls are actually hit," Huntington said. "We saw results over time, and that approach transitioned to this staff and their willingness to (change)."

Positive results from the minor leagues made its way to Hurdle's email inbox, and, in 2011, he began paying close attention to Tampa Bay's dramatic shifts.

The Pirates ratcheted up defensive experimentation last year, but it wasn't until this season that they dramatically changed the way they play defense, increasing their use of shifts by 400 percent. The Rays had shifted 453 times through Sept. 6 this season, second-most in baseball. The Pirates rank fourth.

"We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training," Hurdle said. "We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.

"I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument."

According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates have saved a huge number of runs this season with their shifting. Maybe you don't buy it; from personal experience, I know that Larry Bowa and Mitch Williams don't. That's not my point. My point is that I looked at a big old tobacco-chewing baseball player with a purple face who professed his love for Brandon Inge, and I saw someone who wouldn't in a million years listen to someone like Dan Fox. And so I essentially said Clint Hurdle wasn't qualified to work in his chosen profession.

I wasn't wrong to say something like that, generally; saying somethings like that is a big part of my chosen profession. But I was wrong to say something like that about Clint Hurdle, specifically. I was just wrong. And I will remember that something for as long as I'm able to remember anything.

For much more about the Pirates, please visit SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.

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