I have theories. A lot of them. I would like to think that they aren’t wild-eyed ones, that they’re somewhat grounded in reality. But that’s also probably what the wingnuts that don’t believe in the Moon landing say, too.
One of my Pirate-related theories goes like this — after the 2012 season, the one in which the Pirates went 17-37 in their last 54 games to somehow continue the streak of sub .500 futility for one more year, Neal Huntington called up Clint Hurdle for a meeting. At that meeting in my mind, Huntington basically said, ‘Hey, we’re both going to be looking for work if we don’t do something different in 2013. It’s time for you to embrace the analytics more than you have in the past.’ The 2013 season saw the implementation of more defensive shifts and more of a sabermetric-lean to the on-field product. The team started to win and hasn’t stopped winning since. The Pirates are now the toast of baseball and people are actively hiring away staff (Jeff Banister, Marc DelPiano, Jim Benedict) to tap into how the Pirates are winning.
The problem is that it was just a theory, with no confirmation or proof. Until last week.
A work colleague of mine attended a lunchtime engagement where Pirate manager Clint Hurdle was the guest speaker. At this point around Pittsburgh, a few things are known about Clint Hurdle — he’s a recovering alcoholic and that he’s a man of great spiritual faith that has helped him during his recovery. During his speech, Hurdle discussed how faith is important because you can’t see outcomes. This was especially true when he was called in after the 2012 season to meet with owner Bob Nutting, team President Frank Coonelly, and General Manager Neal Huntington.
At that meeting, described by Hurdle as boisterous and full of shouting, his future with the team was very much in doubt. Hurdle explicitly stated that Coonelly was not in his corner and was in favor of firing him. Many potential changes were discussed by the four men, but Hurdle staked his future on the fact that he didn’t want to change personnel. Nutting reminded him that he was in the last year of his contract and was taking a big risk, to which Hurdle relied on the concept of faith. He believed in the team and what they were building, but he knew there needed to be tweaks.
Hurdle said that he realized that baseball was rushing forward so fast that he could barely keep up with all of the new information pouring into the game. So as a result, Hurdle stated that he wanted to be schooled in the ways of analytics, opposite of my personal pet theory that it was forced upon him. During the offseason, he had intensive sessions with the analytics department, especially Mike Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is now embedded with the team on the road, integrating data into the game-day on-field product for Hurdle and his coaches.
“They told me that 57% of the time a guy will do things this way. But it would be up to me to look into that pitcher’s eyes or figure out if the hitter was in the 57% part or the 43% part,” Hurdle explained to the group. Hurdle read up extensively on Billy Beane and his philosophies, in addition to seeing what other teams around the league were doing with analytics at that time frame in fall 2012.
Hurdle felt that the Pirate brand had been re-established after the 2012 season. He knew that PNC Park felt like an autopsy after each painful loss that September, clinching yet another losing season. But the Pirates were close. And he had faith. That plus a 90 degree turn for the old baseball salt has equaled a run of success that may soon eclipse the early 1990’s. Some of his in-game decisions may be infuriating, but with Hurdle at the helm there will be no shortage of enthusiasm for the game, that’s for sure.