Despite back-to-back wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 16-22 and are last in the National League Central Division. Multiple outlets had manager Clint Hurdle on the hot seat entering the season and things have gone worse than expected.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have shown some life in the last two days with back-to-back wins over the Arizona Diamondbacks. On Sunday, the Pirates smacked three home runs, including Jose Osuna’s go-ahead two-run shot in the 10th inning.
Despite hitting a trio of dingers on Sunday, the Pirates are second-to-last in MLB in home runs. It’s not the only offensive category that Pittsburgh struggles in. The Pirates are in the bottom five in average, on-base plus slugging percentage and runs. The offensive ineptitude is the primary reason for Pittsburgh’s slow start. As a result, a managerial change is not out of question.
Fox and CBS Sports were among several outlets to rank Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle as one of several managers on the hot seat entering this season. After missing the playoffs in 2016 and the slow start to the 2017 season, there is certainly some amount of criteria to back up claims that Hurdle may be at fault for some of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ troubles.
Hurdle will always be remembered for being captain of the ship that ended the dreaded 20 years of losing seasons by leading the Pirates to the playoffs in 2013 and then again the next two seasons. However, every hero eventually reaches his breaking point. In the last two seasons, Hurdle has made a couple questionable decisions that could cost him his job.
Stubborn with McCutchen
However, the seeds of doubt in Hurdle were planted last season. As Andrew McCutchen recorded the worst statistical season of his career,
Hurdle stubbornly and consistently penciled McCutchen in at the No. 3 spot in the lineup regularly. Of the 151 games that McCutchen started in, he batted third for 90 of them. The other 61 were spent hitting second in an early season that ultimately failed.
This year, McCutchen has hit third in all 36 of his games and has a .211 average and .284 on-base percentage. As McCutchen’s value continues to decline, Hurdle continues to bat McCutchen third, even though it’s hurting the team. And it also hurts those that bat directly behind him, most notably Gregory Polanco.
Hurdle is known to show loyalty players, but when – if ever – will he decide that the time for loyalty in dropping McCutchen down in the order has passed?
The Jaso Obsession
Another questionable move by Hurdle has been the insistence on playing John Jaso. Josh Bell is the everyday first baseman, but Hurdle has made a habit of bringing in Jaso late in games as a defensive replacement for Bell. Hurdle’s choice for defense over offense late in games is understandable and most fans understand that.
What fans and media alike struggle to understand is Hurdle’s insistence on playing Jaso in right field. Jaso has played in right 13 times, including 10 starts. He hasn’t recorded any errors there but has -4 defensive runs saved and a -3.0 ultimate zone rating. Plays like this one back on Apr. 22 against the New York Yankees explain fans’ frustration with Jaso in right field.
The worst thing about Jaso is his bat. His .159 average and .247 OBP are even more frustrating considering that Jaso was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ only left-handed hitter off the bench for a stretch until Adam Frazier returned from injury. Despite everything awful about Jaso this season, Hurdle has consistently made a point of getting Jaso in the lineup with 13 starts and 77 plate appearances.
How much blame does Hurdle deserve?
The aforementioned offensive struggles can’t all be blamed on Jaso, but McCutchen deserves plenty of blame and therefore Hurdle should get some of it too because of his insistence on maintaining status quo.
It’s not just McCutchen, though. Injuries to Frazier and David Freese have handicapped Hurdle, forcing him to give more time to lesser players like Jaso.
What’s disheartening for Hurdle is that much of this season’s team is built of leftovers from the 2016 squad that hit .257, 12th best in MLB. Again, time will tell how much the additions of Frazier and Freese to the lineup again will help matter or make them worse. However, Hurdle will not get Starling Marte back until mid-July and may not get Jung-Ho Kang to play a game this season.
Shifting the blame elsewhere
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ offensive issues are a mixture of injuries and dumb luck. Hurdle couldn’t stop Marte from taking performance enhancing drugs and he couldn’t prevent Freese from getting hurt. Many things that have happened are out of his control.
Since it’s clear that the Pirates are sub-par offensively, help was needed from the outside. With all due respect to Max Moroff and Chris Bostick, neither player is going to step in full-time and buoy the Pirates offensively.
Hurdle will always be remembered for being captain of the ship that ended the dreaded 20 years of losing seasons by leading the Pirates to the playoffs in 2013 and then again the next two seasons.
No, the Pirates needed to go out and make a trade or sign a free agent. Instead, general manager Neal Huntington has chosen to apply band-aids to the wound by calling up lesser Triple-A players.
The ship is sinking, yet Huntington won’t throw Hurdle a life jacket.
Running out of time
Even if Huntington is the one to blame, he’s the man with the power to fire Hurdle. There is no indication that Huntington is interested in canning his manager, but the Pirates are scuffling. They are 5-9 in May with plenty of reason to pessimistic.
Sure, the Chicago Cubs are in fourth place in the N.L. Central, but they’re the defending champions with a young, superstar-laden roster. It’d be stunning if they finished the season near the cellar. Add in no Marte until the middle of the season and the uncertainty of a Kang return and 2017 is as good as a missed paper toss into a trash can.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates choose to tank in 2017 in hopes of gaining a high draft pick in next year’s draft, there is no sense in firing Hurdle mid-season. After all, Huntington and Hurdle are both eligible to be let go by the Pirates after this season. Their contracts include team options for 2018, so only this season is guaranteed. If Hurdle goes down, Huntington is going down with him shortly afterwards. It’d be better to continue working together in order to prolong their time with the Pirates.
No easy decision
Is Hurdle to blame for the Pirates struggles?
Yes, to an extent. Absolutely.
Like most managers on a real – or imagined – hot seat, he has reason to believe that he deserves another season. Injuries and suspensions are hurting him in 2017 and there’s no predictable way to turn things around.
If Hurdle is canned, it will be for more than just this season. Following a 98-win 2015 season with 78 wins in 2016 is a big enough drop-off to frustrate management and fans despite the front office’s clear failure to bolster an already solid roster. One major playoff victory (2013 Wild Card Game) in six seasons is also evidence that Hurdle has not completely maximized his various teams’ talent.
Clint Hurdle has a place in the hearts of Pirates fans for the magical 2013 and for putting the Pirates back in the national picture of relevance. He’s managed three 90-win seasons and is a previous N.L. Manager of the Year award winner. However, at the end of the day, he has largely underachieved in his time in Pittsburgh. Between the collapses in 2011 and 2012 to go with the miserable 2016 and 2017 thus far, Hurdle hasn’t won enough with a core that was expected to be perennial postseason members.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates decide to move on from Hurdle, they might as well wait until the end of the season. Unless things get markedly worse soon, it makes little sense to change things up midseason unless Huntington is fired too. For that to happen, it would have to take more than injuries or a suspension to blame it on Hurdle.
It should be because they missed the playoffs for the second time in as many seasons.