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.

Andrew McCutchen made a habit early in his career of getting on-base at an above average rate. Now, he’s a shadow of what he used to be.

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.

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.
  • LT

    While I question some of his moves look what he has to work with. Little power and an unproven back end of the rotation and.. Marte and Kang being gone doesn’t help at all. The replacement options aren’t that good so you are stuck with what you have. Makes no sense to go out and get what you need because it’s a lot.

    • EmpatheticRN

      I have 2 complaints: The front office and OWNERSHIP trying to put together a championship team on a shoe string budget. Which amounts to nothing. With Clint Hurdle: He should quit trying to be a father to these players by giving everyone their chance to play. It’s like he is trying to build confidence in lousy ball players (picking up throw-aways from other teams) by letting them play when they don’t deserve to play. Why is Jaso even playing?
      Back in the day, the Pirates had a pretty consistent starting rotation. They get better when they constantly play together, but he rotates the team all around, all over the field, from one day to the next, and they don’t know who is playing with whom at any position on any given day. Again, why is Jaso even playing?
      I lost interest in listening to the games about midway thru the last season (2016) when they DID NOTHING to improve the team over the winter of 2015. I was upset that they dumped Melancon, not that they need a closer much now-a-days. I notice that the fans have decided that if the front office doesn’t want to spend any money to put a decent team on the field, they have decided that there are better things on which to spend their money. They couldn’t even sell out when the Yankees were in town. I guess we’re back to witnessing another 20 years of re-building. The Pirates are back to giving out bobble-heads to get fans into the park. I get more enjoyment by watching my grandson and his team mates playing baseball than I do watching the Pirates. It is so frustrating for the fans to be let down time and time again, season after season, to be back to watching a team that probably couldn’t beat their farm clubs in a game. I am sad for the fans of baseball in this town. 🙁

      • chaz

        In a small market you have to build team from within. Team made some great moves in signing the outfield to long term deals, just with cutch declining and marte and polanco not reaching potential where unforeseen . Team has 3 great starting pitchers, good back in bullpen, just not hitting what so ever. Losing the 2 best hitters for half the season at least just killed this team. Only hope left was cutch and polanco to have rebound season and it didn’t happen. Even if freese and frasier could of not went on the dl that might have given the team 3 or 4 more wins and have things looking better even though playoffs are out of the ? for this year.

    • chaz

      Good comment from knowledgeable baseball fan.

  • redrage97

    Na, Clint should be fine. Yeah he doesn’t make all the right decisions and i agree with Jaso at first.. but really that is about the only place Jaso can play, yeah he made a great catch in right last night but that was a fluke. Put Bell at first everyday shop Jaso maybe you can free up his bench spot.

    The only thing really i have to complain about the staff is that they heavily favor vets over young guys and really that’s what we have to depend on right now.

  • Chaz

    Gotta keep clint just to have ray as pitching coach. Clint will make some bad moves, leave pitcher in too long but a average manager. Pirates would be in 1st place if they didn’t have their best player suspended for 80 games and their best home run guy stuck in korea. DL stints for key players have hurt. Cutch rapid decline. Other players having down years so far. Just a total crap storm out of hurdles or huntingtons hands.

    2017 team had a chance to contend but with 2 best players missing half the year at least and polanco and cutch being terrible this year is over.

    2018 looks promising with return of marte, maybe jang, and having 3 top tier starting pitchers. Hopefully get some good returns at this years trade deadline with watson, niacaso. Maybe some miracle cutch gets hot but very unlikely but at least get something for him even if it is a few long shot prospects.

  • Lynnette Scales

    Dear Pirates fans. Been watching many years. This is the worst season of the Pirates. Not having Marte & Jang is certainly a huge factor. Tonight is no different. Now two nights in a row, Mr. Clint is dejected from the game. This man is under the gun in many ways. Sometimes these UMPS have too much power. Why can”t we all just take time & listen to each other.