Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sat down with the Pittsburgh media during PiratesFest this past Saturday. From McCutchen, home runs, third base and offseason plans, he had plenty to say.
Here are some of the highlights from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ skipper’s presser.
On how he sees the Pittsburgh Pirates combating the league wide home run surge
In a record setting home run season league wide, the playoffs and World Series became even more dinger happy.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching staff did an admirable job at keeping the ball in the park last year, allowing the third fewest home runs league wide (182). While batters are changing league wide, Hurdle wants more of the same from his pitchers, including being fastball centric, getting spin on the ball and using the inside part of the plate.
“Hitters are going up with different intent now than they did in the past. We’re trying to pitch in some carious cases with different intent than pitching [that] has happened in the past. We still need to keep our core mindset in play.”
As far as his position players go. Hurdle stuck with his usual “home runs are pitched, not hit” mantra as far as his hitters go, but he and his staff will be looking for more ways to get balls in the air.
“That part of the game is in transition. We will look, too. I think our hitters are aware of it. We’ve had multiple conversations with hitters about what they want to do, how they want to do it, what are their mindsets moving forward. We actually had some individuals look to make some tweaks the last couple months of the season, as far as getting balls in the air with more regularity.”
The Pirates finished the year with 151 home runs (29th in the majors), a .386 slugging percentage (29th), 85 wRC+ (28th) and s 46.9 ground ball percentage (the third highest).
“We need to find more runs. We need to create more runs. We’re all well aware of that. How we do it, I think it’s systematic. I think it’s going to be consistency.”
On Jung-Ho Kang
Hurdle’s report on Kang is the same as the rest of the organization’s: no new news is bad news.
“We’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do and everything we believe we can do.”
It finally looks like the Pirates are willing to publicly admit that Kang is no longer in their future plans.
“I think we’ve actually had that [conversation]. It’s been a real thought for quite some time now.”
Hurdle is hoping to have a conversation with Kang sometime in the week after the Winter Meetings. He was initially hoping to make the trip to the Dominican to see Kang while he played down there, but he never made the trip.
As for Kang’s performance down there, it may have helped the Pirates’ decision to start dampening hopes for a 2018 return. While he earned praise for his good movement from left to right left to right and performance during batting practice, his poor in-game results lead to his release on Nov. 27. He batted .143, slugged .202 and made four errors in the field.
“He was given a pretty good length of rope down there cause I think another player might not have had the good fortune of staying around as long as he did.”
Jose Osuna‘s development at third
One of the possible replacements for Kang at third is first baseman/outfielder Jose Osuna, who is playing in Venezuela this winter.
Osuna is working on learning the new position with former major league catcher Henry Blanco. Blanco was originally signed and raised through the minor league ranks as a third baseman before going behind the plate, so he knows what it is like to change positions while at a high level.
The report Hurdle received from Blanco on Dec. 7 was positive.
“With every day, the infield work early has gotten better. Game work has gotten better. Initially, the first couple weeks, he came out for defense cause games mean a lot over there- to the people over there- and the last couple weeks he finished games defensively. He wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t have the confidence in him.”
If the Pirates do not add an infielder this offseason, Osuna could be available to play the hot corner in 2018.
“All in all, Henry says he can go give you a game there right now. He may be able to give you a couple. So the work that’s being done is paying off, and I look forward to seeing him.”
On the team’s offseason approach
This could be another long winter of the Pirates making only minor additions. While there may be some big signings and trades this week at the Winter Meetings, the Pirates are unlikely to get top of the line major league ready talent. Trading away a player like Gerrit Cole or Andrew McCutchen seems more likely.
That may irritate fans, but Hurdle is patient as always. That could mean sitting through a quiet offseason or potentially rebuilding a bit.
“I think people want it to mean something cause we’re not moving at a rate that maybe some other people want and they’re anxious and want answers. We live in a society that is predicated on drive-thru lanes, one hour turnaround on your clothes and your photos and anything else in your life.”
“We’ve got the same mindset going in that we established once the month of October was over and our direction. We analyzed, we evaluated, we set targets, have people that we like. We know teams that are in need, what we have a surplus for. We’re ready to go in, we’ll listen and we’ll watch and see what happens.”
On the Team’s Window
So will the Pittsburgh Pirates rebuild?
“Retool is accurate…Players that are coming [from the minors], some are close to being ready. Some of those bench players are going to have greater opportunities to play this year than they did last year.”
But for that first wave of players that ended the 20 year losing streak and got the team into the playoffs (McCutchen, Cole), their time may soon be up, whether it is 2018, 2019 or beyond.
“I would agree with you as far as that window (being closed) for these guys. But we’ve got more guys coming, and Neal’s so good at staying on top of the churn (turnover) of the roster. You’re always going to have to have some guys that have not much major league experience based on salary and control. It’s an industry-wide recognition.”
Staying on the Cutting Edge
Whether it was focusing on defensive shifting, outfield depth or pitch framing, the Pirates have been pioneers for the rest of baseball over the past five seasons. They are going to need to still innovate to be successful in 2018.
“For many times, we were proactive, and now we’re finding ways to continue to try to stay ahead of the curve in other ways, which is always interesting and enlightening.”
But is it getting harder to stay at the forefront?
“‘Hard’ could be an accurate term. It’s given us great opportunity to get creative. And to the point where you can say ‘think outside the box,’ we don’t even have a box anymore. You kick the box to the curb and say, ‘what about this,’ ‘‘what about that?’ Because, truthfully, in life, in society and in sport right now, new frontiers are popping up all the time, and you don’t need to have a ton of data to drive it anymore.”
Hurdle said rest and recovery has been a focal point of innovation. It already is much bigger over in the last three years than it was ever before, but he sees it becoming even more essential. Then there are some of his “human analytics,” like the clubhouse dynamic being prioritized league wide.
“For me, it’s energizing, cause we know that it’s real and it’s one of the ways we’re going to survive and thrive.”
On the Outfield Allignment
Hurdle admits that last year’s outfield shuffle did not work out. If he still has McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco back in 2018, they will be at their native positions of center, left and right field, respectively.
“Their best skill sets, those three, are in those positions. I know there’s more comfort for Gregory in right field than any place. I know there’s more comfort for Andrew in center than any place. And I really believe when Marte and I had the conversation to come back [from his suspension], there’s more comfort in left field.”
“I think the numbers back it up in Andrew’s case, analytically. He was able to improve numbers in a lot of different areas than where they were the year before. Marte can do things in left field that only Marte can do in left field in our ballpark 81 times a year. There’s nobody else we can go get that kind of performance out of. And I think Gregory’s roots in his mind as much as in his body are in playing right field, and hopefully that frees them up to be the best defenders they can be. And it also gives them that opportunity to be the best offensive players they can be because they’re not cross-pollinating their thoughts.”