As the Pirates division championship dreams have disappeared, as their Wild Card hopes have dimmed and as even the once-seemingly guaranteed end to 19 years of losing seasons has been called into question, the recriminations and blame game has begun. Pirates fans are left asking: whose fault is this? For me, unfortunately, I lay much of the blame at the feet of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
The Pirates are losers of 17 of their last 25 and a disappointing 23-27 since the All Star break. Included in this are two humiliating sweeps at the hands of the lowly Padres and the struggling Brewers. Not to mention a demoralizing loss against a historically awful Astros team at PNC Park.
Many — particularly casual and bandwagon Pirates fans — have pointed to some mythical “clubhouse chemistry” as the reason the Pirates have faltered. Somehow dealing a middle reliever, Brad Lincoln, and a bench player, Casey McGehee, are at the root of the problem for the Pirates. I am hard pressed to come up with a sillier or more ridiculous argument.
Some have pointed the finger at General Manager Neal Huntington – someone who has been a popular whipping boy for Pirates fans for years. Some fans are disappointed that the Pirates didn’t pull the trigger on a “big deal” at the trade deadline. Huntington has also come under scrutiny for not having the best 25 players on the big league roster during the last month.
Both are fair criticisms. While I like the Pirates moves at the deadline (with the exception of the mindless McGehee for Chad Qualls deal), I admit that most of those deals were done with an eye on the future beyond 2012. There is also no question that the Pirates did not have their best 25 on the big league roster for most of August. You need look no further than the presence of Yamaico Navarro (a putrid .160 in 50 AB, including 0-12 as a PH) as support for this criticism.
At the end of the day, however, while beating up on Neal Huntington may be popular, I don’t think the buck stops with him.
Where does the buck stop? For me, in spite of the fact that I have always been a Clint Hurdle fan, the buck has to stop with the manager.
This is not the first second-half Pirates collapse. Indeed, Hurdle is a perfect 2 for 2 in post-All Star break implosions. Last year, the Pirates were 53-47 and in first place in the NL Central on July 25th. Over the next 56 games the Pirates went 16-40. It was a collapse for the record books.
Through 82 games this season, the Pirates sat atop the National League Central – 1.5 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. Today, the Pirates are 11 games behind the Reds and 2.5 games back of the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot. On July 28th of this year, the Pirates were 58-42 through their first 100 games. Since that day, the Pirates are 13-22.
Hurdle’s play calling has been mind numbing at times for Pirates fans. He has repeatedly left starters who were clearly struggling in the game too long – turning games where the Pirates were losing, into games where the Pirates were blown out. The number of games in which Pirates fans are left thinking that Hurdle left a starter in one pitch too long are too many to count at this point.
The Pirates have also been a disaster on the base paths. The Pirates have stolen just 58 bases — worst in the National League. Their SB percentage — 56% — is actually worst in all of baseball. Despite the putrid SB numbers, Hurdle has insisted on giving the green light to base runners.
It’s not just a failure to steal bases, repeatedly Pirates players have been cut down trying to turn a single into a double or a double into a triple.
While the Pirates have been horrific on the base paths, Pirates catcher Rod Barajas has made opposing base runners look like Lou Brock. Literally almost every walk or single automatically becomes a double when Barajas is behind the plate. Couple Barajas’ enormous defensive liabilities with his anemic production at the plate (.199 AVG, .273 OBP and a .332 SLG in 89 games) it’s a mystery why Hurdle continues to trot him out there with regularity. When you consider how much better backup catcher Michael McKenry has been swinging the bat for much of the year (.256 AG, .330 OBP, .503 SLG and 12 HR in 195 Abs), its hard to understand Hurdle’s decision.
For a team that was supposed to win by playing small ball this year, the Pirates under Hurdle have morphed into a team that can only win by hitting the long ball — relying heavily on the streaky play of guys like 3B Pedro Alvarez (who has long periods of nothing interrupted by a flurry of HRs).
Maybe most disappointing for Pirates fans has been Hurdle’s seeming inability to get his team “up” for key games and key series. The Pirates played arguably their most unmotivated, uninspired game of the year, coming off a three game sweep at the hands of the Brewers, at home against an Astros squad that is historically bad.
The season is not lost for the Pirates, they can still win the second Wild Card spot. Even if they come up short of the playoffs, the Pirates can still end a North American record 19-consecutive losing season streak.
However, if the Pirates can’t turn it around, if they continue to stumble and especially if they fail to clock win number 82, Pirates brass will have to ask a lot of hard questions over the off-season.
Look, I appreciate what Hurdle has done, it’s been great to have the Pirates matter at all, but this is a young team with talent and more talent on the way. The Pirates need to be sure that opportunities are not wasted because of the failings of a manager — because as all Pirates fans know, these opportunities don’t come around every day (heck, sometimes they only come around every couple of decades).
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