After guiding the Pittsburgh Pirates to the postseason for the first time since 1992, Clint Hurdle was named National League Manager of the Year on Tuesday night by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Of the 30 ballots completed, Hurdle was awarded first-place votes by 25 of the baseball scribes covering the sport around the country.
|Clint Hurdle, Pirates||25||5||--||140|
|Don Mattingly, Dodgers||2||17||7||68|
|Fredi Gonzalez, Braves||3||4||16||43|
|Mike Matheny, Cardinals||--||4||7||19|
The honor isn't just well deserved, it's validation for a franchise that has undergone a seismic shift in culture since Hurdle arrived prior to the 2011 season.
By contending in the top-heavy National League Central, Pittsburgh ushered in a new era of winning. By qualifying for the postseason, the Pirates shocked the baseball world. Now, Hurdle's Manager of the Year award signifies the final piece of the 2013 puzzle for a franchise that has lacked direction for decades.
As stated here before the official announcement came down, Hurdle's recognition goes well past just the 2013 campaign. From leading a 15-win improvement in his first season to another solid seven-win improvement in 2012, Hurdle set the stage for the Pirates to take the leap from mediocrity (79-83) to excellence (94-68) in 2013.
When the Pirates tabbed Hurdle as the manager to replace John Russell, few around baseball took much stock in the hire. After all, even if the Pittsburgh farm system finally began to produce quality players, it would take an outstanding effort from the manager and coaching staff to mold them into contenders without the help of expensive veterans.
As the Pirates morphed from awful to poor to mediocre, the culture changed around an improving young core of talent. Sure, the rise of Andrew McCutchen to MVP candidate expedited the process, but Hurdle's willingness to stick with Pedro Alvarez through his development, trust Mark Melancon in a prominent bullpen role, and bat Starling Marte at the top of the order galvanized the work of Pittsburgh's player development staff.
Furthermore, Hurdle's personality and willingness to evolve his thinking, both on and off the field, endeared him to veterans like Jason Grilli, Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Free-agent and trade acquisitions played a major role in the makeup of the 2013 Pirates roster, but none of the veteran talent came from expensive, long-term contracts. Instead, they were players needing a place to rehabilitate past success (Liriano), prove a big-market team wrong for moving in a different direction (Martin), or make an entire organization in Philadelphia feel foolish for letting talent languish in Triple-A (Grilli).
Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Hurdle took a team to the World Series but failed to win consistently during his tenure in Colorado. Much of his demise was based on a system that failed to generate enough talent. Or, when it had talent, suffered through major injury issues during seasons of high expectations.
Still, Hurdle could have easily remained stuck in his ways when approaching the situation in Pittsburgh. If the 56-year-old manager began the 2013 season without changing anything about his style, few would have noticed or complained.
Despite helping Pittsburgh improve from 55 wins in 2010 to 79 in 2012, Hurdle did the opposite. With the help of bright front-office minds, he evolved, per Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
By accepting the value of information on defensive shifts and how his pitching staff could maximize the strengths and weaknesses of his defensive alignment, going all-in with a philosophy that was foreign to him during his best years in the dugout, Hurdle placed the 2013 Pirates on a path to success.
That path led to 68 defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs, good for third in baseball. Hurdle's adaptability wasn't highlighted as prominently as wins and losses, but there was a link to a member of Pittburgh's past who routinely took a similar route to victory.
The full announcement of Hurdle's victory included this seemingly innocuous fact from the BBWAA:
The Pirates qualified for a wild-card berth with a 94-68 record, the first time they finished a season above .500 since 1992 when they were 96-66 and won the NL East, their previous postseason appearance. Jim Leyland won Manager of the Year honors that season as well as in 1990.
At first glance, including Jim Leyland's accolades in a story about Hurdle's honor feels like nothing more than linking the past and present of success for the Pittsburgh organization. Yet it does much more than that when you think about why Leyland was so successful.
He trusted young players, had the ability to coerce veterans into giving him maximum effort, and, even though he never subscribed to advanced statistics like defensive runs saved, always was open to learning and evolving his thinking.
Decades separated successful managers in Pittsburgh, but their similarities validated the culture change for the franchise. By finding a manager who would do what it took to bring the Pirates back to their past years of glory, the franchise finally moved forward. Clint Hurdle didn't just win 94 baseball games—he exhumed two decades of uninspired baseball thinking in the name of progress.
Not bad for a manager who had only one winning season on his ledger before 2013.