Being hired manager of a major league baseball team normally warrants a call for congratulations. However, in the case of Clint Hurdle, it might warrant a call of condolence.
You see, Clint Hurdle has just signed a three-year contract to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Not only were the Pirates the worst team in the big leagues during the 2010 season, they have not enjoyed a winning season since 1992. Hurdle has just accepted the worst job in America. It’s a job even Mike Rowe wouldn’t want.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. During the 1970s the Bucs reached the playoffs six times and won two World Series title in 1971 and 1979. After a fallow period during the 1980s, the Pirates won three consecutive NL East titles between 1990 and 1992. But in the intervening two decades Pittsburgh has become the Siberia of major league baseball.
So why would Hurdle, who spent the 2010 season as the hitting coach with the American League champion Texas Rangers, abandon the warms environs of Arlington for what will likely be a harsh summer along the Allegheny River? Well, clearly Hurdle likes a challenge. But there are challenges and then there is miracle work.
In 2010, no Pirates starting pitcher won in double digits. The closest thing the Pirates had to an ace was Paul Maholm, who went 9-15 with a career high 5.10 ERA. Maholm hasn’t exactly made anyone forget Doug Drabek. With the fewest saves in the National League, the Pirates bullpen provides little relief. Not surprisingly, the Bucs pitching staff had the NL’s highest ERA.
Their offense wasn’t much better. No Pirate batter hit over .300 and Pittsburgh’s team batting average of .242 was the worst in the NL. They drew the second fewest walks in the NL and had the Senior Circuit’s second worst on base percentage. The Pirates didn’t hit for much power either. Only one player (Garrett Jones) hit more than 20 homeruns while the team slammed the third fewest homeruns in the NL. Needless to say, Clint Hurdle will have a lot of hurdles before him when the Pirates break for spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida, next February.
This isn’t to say the Pirates are devoid of talent. Bucs centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is a five tool player who at the tender age of 24 is not only going to get better but might very well end up as one of the premier players in the game. Yet chances are he will probably fulfill that potential in another uniform.
Unlike John Russell, who sailed the Pirates ship for the past three seasons, Hurdle has enjoyed managerial success at the major league level. In 2007, he led the Colorado Rockies to the National League pennant and their first World Series appearance. But that success has to be put in its proper perspective. Prior to 2007, the Rockies had five straight losing seasons under Hurdle. After their stunning success in 2007, the Rockies regressed to a disappointing 74-88 record in 2008. The Rockies would dismiss Hurdle early in the 2009 campaign after a horrible 18-28 start. Hurdle was replaced by Jim Tracy. Lo and behold, the Rockies recaptured the magic of 2007 and went 74-42 the rest of the way earning the team its second NL Wild Card in three seasons.
Is Tracy a better manager than Hurdle? It’s possible. But guess where Tracy managed in 2006 and 2007? That’s right. He managed the Pirates and had two 90 plus loss seasons to show for it. After leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to the NL West title in 2004 did Tracy lose his baseball smarts when he arrived in Pittsburgh only to regain them in Denver? The answer is an emphatic no and the same is true for Hurdle. He wasn’t a genius in 2007 nor was he a fool in 2009 and nor did he suddenly regain his genius when he joined the Rangers coaching staff in 2010.
A manager has a limited amount to do with whether his team wins or loses games. It obviously helps if the manager has the respect of the players under his stewardship. But to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the managers who manage best manage least.
Yet in the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, it seems there is very little the manager can do be it Clint Hurdle, Jim Tracy, or anyone else. Show me a team’s management that makes poor draft picks and trades away what few good players they have for little in return and I’ll show you a team that hasn’t had a winning record since Bush was President. That would be George H.W. Bush.
I have no doubt Clint Hurdle has good intentions and will put his best foot forward in his new job. Yet we know all about good intentions and where they can take us. Unless the Pirates management works with Hurdle to put the best possible product on the field there is little chance he will fare better than his predecessors. Chances are Hurdle will walk a plank of hurdles of the Pirates management’s own making. If that is the case, Hurdle could soon wish he had jumped ship.