By Jason Shetler
Two years ago, the Pirates suffered one of the biggest season collapses in baseball history. 2013 was a completely different story, as they cruised to a 94-win season and a postseason birth for the first time since Barry Bonds last dawned a Pirates uniform. The formula last season was dominant pitching and just enough offense. While the Pirates got great contributions in the rotation from the likes of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, the bullpen, statistically speaking, was arguably the best in franchise history.
Question marks surrounded the Pirates entering 2014, in regards to not re-signing Burnett, as well as Garrett Jones (both fan favorites), but also bringing in struggling veteran Edinson Volquez as a reclamation project to essentially replace Burnett. The Pirates certainly had some bumps in the road the first half with injuries and inconsistencies, but were able to right the ship (no pun intended) in the second half and clinch a playoff spot for the second consecutive season. As good as the Pirates were a year ago, here’s why I think Clint Hurdle has done a better managerial job this season.
As mentioned, the Pirates dealt with significant injuries, most notably Russell Martin and Starling Marte in the first half, and Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen in the second half. Not to mention Gerrit Cole being on the DL on two separate occasions. In addition to the injury bug, guys like Marte and Jordy Mercer struggled badly in the early going. Hurdle decided to remove Marte from the leadoff spot and stick with Mercer at shortstop, and both moves have paid dividends. Perhaps Hurdle’s biggest challenge was trying to find Josh Harrison consistent playing time off the bench, which is very difficult to do with a utility player who’s performing well. Some fans and media have been critical of the way Hurdle handles the bullpen, such as not bringing in relievers during the middle of an inning much, but the thing to remember is that Hurdle has always done that since he’s been in Pittsburgh. And no one was criticizing his bullpen moves last season, because the bullpen was just lights out. Also remember in August when the Pirates rode a short bench with the likes of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez? – Hurdle to his credit was able to get through that, making the work he’s done in 2014 that more impressive.
There’s not much doubt that Hurdle is a candidate again for National League Manager of the Year. If the Pirates somehow over take the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central crown, then I think Hurdle has to be pretty much a lock for the award again.