Pirates fans have never been big fans of manager Clint Hurdle's tactical decisions, and there's even a popular Twitter hashtag to prove it. Now, though, the chorus has become deafening, as a series of Hurdle's recent decisions have fans in an uproar.
Hurdle deserves all the negative attention he's getting. But how do we put his missteps in perspective? Most fans who hate their team's manager tend to underestimate the degree to which they're just like most other fans. Most managers appear to be awful at tactical managing. That doesn't necessarily make them easily replaceable.
I write this after a series in which the Pirates were swept by the Reds. Hurdle played a significant role in two of those losses. On Monday, he pulled starter Wandy Rodriguez in the seventh inning, even though Rodriguez had only thrown 89 pitches and had been brilliant. Just before being removed, he'd allowed a single to Joey Votto, then recorded two ground ball outs before allowing an infield hit. That was all. Hurdle replaced him with Jared Hughes, who promptly allowed a two-run double by Dioner Navarro, tying the game at three. Then in the 10th, Garrett Jones reached base, and Hurdle replaced him with the faster Chase d'Arnaud, even though d'Arnaud didn't represent the go-ahead run. The Bucs then played four more innings with one of their better hitters glued to the bench. Hurdle hung Chris Resop out to dry in the same inning, allowing perhaps his third-best righty to face dangerous lefties Joey Votto and Jay Bruce and to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam, even though closer Joel Hanrahan hadn't pitched yet. (Fortunately for Resop, that particular gambit actually worked.)
On Wednesday, Alex Presley hit a one-out triple with a tie score in the top of the sixth. Third-base coach Nick Leyva said something to Presley, and, with Clint Barmes at the plate, the Pirates attempted a squeeze. The Reds saw it coming and pitched out, and Presley was dead meat at the plate. The Reds won, 2-1.
All that has led to many of the dozens of Pirates fans still paying attention to call for Hurdle's firing. They were already upset at him due to his frequently-strange in-game moves, his decision to continue using the flailing Rod Barajas as the Bucs' everyday catcher, and the Pirates' collapse down the stretch this season.
Calling for the firing of a general manager is one thing. Calling for the firing of a manager is arguably another. There's a lot about that job that we, as fans, simply can't know, and the manager only does so much of his job in public.
Besides, there's the fact that most managers are (or appear, to the outsider, to be) bad at making optimal tactical decisions. I recently took an informal poll of SB Nation's baseball bloggers, requesting that they email me if they liked their team's manager.
I got 10 responses, eight of which were from bloggers who offered at least some support for their managers. Two were from bloggers who said they liked their managers but did not offer any specifics about those managers' tactical approaches. Most of the rest suggested that they liked their teams' managers but were not too keen on them as tacticians. One blogger said that his team's manager "can drive me nuts" from a tactical perspective, but that he was better than either of his immediate predecessors.
The only blogger who offered a real defense of his manager's tactical decisions was Steve Slowinski of DRays Bay, who threw his support behind Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon, a new-school manager who's well-known to be open to new ideas.
So, if Clint Hurdle drives you crazy, you're not alone. Most managers drive fans of their teams crazy. That's certainly due in part to Monday-morning quarterbacking on the fans' part, but it's also because most managers truly do make a fair number of bizarre tactical decisions. Pirates fans, of all people, should know that, as Hurdle pretty clearly isn't significantly worse than any Pirates manager since Jim Leyland. Compared to his predecessors in Pittsburgh, Hurdle is worse than Jim Tracy from a tactical perspective, but probably not worse than Lloyd McClendon or John Russell in that respect. Hurdle also appears to be a considerably better leader than Tracy or Russell, and at least as good as McClendon. Hurdle's judgment of talent can be infuriating at times, particularly with Barajas, but he's no worse than McClendon was.
McClendon was clearly the best of Hurdle's three immediate predecessors (as Wilbur Miller notes in the article linked above), and Pirates' fans' opinions of him improved after he was replaced by the insufferable Jim Tracy. Even granting that the quality of big-league managing has probably improved somewhat in the years since McClendon left, though, I don't think Hurdle is worse than McClendon was.
Ultimately, of course, all of Hurdle's predecessors wound up fired, and the Pirates should aspire to be better than they were five or 10 years ago. The question is who they might hire who could lead the team behind the scenes and competently manage the tactical side of the game. Joe Maddons are rare, and the Rays are lucky they have one. Before the season, Ben Lindbergh asked a number of front office executives how many games they thought their teams could gain in the standings if they could hire a manager who could lead and manage games without tripping up his team, and the responses Lindbergh got ranged from one or two games per season to five to 10, with an average of about three wins per season.
Three wins! That's about the difference between Barajas and someone like Carlos Santana or Alex Avila. It's huge. And this is what front office personnel project. You'd think that if there were managers out there who could make that kind of difference while doing all the other important things managers do to keep the clubhouse in good working order, general managers would be hiring them. But, by and large, they're not.
Lindbergh suggests that the role of the manager may change at some point in the future, perhaps with the manager serving in some sort of leadership role while another coach makes most of the tactical decisions. In the meantime, though, the Pirates may be stuck with what they've got, or something like it. Hurdle isn't a good tactical manager, but in spite of the Pirates' collapse down the stretch, he does appear to be a leader. He sticks up for his team, and his players do seem to be playing hard, despite their recent struggles. If the manager is expected to be a leader and a tactician, well, one out of two is better than none.
This isn't to say the Pirates shouldn't be looking for something better. If they can find a manager who's genuinely good from a tactical perspective, he might make a big difference. But the problem here is systemic. Firing Hurdle wouldn't necessarily fix it.