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The Pittsburgh Pirates Under Clint Hurdle: Prologue

Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle
Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle

June 3, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (13) is thrown out of the game by umpire Dan Iassogna in the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

As we watch the Pittsburgh Pirates clash with the St. Louis Cardinals this week for National League Central Division supremacy, it’s worth to stop and reflect on the Pirates lack of fortune, but ambitious optimism since Clint Hurdle took over the position of manager since 2011. The Pirates have been more competitive, but have seen themselves evaporate from NL Central contention after getting off to fast, hot starts the last couple of seasons. Despite the disappointment surrounding the club, the Pirates, led by Hurdle, have been a beacon of hope for a franchise that has not seen postseason play since 1992.

To put that in perspective, I became a Chicago Cubs’ fan in 1992. More than anything, I fell in love with the Major League Baseball brand. That year, I was pretty bummed that the Cubs’ season ended in a stinker (little did I know then that one must get used to the fact that every Cubs’ season will always end in a stinker if one is to be a Cubs’ fan) and figured I would move on with my life. Then I discovered that there was such a thing  as the National League Championship Series. That year, the Atlanta Braves and the Pirates were involved in a very memorable NLCS. I thought seeing two, lone baseball teams playing each other in October was the greatest thing ever. Yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates were part of my MLB playoff orientation. The Pirates!

Of course, the Braves would go on to be the class of MLB for the next 20 years or so, while the Pirates went on to become the saddest franchise in all of American professional sports. Matter of fact, every time the Cubs were in contention for a playoff spot, fans could always expect the front office to count on Pittsburgh to hand over some major league talent for subpar prospects. Think of all the terrible clubs in the last 20 years that have seen some success since the Pirates last made a playoff appearance:

  • Los Angeles Clippers (before there was “Lob City,” the Clippers were the butt of every sports’ joke).
  • Dallas Mavericks (before there was Mark Cuban, the Mavs were synonymous with losing).
  • Arizona Cardinals (“The Team with no Future” during most of the ’90s, they went on to make a Super Bowl appearance).
  • Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams (Before “The Greatest Show on Turf,” St. Louis was the official HQ of NFL hell).
  • New England Patriots (think Drew Bledsoe’s rookie year).
  • Indianapolis Colts (pre-Peyton Manning).
  • Tampa Bay Lightning (this team was the NHL’s punching bag for years before drafting great players and winning a ring).
  • Anaheim Ducks (once a gimmick for a Hollywood studio, they have a championship under their belt).
  • Chicago White Sox (winning their first title since 1917).
  • Chicago Cubs (making playoff appearances under Jim Riggleman, Dusty Bakerand Lou Piniella).

The list can go on forever, but the point is that there’s a certain ebb and flow to a team’s cycle. There will be bad years, but they will eventually become good years–and vice-versa. To be consistently bad for 20 years is almost impossible. Now, from a wins and losses perspective, the Pirates seem to be making strides with Hurdle and franchise player, Andrew McCutchen. They’re competing and, as we’ve mentioned before in our evaluation of injured closer Jason Grilli, the Pirates are grinding it out and getting ugly wins.

But the main question that needs to be answered is this: do the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates have enough to stay competitive for the remainder of this season? We’ve seen this act before in 2011 and 2012. Each time the Pirates play surprisingly well in the first half of the season, only to fall flat on their faces as inexperience and lack of talent always, inevitably dooms this ball club. So what makes 2013 any different? They pretty much have the same roster from the last couple of seasons. Is it just a matter of gaining more experience? There is no doubt that Hurdle, along with McCutchen’s talent, have brought excitement back to Pittsburgh, but can they bring back winning, autumnal baseball for the first time since–bringing it full circle from the time they introduced me to playoff baseball back in–1992?

I will be evaluating this team the only way I know how: with numbers. We are only about two weeks away from September baseball and now would be the time to put the Pirates underneath the microscope and see what strides, if any, they have made, from a statistical standpoint, to avoid another second half meltdown this season.

It will be data analysis since Hurdle took over in 2011, but for fans of the team, a successful run into the playoffs this season will erase 20 years of baseball futility.

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