The Pirates had an interesting situation in the fifth inning today. And by “interesting situation” I mean an extremely frustrating series of managing that has become common for Clint Hurdle.
To lead off the inning, Jeff Locke stepped to the plate. He laced a single down the third base line, giving the Pirates a gift runner at first base with the top of the order coming up.
The response? Brock Holt came up attempting a bunt. Holt got in to a two strike count, then hit a slow chopper to first base, beating out the throw after the Cubs’ first baseman looked to second for the force out. Another gift runner. The Pirates now had runners at first and second with no outs.
The response? Starling Marte came up attempting a bunt. Just like Brock Holt, Marte got in to a two strike count. Marte then proceeded to strike out.
First of all, each situation was predictable, to the point where the Cubs were playing for the bunt. That led to the need to lay down the perfect bunt, which led to some foul bunts down the line and the eventual two strike counts.
Second, you were gifted two base runners. Why start giving away outs? Brock Holt has been hitting well since his call up? Why take the bat out of his hand? Starling Marte hasn’t been as hot lately, but you’re better off letting him hit away, especially with Andrew McCutchen on deck. If Marte successfully lays the bunt down, you’ve got runners at second and third with one out. That takes the bat out of the hands of your best hitter, as the Cubs would just walk him (which they did in the seventh after Brock Holt’s triple). Then you’ve got Garrett Jones against a left-hander, with a pretty good chance that they feed him a steady diet of breaking stuff, hoping he rolls over one for a double play.
The bigger picture is that the Pirates shouldn’t be playing small ball. The idea behind small ball is that you can manufacture runs from a weak offense. But a small ball strategy only works if you also have an excellent pitching staff. The pitching staff lately has been far from excellent. Then there’s the bigger issue: the Pirates are horrible at small ball. They can’t steal bases, and they can’t lay down a bunt on a consistent basis. A lot of that probably has to do with their strategy being so predictable.
It’s almost as if the Pirates don’t need a manager. Their strategy in all aspects is predictable. Runner at first and less than two outs? Bunt. Game entering the 8th inning? Bring on the 8th inning guy. Game entering the 9th inning? Bring on Joel Hanrahan. Unless it’s a tie game on the road. Then wait until there’s a lead, if there ever is a lead. Need a pinch hitter on deck with two outs in the event that Jeff Clement reaches? Call on Jordy Mercer. Have a situation where Clement actually reaches and Mercer would get an at-bat? Send up Josh Harrison instead.
The Marte bunt might not have mattered in the long run, as Jason Grilli came on and gave up two runs in the eighth. But the Pirates had a situation where they were given runners at first and second with no outs. They might not be guaranteed of a big inning. But playing small ball guarantees their upside will only be a small inning. So even if they execute, the Grilli inning is going to hurt them, because they’re settling for two runs, rather than playing big with their best hitters due up. That’s a strategy the Pirates can’t afford to go with. They need to play for as many runs as possible. They can’t afford to give away outs, especially with their top hitters due up. They can’t afford to potentially take the bat out of Andrew McCutchen’s hands.
I’m not a big believer that a manager can significantly help a team. But I do think a manager can hurt a team with poor decisions. Small ball isn’t working for the Pirates. And with the small ball strategy being so predictable, there’s little chance that it could ever work, even if the Pirates executed it perfectly. Clint Hurdle is only hurting the Pirates by continuing with this predictable small ball strategy.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost to the Cubs 4-2.