First Pitch: Death to Small Ball

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.

**Pirates Notebook: Evolution of Jeff Locke; Reinforcements on the Horizon.

**State College Spikes 2012 Season Recap: Top Prospects.

**State College Spikes 2012 Season Recap: Hitters.

**State College Spikes 2012 Season Recap: Pitchers.

**Chad Qualls Activated From the Disabled List.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Max Fogle

    That just about sums up Clint Hurdle’s buccos. Could’t have said it better myself.

  • Brian

    Great post, Tim. These were horrible moves. The mainstream media would never blast Hurdle for real because they want to be able to interview him – which is why we need blogs to point these things out. If Hurdle had not pissed away multiple games trying to play small ball, the Pirates wouldn’t be all but eliminated today.

  • BarryJT

    I used to be believe in small ball, afterall wasn’t Leyland famous for always having Jay Bell always sacrifice, but I’ve seen enough stats to know it’s playing the wrong percentages.

    Who would have thought that Earl Weaver was so far ahead of his time?

  • L G

    “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”
    Exactly how I feel. and I even liked Hurdle and all his old school charms.
    but this is getting out of hand, especially in such an important time. Frank Coonelly, Hunnington, R. Nutting, SOMEONE has got to sit down Hurdle and give him a stern talk.

  • ecbucs

    so does this mean you think Hurdle should be replaced? I was glad the Bucs didn’t go after Showalter but his work in Baltimore makes it look like he is superior to Clint. Clint hasn’t been a disaster but I don’t see him as the manager to lead the Bucs to a pennant.

    • Tim Williams

      If you replace Hurdle, you’re going to bring in another manager who does something that fans will hate. That’s just the thing all managers do.

      Ultimately it all comes down to the players. Hurdle’s moves didn’t matter as much when the offense was hitting homers and the pitching was on. Both have struggled recently, and Hurdle’s moves have been the same. But now they’re under the microscope because the team is losing. I always defer to player performance in these cases. I think the players are more responsible for the recent losing than Hurdle. I just don’t think the small ball strategy helps, as it makes it less likely that the players can come through with a big inning.

      • leadoff

        If they replace Hurtle, some people will probably hate the next guy too, I do agree with.
        IMO, managers have strengths and weaknesses and Hurtles weakness does appear to be field managing, I would not concern myself about who likes the manager or does not like the manager as much as I would about how good he manages.
        Players do win or lose in the end, but the guy that puts them there and the guy that coaches them up has everything to do with how they perform. Good coaches can teach fundamentals that players carry with them out to the field. Better trained armys beat less trained armys. Better managers and coaches call hit and runs, run and hits, defensive positioning, stratagies, all part of managing, all affect the outcomes of games.
        Players are tools that a craftsman uses when and where he should!

  • Lee Young

    Tim….I have been ‘on to’ Hurdle since before he was hired. They chuckle at me on PG Plus, when I have constantly said that Clint is a great guy, lousy manager. He’s had ONE winning season due to a phenomenal month of winning by the Rockies.

    Clint does NOT know how to win, evidenced in our collapsing two years in a row. Great guy, though.


  • john.alcorn

    Hoping for Clint to stop overmanaging is like hoping for the sun to stop rising. I appreciate Hurdle as a leader of men, face of a team, but his strategy profile was obvious the day he was hired. He can’t seem to realize that we are not a small ball team, we suck at it. We don’t run the bases well, we don’t hit well situationally, and we can’t bunt. Quit giving away outs! While you’re at it, maybe let someone else make bullpen decisions.

  • leadoff

    Hurtle wants his team to do everything they can’t do. The problem is what they can’t do, they should be able to do.
    I realize you can’t bunt if the 3rd basemen and 1st baseman are 5 ft. from the hitter, Hurtle doesn’t, but that is he.
    3 Fundamentals of baseball that the Pirates fail at the most are the three that are coached fundamentals.
    They can’t run the bases, they can’t stop anyone from running the bases, and they can’t bunt.
    Hurtle too me, is living in denial.
    I realize I am always complaining about managers, but he is the most important person in the dugout. The strings that he pulls control the game, if a guy strikes out 4 times, the manager put him in the game in the first place, if a guy hits a home run the manager put him in the game in the first place. If a manager bats a .200 hitter in the 8th inning and you are down by a run, he is depending on luck, no longer managing, if a pitcher gives up 6 runs in a game before the manager will take him out, he put the team in the position of having to get 7 to win.

  • Scott Stauffer

    They need to address both personnel and coaching. They don’t have an offensive identity. Are they a power team? Are the a hit and run team? Are they a speed team?

    Lets see:

    – They have some power, but they take no walks and generally don’t get on base regularly at the 1 and 2 spots in the order.

    – They have some speed, but for some reason the can’t run the bases or steal.

    – Many hitters don’t make consistent contact. They strike out at a frightening rate, so hit and run is risky.

    The offense needs to be retooled where there can be some consistency in approach and there needs to be some changes to the coaching staff (hitting and base running). That’s why we are having such dramatic shifts in offense this season. feast or famine

  • gorillagogo

    I think another problem with the small ball strategy is that the Bucs are horrible at getting on base. When they were playing well, they were hitting a lot of home runs. They need to stop playing for one run and get back to playing for the three run homer.

  • Richard Ya’Zhynka

    Yes. Death to small ball.