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Pirates' Hurdle trusts his gut to make decisions

Sunday, May 15, 2011

MILWAUKEE — Clint Hurdle has been around baseball for 37 years as a player, coach and manager.

He had been a part of thousands of games before being hired last offseason as the Pirates' skipper. Over the years, Hurdle has swapped secrets with scouts, traded tips with Hall of Famers and tutored an American League MVP.

So when Hurdle needs to make a fast strategy decision in a game, he doesn't hesitate to rely on his memory and instincts. In an era when managers often are bombarded by intensely detailed statistical analysis, the 53-year-old veteran trusts his gut.

"Playing it by the book covers your backside," Hurdle said. "But I decided early on I didn't want to look back and say, 'That stat sheet got me.' The scouting report is important, but I do think that sometimes we get too analytical."

Nine years ago, the book "Moneyball" — which detailed the numbers-driven approach to team-building used by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane — glamorized quantitative analytics. The Boston Red Sox took a bold step in late 2002 by hiring Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, as an adviser.

In 2008, the Pirates made Dan Fox their director of baseball systems development. Fox is a former software designer and writer for Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times, two numbers-crunching websites.

"In society as a whole, the influence of data on decision-making has increased over the years," Fox said. "That would be the same in baseball as in any industry."

Baseball always has had a love affair with statistics. But fans who used to talk about win-loss records, batting averages and RBI totals now expound on xFIP, VORP and BABIP.

"Something new always pops up," Hurdle said. "The challenge I have, looking at all those obscure numbers, is those numbers were all crunched with no human emotion involved."

Many of his players agree.

"I do look at the stats," pitcher Jeff Karstens said. "But for the most part, I more go by feel, how the hitter reacts to certain pitches."

Catcher Chris Snyder pores over scouting reports every day. But there are times when he needs something other than rows of digits to call for the right pitch at the right time.

"At some point, it becomes paralysis by analysis," Snyder said. "You've still got to strap it on and play. The umpire doesn't say, 'Reboot your system!' He says, 'Play ball!' "

Fox, 42, had never worked in baseball until he joined the Pirates. He admits he was worried about how — or even if — he would be accepted by old-school scouts, coaches and players.

"I didn't know what to expect," Fox said. "But I was very pleasantly surprised (by) the scouting and field staff. Pretty much every interaction I've had has been positive."

Much of Fox's analysis is geared toward particular events, such as the first-year player draft and possible free-agent and trade targets. But he also watches each day's game, takes copious notes and the next day analyzes some of the scenarios. His findings are included in the Pirates' computer database, which generates reports for players, coaches and front-office staff.

"The strongest application is a blend of the subjective and the objective," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The information we have now is better than it's ever been."

Hurdle has been very open-minded. A couple of weeks ago, Fox met with the coaching staff to discuss statistical methods of measuring defensive performance.

"We have a better understanding of them," Hurdle said. "We're using some of them."

Sometimes, though, Hurdle's baseball conscience tells him to go against the grain. A week ago, as he looked over the scouting report for Houston Astros infielder Clint Barmes, Hurdle paused and shook his head.

Hurdle knows Barmes well. Barmes played for Colorado all eight years that Hurdle managed the Rockies. Hurdle was Barmes' hitting coach at the start of the 2002 season.

"Our scouting reports came out one way," Hurdle said, without getting into specifics. "I said, 'Time out. I've got this guy. Here's what I saw for years. Let's try this instead.' And it worked out."

In the first game of the series, Barmes came to bat with the bases loaded and one out. The defense played him perfectly, and Barmes grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Another example is how often Hurdle uses sacrifice bunts. He used them a lot in Colorado — the Rockies led the National League in sacrifice hits three of his six full seasons as manager.

Through Friday, the Pirates were tied for seventh in the NL with 17 sacrifice hits. Many sabermetricians, however, cringe at the notion of giving up a precious out just to advance a runner one base.

"You can use all those (stats) as a tool," Hurdle said. "But it's like being a carpenter. You've got a tool belt that's got a number of tools in it. Some you're more comfortable with than others."

Additional Information:

Numbers game

Here are a few of the esoteric stats that are revolutionizing the way fans look at baseball players' performance:

BABIP • Batting average on balls in play: Can be used to gauge a hitter or to evaluate how well the defense turns balls in play into outs

RC/G • Runs created per game: Runs created by a nine-man lineup of the same player

OPS+ • On-base percentage plus slugging plus: A player's OPS adjusted to a certain ballpark

SecA • Secondary batting average: TB - H + BB + SB - CS/AB

VORP • Value over replacement player: How much a player contributes in comparison to a league average player at his position

WAR • Wins over replacement: How many wins a player contributes in comparison to a league average player

xFIP • Expected fielding independent pitching: Determines how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well the fielders fielded

RZR • Revised zone rating: The number of balls hit into a fielder's 'zone' that he converted into an out




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