The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Clint Hurdle”

Ten Facts You Need to Know about the First-Place Pirates

When I glanced at the N.L. standings this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Pittsburgh Pirates sat atop the N.L. Central division.  With the Orioles and the Mets also making legitimate runs towards a spot in the playoffs, this has truly been a surprising year in Major League baseball.

English: Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirat...

English: Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing third base in his third MLB game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then it occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about the actual players on this season’s Pirate roster.  Here are some things I learned today, which I decided to share with you.

1)  Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has 15 home runs and 48 RBI to go along with an OPS+ of 118.  Despite having been written off as a failed prospect by many after last seasons dismal first trip to Pittsburgh, Alvarez has a chance to become the first Pirate since Jason Bay in 2006 to top 30 home runs and 100 RBI in a season.

2)  Closer Joel Hanrahan, with 21 saves and a 1.09 WHIP, is on pace to come close to matching last season’s 40 saves and 1.04 WHIP.  His ERA+ this season, 152, is excellent, though not quite as amazing as last year’s Pedro Martinez-like mark of 203.

3)  Staff ace James McDonald, who won just nine of 31 starts last season, already has eight wins in sixteen starts this year.  Part of his success is because he’s been pitching deeper into games.  He’s on pace for his first 200-innings pitched year in his career.

4)  54-year old manager Clint Hurdle has been managing for ten seasons.  He managed the Rockies for eight seasons, leading them to the N.L. Pennant in 2007, and is now in his second year as the Pirates manager.

As a player, Hurdle was considered a major Phenom back in 1977 when he first came up with the Royals at age 19.  But in his 515 game Major League career, he posted a triple slash line of .259 / .341 / .403, with an OPS+ of 106.

PNC Park

PNC Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One has to wonder if Hurdle’s disappointing career has made him the perfect leader for a squad of players who clearly need to be patiently nurtured to succeed? So far, the answer seems to be in the affirmative.

5)  Despite the success of the Pirates to date, they still have the second-lowest average attendance (24,218) per game in the N.L. this year.  Only the Astros have drawn worse.  It would be nice to see the sports fans of Pittsburgh embrace the Pirates as much as they do their beloved Steelers.

Neil Walker

Neil Walker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Pirates second baseman, 26-year old Neil Walker, was actually born in Pittsburgh.  A remarkably consistent player, Walker posted a .992 fielding percentage last season, exactly the same as his current fielding percentage this year.  A switch-hitter, Walker is batting .275 this year along with a .338 on-base percentage.  His career numbers in those two categories are .279 and .338, respectively.

Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace was also born in Pittsburgh (though he never played for the Pirates.)  His career batting average was .268 (to Walker’s .279) and his career on-base percentage was .332 (to Walker’s .338.)  His career OPS+ was 105 (to Walker’s 108.)  What am I getting at?  Nothing.  I just think those are some interesting facts.

7)  In addition to his .412 on-base percentage and .610 slugging average, All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen currently leads the N.L. with a .360 batting average.  With 16 homers and 14 steals, he is on-track for his first 30-30 season.  His OPS+ this year is a tremendous 181.  If McCutchen played his home games in New York or Boston, far more people would be aware that this 25-year old star is already one of the top ten players in the game.

Andrew McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  PNC is one of the few ballparks in the country that lets you bring in outside food and water (no alcohol, of course.)  Retired Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen sometimes signs autographs for fans waiting in line at his restaurant, Manny’s Barbecue.  There are 6,500 seats at PNC that cost just nine dollars.  With just 38,127 seats, PNC is the second smallest park in Major League baseball.

9)  G. Ogden Nutting is the patriarch of the clan that has majority ownership in the Pirates, and in the Ogden Newspaper chain.  He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican politicians for many years.  The editorials in his newspapers often rail against the evils of socialism.  That’s all well and good — it’s his money and those are his newspapers — but it raises two pertinent questions:

Question 1 – If socialism is so awful, why, then, does Nutting accept millions of dollars in revenue sharing annually so that his “less-fortunate” small market franchise can compete with the wealthier franchises in New York and Boston?  Shouldn’t the invisible hand of the free market be allowed to determine winners and losers among the MLB franchises?

Question 2 – Does Nutting have a responsibility to the people of Pittsburgh in general, and Pirates fans in particular, to hold up his end of the bargain in creating and maintaining a competitive franchise, given that the City of Pittsburgh publicly financed his stadium to the tune of over $260 million dollars?  It’s nice that the Pirates are currently in first place, and they did sign Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal several months ago, but are they really committed to building a successful franchise for the long-term?  Time will tell.

10)  The old man of the pitching staff, 35-year old A.J. Burnett, has averaged 8.2 strikeouts / 9 innings in his career.  He is one of just 36 pitchers in the history of baseball to average over 8 K’s per 9 innings pitched.  His record currently stands at 9-2, and his ERA is the lowest it’s been in five years.  He is on pace to tie his career high 18 wins with the Blue Jays in 2008.  Along with staff ace, James McDonald, this is the first time that the Pirates have a chance to have at least two starters reach at least 15 wins in the same season since 1991.

So there you have it, ten facts about the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

Baseball’s Prospects: Mickey Mantle, or Mr. Hype?

An image of Major League Baseball pitcher Clin...

An image of Major League Baseball pitcher Clint Hartung. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first published this article on 19 January 2011, but realized that it is as relevant today as it was then, so I decided to re-post it.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the latest young prospects arriving in the Majors.  Hopes are high that these young men will go on to become the stars of the future, if not the present.

It got me to thinking about all of the young phenoms over the years who had long, successful careers ahead of them, or so we thought.  These prospects capture our imagination because of what they might become.  Perhaps the next Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Stan Musial is in our midst, and we just have to look a little harder to recognize him.

Or, just as likely, the youthful apparitions gracing the baseball landscape will turn out to be the next Clint Hurdle, Joe Charboneau, or Sam Horn.

So I’ve compiled a list (because that’s what I do) of several of baseball’s biggest busts that were once highly touted prospects.  Actually, some of these players were relative busts, meaning they may have had perfectly acceptable careers, but they never soared to the Olympian heights that had been predicted for them.

Let’s begin with…

Catcher – Sandy Alomar, Jr.

The Hype: From the same gene-pool that produced both his dad (Sandy, Sr.) and his brother (Roberto).  A can’t-miss prospect with raw athletic ability behind the plate and a an idea of how to handle the bat.

The Promise: Alomar hit .290 in 1990 while playing in the All-Star Game, winning a Gold Glove, and being named A.L. Rookie of the Year.

Fast Forward: Alomar finished his twenty-year career with an OPS+ of 86, a career WAR of 13.2, and, although he played in a few more All-Star games, he never won another Gold Glove.

First Base: Bob “Home Run” Hamelin.

The Hype: A powerful man who will hit tons of home runs in the Major Leagues.

The Promise: Won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award for the Royals in 1994, swatting 24 homers in just 374 plate appearances.

Fast Forward: Hamelin lasted just four more seasons in the Majors, finishing his career with a career total of 67 home runs.

First Base:  Nick Esasky

The Hype: First Round pick by the Reds in 1978.  Would become the next Tony Perez, only with more power.

The Promise: Hit 43 homers over three partial seasons through 1985.

Fast Forward: Retired in 1990 at age 30 after compiling a .250 career batting average and 122 home runs.

Second Base:  Bump Wills

The Hype: As with Sandy Alomar, Jr., Wills was supposedly a top-notch prospect due to his lineage; his father, Maury, stole a bunch of bases back in the 1960’s, leading some people to mistake him for a Hall-of-Fame deserving candidate.

The Promise: In his rookie year with Texas, 1977, he hit .287 and stole 28 bases.  Finished third in Rookie-of-the Year balloting.

Fast Forward: Bump did not carry the Wills name to new heights, scoring just 472 runs in his brief, six-year career.  Career batting average:  .266

Third Base:  Chris Sabo

The Hype: Out in Cincy, many prognosticators had already acclaimed Sabo the next Pete Rose, for his slashing hitting style and his aggressive style of play.

The Promise: Sabo was named N.L. Rookie of the Year for 1988, hitting 40 doubles while stealing 46 bases.

Fast Forward: Sabo finished his nine-year career with 898 hits and a .268 batting average.  He had a decent career, but turned out to be more  Kelly Gruber than Pete Rose.

Shortstop:  Tony Kubek

The Hype: Well, dammit, he was a Yankee, wasn’t he?  Heir apparent to Phil Rizzuto.

The Promise: 1957 A.L. Rookie of the Year (notice a trend here?)  As a 21-year old, played steady defense and nearly hit .300.

Fast Forward: Actually finished with an even lower career OPS+ (85)  than Rizzuto (93).  Rule of thumb: an OPS+ under 100 =  NOT GOOD.

Outfield:  Clint Hurdle

The Hype: The following paragraph comes directly from the March 20, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated:

“The very mention of Hurdle’s name causes heads to bow and heartbeats to quicken. General Manager Joe Burke calls him “one of the top prospects I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been in the major leagues.” John Schuerholz, the director of scouting and player development, says, “I bubble inside when I think about his potential.”

Hurdle’s picture graced the cover next to the words, “This Year’s Phenom.”

The Promise: In a brief trip up to The Show as a 19-year old in 1977, Hurdle impressed virtually everyone.  In 28 plate appearances, he batted .308 and recorded an OPS of nearly .900.  His OPS+ was 139.

Fast Forward: This can’t-miss prospect missed badly.  He produced only 360 hits in his entire Major League career, eventually calling it quits in 1987 at the age of 29.

Pitcher / Outfielder:  Clint Hartung

The Hype: Preceding Clint Hurdle by a generation, Hartung was so over-hyped that baseball writers, executives and fans at the time referred to The “Hondo Hurricane” as an entire ball club in one man.  The question wasn’t whether he would make it into the Hall of Fame, it was simply a question of when.  “He was considered Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller all rolled up into one,” (Bill Gallo, New York Daily News.) 

The Promise: As a rookie in 1947 for the New York Giants,  Hartung made 20 starts, won nine of them, and hurled eight complete games.  He also played nine games in the outfield, batting .309 in 97 plate appearance.  (Remember, he had at-bats as a pitcher, too.)

Fast Forward: Like Clint Hurdle a generation later, Hartung was out of Major League baseball by age 29.  He hit just 13 home runs in his career.  As a pitcher, he finished with a career record of 29-29 and a 5.02 ERA.

Outfield:  Joe Charboneau

The Hype: “Super Joe” Charboneau took the media by storm in the summer of 1980 with his enthusiastic play and goofy behavior.  He would drink beer through his nose and insisted that he did his own dental work.  Handsome in a wild kind of way, men wanted to be him, and girls wanted to date him.

The Promise: Won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award as a 25-year old playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1980.  He hit 23 homers, drove in 87 runs, and batted .289.

Fast Forward: Charboneau played so poorly the following season that he became the only ROY winner to be sent back down to the Minor Leagues.  He batted .210 in ’81 and .214 in ’82, and that was it.  After his rookie year, he slugged only six more home runs in his entire career.  He was out of baseball before he turned 28-years old.

There are, of course, many other failed prospects littering the annals of baseball history.  You could include Sam Horn of the Red Sox, Mike Vail of the New York Mets, Ron Kittle of the White Sox, Greg “Toe” Nash of Tampa Bay, and on and on.

Consider this, then, a cautionary tale.  The odds are greater that this year’s over-hyped baseball phenom will turn out to be more like Clint Hurdle rather than Mickey Mantle.

But hope springs eternal, especially as  Spring Training approaches.

Dream, then, of the slender young man in his clean uniform against the brown backdrop of the baseball diamond.  A world of limitless possibility awaits him, and we long to be part of it.

After all, that’s what baseball is for.


Firing a Major League Manager

Some things never change.

Already, fans and sportswriters for certain teams are suggesting, even demanding, that their favorite under-achieving franchise fire the manager.

But when is it time to fire a major league manager?

Another way of asking the question is, how much actual difference does firing a manager make in turning around a particular team’s fortunes?  Also, if nothing is expected of a team going into a season, as with Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore or Pittsburgh, then what exactly is the point of firing one of their respective managers once it is apparent that another unsuccessful season is in the offing?

Lets take these questions one at a time.

Yes, sometimes, although not as often as fans and some sportswriters like to think, a managerial change can make a positive difference.  Last season for example, after getting off to an 18-28 start, the Rockies fired manager Clint Hurdle and replaced him with Jim Tracy.  From that point on, the Rockies went on a 74-42 run, finishing second in the N.L. West.

Notice that the Rockies fired Hurdle after 46 games, about the middle of May.  That’s just about where we are this season, which is why this issue is now relevant.

Taking the second question, is there much point in firing the manager of a team that is universally expected to be bad?

That depends.  How bad is bad?  Is the team at all competitive?  The Pirates, for example, currently have a predictably poor 14-18 win-loss record.  But considering their run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of -83 is the worst in baseball, they have actually over-achieved this season.

In other words, their on-field talent is so poor that their record should be something more like 9-23.  So not much point in firing the manager there.

So how about under-performing teams like the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, White Sox (sorry, Chicago), and Mariners?

Taking the first three of those teams, no one is going to fire Joe Torre, Bobby Cox (in his last season, anyway), or Lou Piniella, at least not this year.  They have accumulated more than enough managerial capital over the course of their careers to make it politically impossible for them to be terminated.

Not so the case, however, of Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox and Don Wakamatsu of Seattle.  Taking the White Sox first, they are 13-19 on the season, already a full eight games out of first place.  Guillen also a tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he has had his share of run-ins with G.M. Ken Williams over the years.

Lately, the blame for the White Sox poor start has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of closer Bobby Jenks.  Admittedly, Jenks, never one to care much about conditioning, hasn’t done his job very well.  But, with the exception of first baseman Paul Konerko and pitcher John Danks, few of the White Sox players have gotten off to a good start.

Finally, Guillen, despite winning one World Championship in 2005, doesn’t exactly have a long track record of success, and his tendency to call out his players in public, rather than in private, will catch up to him eventually in terms of being able to motivate his players.  In fact, it may already have.

Guillen, therefore, is certainly a possible candidate to lose his job this season.

Don Wakamatsu, manager of the Seattle Mariners, is, if anything, on an even hotter seat in his town than is Guillen.  With the splashy additions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, many people, including yours truly, expected the Mariners to have a legitimate chance of winning the mediocre A.L. West division.

The Angels were weakened by off-season losses of key personnel, and neither the A’s or the Rangers were obvious choices to replace the Angels atop this division.

But the Mariners anemic offense, the worst in their league, coupled with the injury to Cliff Lee, may have doomed their chances of stealing the crown.  Although the Mariners are only 5 1/2 games out, a record of 12-19, and a team playing without any apparent spark at all, is a major disappointment.

And Wakamatsu has little in the way of a track record to buttress his reputation.  Already, the Mariners have fired their hitting coach, Don Cockrell.  Firing a coach or two is often a warning to a manager that things better improve sooner than later.

If  Seattle continues to languish in their ineptitude over the next several weeks, don’t be surprised to see this team decide to change its manager.

Other teams whose managers might not survive the season include Baltimore’s Dave Trembley (9-23), Houston’s Brad Mills (10-21), Kansas City’s Trey Hillman (11-21) and Arizona’s A.J. Hinch (14-19.)

Although not much was expected of the first three of those teams, there is bad, and then there is really bad.  Kansas City, for example, made a big show in the off-season of signing a couple of free agents (Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall), and during spring training their players and manager all said the right things like, “People are going to be surprised this year.  We’re going to make some noise in our division.”

Nonsense, of course.  Ankiel and Kendall were poor signings, and this is a team that could only avoid last place due to its fortuitous geography of being in the same division as the Indians.

But if some of the powers-that-be within the Royals organization really believed, however erroneously, that their Royals should be much more competitive this year, then Manager Hillman might be looking for work before the end of summer.

Hinch, in Arizona, also appears to be vulnerable.  Granted, the Diamondbacks have several young players still in their initial stage of development, but if this season ends up being an organizational step backwards, it is doubtful that this turn of events will be tolerated in Arizona.

Houston manager Brad Mills, is in his first full season as the field commander, will be allowed a significant honeymoon period.  The truth is, Houston is a lousy, and in some quarters, overrated team with a handful of good players surrounded by a cast of replacement level talent.  The inevitable overhaul of this franchise starts at the top.  Mills, therefore, appears to be safe at this point.

The truth is, of course, that none of us know how the 2010 season will progress from here.  Surprising turnarounds happen all the time.  When we look at the standings come the All-Star Break, they could, and probably will be, significantly different from what they look like today.

One thing is certain, however.  At some point, perhaps sooner than later, we will be reading about how a particular team has come to the unavoidable conclusion that it is time to change horses.  References to last year’s Rockies will be made, and the expectations laid upon the head of the new manager will be many.

Yet it is also virtually certain that the teams who actually make the playoffs are not going to be the teams who change managers this season.

The teams that make the playoffs will be, as always, the teams that actually have the best players.

Some things never change.

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