18 straight losing seasons. A league-worst record of 57-105 last year. A horrendous 17-64 record and .210 winning percentage on the road. Virtually no noteworthy free agent signings. Coming in, there weren't a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 season. But after winning two of three against the Cubs in Wrigley Field and taking the opener against the Cardinals in St. Louis, the Pirates are a surprising 3-1. Here is what stands out thus far.
Manager Clint Hurdle: Many studies, including this one, have tried to assess the impact a manager has on a team's performance. While still heavily debated, the most prevalent opinion is a good manager may add about five wins over the course of a season. Clint Hurdle is a big man with a big personality and from the first day of spring training it was apparent he was nothing like his stoic predecessor John Russell. Hurdle has brought a level of confidence and optimism not visible in seasons past. While we can debate the wins Hurdle will add, there is no question his leadership and confidence are valuable for a young team looking to find its way.
Refreshingly, Hurdle has been candid and straightforward when discussing the team's early-season mistakes. Accountability, at this early stage, is no longer questioned. When Pedro Alvarez misplayed two pop flies in the opener Hurdle put the blame squarely on Alvarez and said it will be addressed and corrected. When Evan Meek didn't have his command in the second game, Hurdle didn't shy away from it. He said Meek wasn't good, but provided full support for his pitcher, saying Meek will continue to get the ball in that situation. When Ronny Cedeno made a ridiculous and potentially costly throwing error in Sunday's win, Hurdle said it was a bad decision and it has been stressed to Cedeno that he can't be careless. Simple examples, but honest evaluation. John Russell never provided that at any point last year.
There is no question that since coming to the Pirates, Hurdle has emphasized being aggressive and smart, both on the bases and at the plate. His conversation with Garrett Jones after his Saturday home run is one humorous example. Jones is a career .390 hitter when he swings at the first pitch, but it is something he doesn't do often, preferring to take a couple pitches to settle in at the plate. After his first-pitch homer off Carlos Zambrano in the seventh inning, Jones came back to the dugout and Hurdle asked what was that second pitch, the one he hit for a homer. Jones responded that he hit the first pitch. Hurdle laughed and said he didn't know you could hit the first pitch. Point made. At the same time, we saw free-swinger Ronny Cedeno take two walks in his first seven plate appearances and continue to hit the ball the other way, two things he rarely did last year. Working with each player to have a good approach and good at bats is clearly a point of emphasis and something Hurdle did very successfully last year as the AL Champion Texas Rangers hitting coach. The early signs are positive.
At this early stage it is still hard to evaluate Hurdle's managerial style and tendencies. This is a great article by WTM that Charlie linked to the other day. It provides some insight by looking at Hurdle's strategy while managing the Rockies, but, as noted, it is difficult to assess the level the team's personnel played in those decisions. Strategically this season I (along with many others here) have disagreed with having Jose Tabata bunt in the fifth inning of a game with a man on first and no outs (which may have been a botched sign), and I didn't like the decision not to pinch-run for Jason Jaramillo late in Sunday's game. But overall I have liked Hurdle's approach, and never more so than last night.
With the Pirates up 4-1 going to the bottom of the eighth inning, Hurdle called on Evan Meek, as promised. Meek gave up a broken-bat single, a four pitch walk and another single. He got pulled. This move was a bit surprising, but one I fully endorsed, as Meek again lacked command. Needing a ground ball, Hurdle turned to rookie sinkerballer Mike Crotta - a bit of a surprise since Crotta had only made his major league debut the day before. Crotta delivered, getting a grounder and a strikeout. Two outs. Then Hurdle really won me over. He called on closer Joel Hanrahan to get the last out in the eighth. So many managers live by the conventional wisdom that you only bring your closer in in the ninth, that this was almost a shocking move, particularly this early in the season. (Hurdle addressed this in his postgame interview, saying if Hanrahan's pitch count had gotten into the twenties in the ninth it would have been a problem.) Using your best pitcher in high-leverage situations tends to be a good strategy. Hanrahan came through, getting the tough-to-strike-out Yadier Molina (8.5 percent carrer strikeout rate vs. MLB avg. 17.3 percent) to chase a hard slider in the dirt. He then closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth. If you ever want to give a manager credit for a win, Hurdle should probably get some for last night.
The Pirates talk a lot about and point to the great potential talent in the minor leagues. It is something that certainly gives management and the fanbase hope for the future. But Clint Hurdle has stressed that he is focused on the present. From day one he has said his goal is to win at the major league level. Now. His early influence on this team is tangible and the early results very encouraging.
Starting Pitching: To say that the Pirates starting pitching was a question mark coming into the season would be a massive understatement. While the Royals' starters look historically bad on paper, the Pirates aren't far behind. That's why the first four outings of the season are surprising and encouraging. And incredibly similar.
IP H R ER BB K Pitches
Kevin Correia 6.0 7 3 2 1 3 92-61
Paul Maholm 6.2 5 0 0 2 3 92-63
Ross Ohlendorf 6.0 8 4 4 4 3 96-64
Charlie Morton 6.0 3 1 1 5 2 97-57
All four starters were able to go at least six innings and do so in fewer than 100 pitches. As a group they have only given up eight extra base hits and one home run (four of the extra-base hits and one of the homers by Ohlendorf). Clearly the lack of strikeouts is an issue because the Pirates defense has looked incredibly erratic thus far. As a pitch-to-contact staff, that doesn't bode well going forward. James McDonald, who had trouble going deep in games last year because of high pitch counts and a lot of strikeouts. will take the hill tonight as the fifth starter to complete the first time through the rotation.
In terms of swinging strikes, Correia got six, Maholm got eight, Ohlendorf 13 and Morton only three. This is a bit surprising, because clearly "Electric Stuff" Morton has the best stuff of the group. (By comparison, Mike Crotta got four swing strikes in nine pitches and Joel Hanrahan got five in 16 in relief after Morton.) It will be something worth keeping an eye on going forward.
It's hard to evaluate the starting pitching when a team has only played four games, but with a bullpen that should be a strength, Meek's early struggles notwithstanding, if the Pirates continue to get this kind of starting pitching they will sail by my optimistic win projection of 75 and possibly approach .500. While I still view this as a big longshot, if you're a fan, there is a little bit of a reason to get excited.