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Pregame: Hurdle on factoring in the 'human element'

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting quotes from Opening Day was Clint Hurdle's description of the Pirates' platoons at first base and right field as not "cookie cutter." Additional factors beyond the handedness of the the opponent's starter will factor into lineup decisions: "We'll look at a bunch of different numbers: hard numbers, past history, analysis, projections and go from there." His decision to start Travis Ishikawa over Gaby Sanchez on Opening Day, he said, was influenced by both the momentum Ishikawa is carrying out Spring Training, and by Monday's matchup.

After going 2-for-3 on Monday, Hurdle is riding the hot bat again tonight, starting Ishikawa against Cubs' starter Edwin Jackson.

While starting Ishikawa is certainly neither surprising nor particularly controversial, the factors that go into the tactical decisions that managers make is always interesting. That's particularly true with the increasing influence of sabermetrics on decision-making. With many in the game still holding to the view that so-called immeasurables have a role to play in determining tactics, finding the proper balance between what Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle calls the "human element" and hard analytics is something that teams like the Pirates, it appears, are now more seriously seeking to navigate.

(Some would say that there is no such thing as an immeasurable; rather, there are simply variables that have yet to be turned into measurables. Another apporach is to say that immeasurables are randomly distributed and, thus not predictive. Or, finally, that they are ultimately unimportant to winning baseball games, so immesurables can remain unmeasured without any consequence to a club's fortunes.)

One of the things that most surprised me when I started to cover the Pirates last season was how open Clint Hurdle is to analytics. He shows a genuine interest, and maybe even a little pride, in describing some of the new programs the Pirates are implementing. These tactics often come from the analytical side of the organization, for example the increased emphasis on infield shifts or adjusting the day-to-day lineup based on matchups. In other words, Hurdle is not one of those so-called old school manager who rejects sabermetrics out of principle. That caricature of Clint Hurdle is false, and I think most of us learned that last season, or should have.

So, back to the non-cookie-cutter platoon program the Pirates are using in right field and first base.

Last season Hurdle revealed that the team uses a "system analysis" that evaluates pitcher-hitter matchups based on the opponent's starter and "15 comparables." The Pirates' system for evaluating matchups is presumably designed to address the problem of small sample size that makes a straightforward analysis of a batter's career numbers against a specific pitcher unreliable. At the same time, it allows them to tap into what is undoubtedly a factor in hitter's performance, i.e. individual hitters probably do have more success against certain types of pitchers than others.

Today, when asked whether the system he described last season was being used to assist day-to-day platoon decisions, Hurdle took the opportunity to turn it into discussion about how the organization is seeking a more sophisticated hybridization of immeasurables and analytics.

This is the second time in as many pre-game pressers that Hurdle has talked about the role that the human element (or immeasurables) is playing in decision-making this season. Take this quote from Monday: "One of the concepts we did spend some time on this spring was how do we honor things that can't be measured? And I think we have a very good grasp on that, as well."

And this quote from today: "[W]e're sharing the human element, from our perspective, to their analytical side, kind of hybridizing the two. ... We're actually getting the opportunity to coach them [the Pirates' analytics staff] up. Because we're bringing them down to the clubhouse and making them part of an environment that they are not normally a part of."

If we take Hurdle's comments at face value they are very interesting. It appears the Pirates are seriously studying better ways balance the human element with analytics. This is certainly a topic to keep an eye on as we move deeper into the season. Here is full transcript of the exchange:

Monday, you said that the platoon in right field and first base would not be cookie cutter. Last season you described an advanced in-house system for evaluating pitcher-hitter matchups. Have the analytics in that area evolved? Or, are you still using that system.

We won't give away any secrets. But, yeah, our system continues to get ratcheted up, based on technology, based on the men that work it, and what we found unique. We're having fun with it. We're sharing the human element, from our perspective, to their analytical side, kind of hybridizing the two. Which is making sense for everybody.

We're actually getting the opportunity to coach them [the Pirates' analytics personnel] up. Because we're bringing them down to the clubhouse and making them part of an environment that they are not normally a part of.

Sometimes that statistical analysis can be very sterile, and you lose sight of the fact that there is a heartbeat inside every number. There can be some other things that play out. So they are getting a better feel for that. And they're educating me tremendously, as well. So, it's a real good fit with Mike Fitzgerald and Dan Fox.

The system is continuing to evolve. We have a defensive system in place that we didn't have last year. Still have some offensive things.

You've mentioned the inclusion of the "human element" the last two pressers: is that the frontier that the club is exploring a little bit more now?

No, I think that is a frontier that a lot of people have forgotten about, [that] a lot of people have bypassed. We get caught up in numbers. We like to measure things. We've had this conversation in here numerous times. I think, at times, I can get hardened or callused to statistical analysis because that's not my comfort area. I didn't go to school there. I don't have the depth or knowledge or maybe understanding.

Well, I've had to rearrange my furniture to have a better understanding of that, so what we're trying to also share with these guys is that there are certain things that we need to make sure that we're aware of that can't be measured - that actually do go into the measure, if that makes any sense.