A manager's job involves making thousands of small decisions over the course of a season. Sabermetrics has helped us understand that some decisions are simply better than others. But at the end of the day, the tactical decisions managers make only have a marginal influence over the total number of wins.
However, when Clint Hurdle turned to Josh Harrison in early May to provide a spark for an offense that badly needed one, and then continued playing him through the inevitable short slumps and second-guessing that followed, he may have changed the direction of the Pirates' season.
It starts after Baltimore
On May 1, the Pirates dropped both ends of a dreary, overcast doubleheader in Baltimore. After losing the second game in walk-off fashion, the Pirates headed home with a 10-18 record, in fourth place, 9.5 games behind the Brewers. Only 28 games into the season, the buzz of last year's postseason run had worn off and there was a palpable sense that the team was sinking too deep, and too quickly, to recover.
The Pirates were simply not hitting. Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez were mired in deep slumps, and the team was getting little production from its right field platoon. Travis Snider was hitting .208/.288/.333 and Jose Tabata .250/.301/.309. The Bucs were badly in need of a lift and Hurdle turned to Harrison, who had provided spurts of offense in the past, but who in April was largely a forgotten man on the roster.
On May 3, Harrison was in the starting lineup, batting leadoff and playing right field. To that point in the year, he had only played one complete game and was batting .208/.240/.375.
"Whenever we put him in the lineup we're looking for a little bit of charge," Hurdle said of Harrison before that night's game. "He plays with energy."
Harrison provided an immediate charge. After going hitless in his first three at bats, he hit an RBI double down the third base line in the seventh, which pulled the Pirates within three runs of the Blue Jays, 6-3. He later scored to draw the Pirates within two. With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, Harrison got a key hit in the game-winning rally.
"He has a tool set that is very unique," said Hurdle after the game. "He's very versatile. It's not just left- or right-handed pitchers. He just goes up there and battles. Some days are better than others. He's always out there laying it out on the line for the guys and he finished it strong tonight with some big hits."
The Harrison experiment goes full-time
Harrison started the next game, leading off and playing right field again. He hit two triples in a 7-2 loss.
After two good games in a row, Hurdle started to play Harrison more frequently. Then came the tipping point in New York. After going 2-for-5 with a home run and making incredible diving catching the second game of a doubleheader on May 18, Hurdle committed to Harrison. He started him for the next 22 games, the string only ending because of a twisted ankle on June 11.
During this stretch, many, including me, second-guessed Hurdle's use of Harrison. Few believed that he would continue performing at such a high level. Many felt that the team likely would be better served returning to the Tabata/Snider platoon. At the very least, if Harrison was going to play, he shouldn't be leading off.
Harrison cooled off at points during this period, yet Hurdle paid little attention to the doubters and stuck with the a player he now trusted. This decision served the Pirates well in the long run.
"There are going to be second-guessers, haters, poseurs, criticizers," Hurdle said recently, reflecting on the criticism he received for playing Harrison. "The world is full of them. They don't consume my time, nor do I care. Nor do I take any satisfaction in the fact that I made a decision that worked out well, because I expect myself to make good decisions. And you got to do what you believe is right in your heart because you're going to be criticized anyway."
Although Harrison's positional role and lineup slot changed and evolved over the next couple months, he consistently performed well. In May, Harrison hit .321/.360/.494. From May 3 to the All-Star Break he hit .307/.343/.458 and was almost a two-win player, according to fWAR. Today, Harrison is second on the team in WAR (4.1) and WPA (4.07).
Hurdle and Harrison reflect on the opportunity given and decision made
As it is with most breakout players from whom little was expected, opportunity had to come before performance. To receive the opportunity, a player requires a manager willing to give it.
"It's definitely about opportunities and he's given me my opportunities," Harrison said of Clint Hurdle. "I'm very blessed and fortunate for that."
"But this is no knock to him or anybody else, it didn't give me any added motivation," Harrison added, when asked if he felt any added pressure to live up to the faith his manager showed in him. "Everything I do is based just on me and how I am. I go out there and do what I do. I'm certainly grateful for the opportunity."
Once the opportunity is given and a low-expectation player begins to perform, managers face a welcome, yet tricky, decision. How long do you ride this player? How much responsibility do you give him? Should you continue to play him when he goes through the inevitable slumps? In this case, Hurdle pressed the right button.
"That's the beauty of what I have the opportunity to do [and] it's kind of funny because there are so many people that [think they could] do this better than me," Hurdle said, when asked about the satisfaction a manager league manger derives from being on the right side of a decision. "They just don't have the opportunity. I'm just the lucky duck that gets to do it."
Ultimately, according to Hurdle, the satisfaction a manager derives from making the right call isn't proving critics wrong, or even the victories.
"The part that is really cool is believing in a player and believing in a person," Hurdle said. "There was a year where I had to hug him 12 times that we sent him out, or whatever it was, and look him in the eye and tell him to go down there and do this, this and this. 'I believe in you. We'll get you back.' That's hard. And that kid looked me in the eye and said, ‘Ok,' and he did. So now when he comes back and you see this kind of play out, man, in the parking lot last night with his mom and his dad, aunts, uncles, I mean, that's cool stuff. ... It's not about being right. Or somebody else being wrong."
In retrospect, Hurdle's decisions to look to Harrison for a spark in early May, and then commit to him later that month, are pivotal moments in the Pirates season.
I don't want to make too much of the credit Hurdle's deserves for Harrison's contributions. In some ways, he wasn't left with much of a choice given the way the team and Harrison were performing. But he did make a series of decisions, and those decisions worked out.
Sabermetricians have found that managers rarely play a decisive role in the fate of a season. Simply put, their tactical decisions don't amount to much, and roster decisions usually fall under the purview of the front office. However, in a situation like Harrison's, where a low-expectation player is primed for a breakout season, a manager cannot only greatly influence the course of a season, but a career. Whether Hurdle got lucky, used his gut, or made a sound decision based on the circumstances doesn't matter that much. What is undeniably true, and perhaps rare, is that a very visible manager's decision has changed the complexion of a season.