Back in December, on the day the Pirates announced the signing of John Jaso, I tweeted out a Pirates batting order that I thought would be optimal vs. right handed pitchers.
My #Pirates (needs more thought) lineup vs RHP— David Todd (@DTonPirates) December 23, 2015
I like it.
I figured this was something even the analytically-driven Pirates would never adopt. Jaso is not the prototypical speedy leadoff hitter, but his .361 career OBP and his excellent baserunning skills make him an ideal candidate to hit at the top of the order. It is also the lineup spot he has been penciled into most frequently when playing for analytically-astute teams like the Rays and the A's. But the Pirates had Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco both hit at the top of the order last year and both were back this year. Habit is a strong force to overcome. Plugging Andrew McCutchen in the 2-hole seemed even less likely than batting Jaso leadoff. McCutchen hadn't hit anywhere but third or fourth since 2011. All of a sudden, though, Cutch batting second has been the feature story out of Bradenton with Opening Day less than two weeks away.
It's been argued for years now that teams should bat their best hitter in the two hole, but very few teams have actually done it. The Reds did it last year with Joey Votto. We've seen the Angels do it with Mike Trout. Hurdle summed up why he had never done it when he presented the idea to McCutchen.
"I told Andrew the challenge for me is for 47 years, the baddest dude in the game hits third," Hurdle said. "I've got to rearrange my thinking on it and what's best for our team. How do we maximize our run production?"
Now it looks like the Pirates will follow the Reds' lead. We can debate the impact of lineup optimization and whether it's worth all the time we spend discussing it, but for a team like the Pirates that has appeared in three straight Wild Card games (The Clint Hurdle Invitational, as Joe Sheehan likes to call it), every extra run can make a difference.
All of which reminded me of one of the very first times I interacted with Hurdle. Coming off a 105-loss season, the Pirates introduced him as their new manager in November 2010. Clint was not a favorite of the sabermetric community, and his hiring certainly raised some eyebrows and "same old Pirates" reactions. Of course, none of this bothered Hurdle. Before the season he was very visible promoting the organization, and he laid out his plan to once again make the Pirates a respected, winning franchise. "I'm proud to be a Pirate," he had boomed at his introductory presser, a phrase not often uttered during the team's 18 consecutive losing seasons.
That season, my second back in Pittsburgh, I was hired to be the Pirates pre- and post-game host, so I had some interaction with Hurdle early on. Listening to him talk about baseball in those first weeks, he would often answer a question about why he pursued this or that particular in-game strategy ending it with something like, "There is no book. If there was a book, we would all just go to the appropriate page and have all the answers."
Hurdle said this frequently enough that I realized he didn't know there actually was a "book," and ironically, it was called The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, written by three baseball statisticians in 2007. It covered topics such as batter-pitcher matchups, platooning, sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, lineup optimization and a plethora of other situations and strategies that are regularly encountered in the game. The authors approached all these topics by analyzing historical data and then presenting the optimal decisions for each situation based on that analysis. The underlying premise was that by optimizing decision-making, a team could give itself a better chance of "winning" each decision and therefore winning more games.
One Sunday morning in May of that first season I brought my copy of The Book to the media's pregame meeting with Hurdle in his office. After the briefing, when everyone had cleared out, I approached him. For those who don't know him, here is what Pirates GM Neal Huntington said when he introduced Hurdle as manager, "He does have a great personality. He's got a big presence and he's very charismatic, which allows him to be a tremendous leader." If anything, Neal undersold that aspect of him.
That Sunday morning, Hurdle probably knew my name, but not much more. I walked over and re-introduced myself. He stood up and extended his hand. Clint is a big man. If his goal was ever to intimidate, just standing up would be a good start. So there I was about to hand a book about baseball to a man who had spent his entire life in the sport. More than that, I had printed out a couple of pages from The Book which discussed run expectancy and why sacrifice bunts were generally a bad idea and, by implication, why Hurdle using the sac bunt so much was a bad idea. I mean I'd been involved in the game as a broadcaster for a couple weeks now. Why shouldn't I tell the manager what I thought?
Hurdle had every right to tell me exactly where to stick my book and kick me out of his office. He did the opposite. He couldn't have been more gracious. He admitted he was unaware The Book existed. (How many would do even that?) And after I briefly described its contents he engaged me for five minutes, even discussing the run expectancy printouts and the theory behind it. Having overstayed my time, with him having a game to prepare for, I turned to walk out. Hurdle thanked me and said he looked forward to reading and discussing The Book.
Fast-forward to Spring Training 2016. Under Huntington and Hurdle's stewardship, the Pirates are one of baseball's model franchises. They are viewed as being on the cutting edge of data analysis and are at the forefront of implementing change in the game, all of which is documented by Travis Sawchik in his fantastic book Big Data Baseball. Each season the Pirates have tried to find advantages from pitching inside, to defensive shifting to player health management where they can find an edge on the competition.
This spring, the Pirates have experimented with a more aggressive running game. Is that something that can be exploited now that the running game has been de-emphasized in today's lower run environment? The data have shown they need to have their outfielders playing shallower because fly balls from their primarily ground ball pitching staff have a shallower launch angle and too many balls were falling in for hits. And now they are looking to optimize their batting order.
The guy in charge of implementing these and all the other changes is a very different manager than the one the Pirates hired back in 2010, one who has committed to adapting to changes in the game and then communicating that information to his coaches and players to get an organizational buy-in. The results have been staggering to many who think small-market teams can no longer compete. The Pirates have won 94, 88 and 98 games the past three seasons, one of only three teams to make the playoffs all three years. The guy in charge is still Clint Hurdle. But now it's Clint Hurdle, sabermetrician.