How do Clint Hurdle’s in-game strategies compare to the rest of the league?
Recently, Baseball-Reference added managerial tendencies to the site. They give not only raw percentages of how often a manager will bunt or steal a base, but also give what they call a “Rate+.” (If you’re familiar with OPS+ or wRC+, it’s the same mentality. 100 is league average that year, while 120 would be 20% higher than average and 80 would be 20% lower.)
So let’s examine Clint Hurdle’s 2018 tendencies, starting with Rate+ to compare him to other managers this season.
Back in July, I wrote the Pirates would probably have been better off offensively (to that point) if they never tried to steal a base. The general rule of thumb is a player needs to have three stolen bases for every caught stealing for it to be worth the risk. The Pirates stole 70 and were caught 38 times in 2018 (64.8%). Excluding Starling Marte, they went 37/61 (60.7%).
While the Pirates attempted fewer steals of second, they actually were more aggressive trying to steal third compared to the rest of the league. A steal of third can be more valuable than one of second under the right circumstances (you can read more in my post from July), so it’s interesting to see the Pirates play the percentages a little more. Then again, it could be completely coincidental, especially with a base running threat like Marte setting the pace.
The Pirates issued a few more intentional walks this year than the league average. The only other years they did that in Hurdle’s tenure here was 2011 and 2014.
2017’s team leader in intentional walks was Chad Kuhl (7), but he only issued one in 2018 in an injury shortened season. No pitcher allowed more than four this year.
There isn’t a whole lot to say here. In Hurdle’s career, he has a 106 Rate+ when it comes to issuing intentional walks. This season was right in line with that.
Before we get started on this final topic, I should clarify this excludes pitchers. These are just position player sacrifice bunts.
In 2004 with the Colorado Rockies, Hurdle called for 44 sacrifice bunts by position players. 24 of those successful bunts came from shortstop Royce Clayton. No player in the 21st century has more than him. Clayton was a bad hitter, but two regulars on the Rockies had a worse OPS+ than him that season. He shouldn’t have bunted that often. No position player should bunt that often. But with “Moneyball” still in its infancy across the league, bunting was still considered a legitimate strategy. Now we know that it isn’t. Hurdle called for at least 30 sacrifice bunts the next four seasons before being fired midseason in 2009.
The Pirates finally stopped bunting this year, only attempting nine this season. That’s half as many as they tried in 2017 (18) and one-third as many as they did in 2016 (28). Poor bunting in 2017 may have been the breaking point. While the Bucs tried to move the runner over 18 times that season, only eight such attempts were successful. Giving up an out for a base is bad, but giving up the out for nothing is terrible.
So those are the rates compared to the league average. As for a more traditional look at the data:
Hurdle is still calling for an intentional walk or a steal of third as often as he normally has in Pittsburgh. The Rate+ being higher than usual indicates most managers are moving away from these strategies, for better or worse.
The drop in stealing second is noticeable, but it’s been on the decline since 2015. Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco were all once base stealing threats in 2014, but they’ve slowed down since then. Polanco’s base stealing days may be done after his most recent injury on the basepaths. Unless the Pirates acquire some speed this offseason, there may be another drop in steal attempts in 2019.
The decrease in steal attempts and bunts are good moves for the offense, and they’ve been trending that way the last couple of seasons. Hurdle catches a lot of flak for his in-game decisions, but for what can be quantified through data, it seems like he did an above average job in 2018.