Adam Gretz

Clint Hurdle vs. a 12-year-old

Little Big League is an absurd baseball movie.

If you’ve never seen it, the plot is centered around a 12-year-old kid (Billy Haywood) that inherits the struggling Minnesota Twins from his deceased grandfather. As if the idea of a pre-teen owning and running a Major League Baseball team wasn’t crazy enough, Haywood decided the Twins were losing because the angry, tobacco-spitting manager was yelling at the players too much and a group of highly trained, finely tuned professional athletes just weren’t having enough fun.

Baseball isn’t just about talent or skill or luck or being better than the other team; it’s about fun, dammit. Fun overcomes everything. 

So Haywood fired the manager (following a dispute over whether or not the team should sign Rickey Henderson as a free agent) and appointed himself as the manager.

Because there were one or two characters that had some reservations about a 12-year-old managing a big league team, the father-figure old school pitching coach with all of the experience tried to explain to him that baseball is all about situations, and “the more you’ve seen, the more you know.” Haywood steps up to the challenge and asks for a specific situation in what turned into an impromptu job interview.

It is at this point that a completely absurd movie has a brief moment of baseball brilliance. 

Somebody should sit Pirates manager Clint Hurdle down and make him watch it.

Haywood realizes the error of asking hit No. 3 hitter to bunt — a move that would likely result in a wasted trip through the middle of his batting order — and would have allowed his best hitter to swing away. 

This is because bunting is bad baseball and does more to hurt your team than help it, especially when you’re asking a player at the top of the batting order to do it. 

This all brings us to Sunday’s Pirates-Diamondbacks game, which the Pirates ended up losing 4-2 in 16 innings thanks in part to an embarrassing 8th inning trip through the top of the order.

The exact situation that Haywood was given in the clip above played out.

Tie game. Home half of the eighth inning. Runner on first (Starling Marte). No outs. Jordy Mercer (the Pirates’ No. 2 hitter at the plate), and Andrew McCutchen (leading National League MVP candidate) waiting in the on-deck circle.

What do you do? 

If you’re Billy Haywood, 12-year-old fictional manager, you probably allow Mercer, a decent hitter, to swing away. 

If you’re Clint Hurdle, old school manager that has been around the game and seen it all, you ask Mercer to bunt. What happened next was a clinic in why bunting is a terrible strategy.

With first base now open, the Diamondbacks were never going to allow McCutchen to swing the bat and quickly put him on first base with an intentional walk. This means that with the game on the line the Pirates’ best hitter did not get a chance to win the bat even though his spot in the batting order was up. Had Mercer not been asked to bunt there is no way this happens because even if Mercer makes an out, the Diamondbacks were not going to walk McCutchen to put the potential winning run in scoring position. So your best hitter is going to get a chance to swing which is exactly what you want happening in that situation.

What makes this even more infuriating is Hurdle even acknowledged after the game that he knew the Diamondbacks would walk McCutchen following the bunt.

“I felt that we could push an opportunity to get Russell Martin to the plate to swing to win the game, and Pedro Alvarez,” Hurlde said, via James Santelli of Pirates Prospects. “Unfortunately, we never got to Pedro. But the walk to Cutch, that’s not unexpected. But you give Martin a chance to win the game, and you’re gonna get Pedro a chance to win the game.”

Emphasis mine. 

This is worth repeating: Clint Hurdle KNEW the Diamondbacks were going to walk McCutchen, which means he willingly and knowingly took the bat out of the hands of his best hitter with the game on the line so he could give Russell Martin a chance to win it. No disrespect to Martin, who has had a fine season and been better than I ever imagined he would be for the Pirates, but that is so incredibly stupid that I don’t even know how to finish this sentence because it make my brain shut off. 

Andrew McCutchen is having an MVP caliber season. He is tearing the cover off the ball in the month of August. He is one of the most dangerous players in the game with a bat in his hands. And the Pirates’ manager willingly took a pass on that so he could get Russell Martin, a .250 hitter with a .750 OPS (by comparison, McCutchen is a .315 hitter with an .898 OPS) up to the plate with a chance to win the game.

Does. Not. Compute.

Martin, as it turns out, did not win the game because he struck out swinging while Marte, who was now on second following the bunt by Mercer, was thrown out trying to steal third.

The Pirates played for one run instead of going for a big inning and ended up scoring no runs. 

The reason the bunt is bad baseball is because even though you put a runner in scoring position you have actually decreased your teams chances of scoring a run because you gave up an out. The out is more valuable than the extra 90 feet, especially when the runner on first is as fast as Marte and when you’re dealing with your No. 2 and 3 hitters at the plate. 

According to the Run Expectancy chart, a team will score a run 44 percent of the time with a runner on first and no one out. That expectancy drops down to 41 percent with a runner on second and one out. The sac bunt lowers, even if slightly, your chances of scoring. When you add in the intentional walk to McCutchen, which put runners on first and second with one out, the run expectancy at that point is 42 percent, which is still lower than the initial situation with Mercer at the plate.

According to Baseball-Reference’s Win Probability the Pirates had a 66 percent of winning when Mercer’s at-bat began. That probability went down to 65 percent after the bunt and the ensuing walk to McCutchen. Again, that’s not a huge drop, but it is still a drop, and it again does not take into account that you took the bat out of McCutchen’s hands, something that no manager should ever allow to happen if he can avoid it. And Hurdle most certainly could have.

What makes this so frustrating — aside from Hurdle’s unbelievable explanation — is this isn’t the first time it’s happened this season. The Pirates bunt more than most teams even though they get fewer base runners than almost every other team in the league.

And it’s not just pitchers doing the bunting. Thirty-one of the Pirates’ 51 sac bunts this season belong to position players, including 14 between Marte, Mercer, and Neil Walker, a trio of players that are very good Major League hitters that should never be asked to give themselves up to move a player 90 feet. Outs are the most precious resource a baseball team has in a game. They only get 27 of them so they probably shouldn’t be in the business of just giving them away. This is especially true when you’re talking about a bad offensive team. They’re already giving the other team easy outs because they can’t hit.

Hurdle isn’t that different from most major league managers in this sense because they all do this crap, but he seems to do it more than most. And it’s doing nothing but helping to bring down an already bad offensive team.

Managers like to think they have a bigger role in the game than they do and go out of their way to insert themselves into it with bunts, hit-and-runs, steals, etc. 

Had Hurdle simply acted like a 12-year-old Billy Haywood and sat on the bench and done nothing in the eighth inning the Pirates chances of winning would have been better than when he willingly took the bat out of Andrew McCutchen’s hands.

Somebody stop him before he bunts again.