Pirates' recent shift in strategy paying off big
Emphasis on defensive positioning integral to Hurdle's team's success
PITTSBURGH -- Matt Adams has played baseball for most of his life, including three seasons at Slippery Rock and three more in the Minor Leagues. He figures that by now, he should know a hit when he gets one.
With Adams' Cardinals trailing the Pirates, 3-2, in the eighth inning on Aug. 13, Adams was called on to pinch-hit. The tying run was on third base, and the left-handed-hitting Adams lined a pitch from Bryan Morris.
Off the bat, Morris thought he had a sure single into right field. But when he looked up, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker was standing there with the ball in his hand.
"[He] moved right before the pitch, out into shallow right field, and I hit a slider right to him,'' said Adams, who is filling in at first base for the injured Allen Craig. "As soon as I hit it, I thought it was going to be a hit, and I looked up, and it was just a line drive right to him.''
Welcome to the big leagues, big fellow.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle could feel Adams' pain, as well as that of so many other players in recent seasons. Among the reason that the National League batting average has dropped 15 points over the last six seasons is that teams like the Pirates have become a lot smarter about where they position their players.
"I remind our players that I played in the old era of baseball, when a hard ground ball up the middle was a base hit every time,'' Hurdle said. "It just doesn't happen anymore. As a matter of fact, it doesn't even happen three out of 10 times anymore. Very rarely [does a ground ball up the middle get through for a hit].''
There are several reasons that Hurdle's Pirates have gotten themselves within two victories of the National League Championship Series after a run of 20 consecutive losing seasons. The biggest is that the talent level has increased -- both through the continued growth of players like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Walker as well as the arrival of Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole -- but Hurdle and the analytical wing of general manager Neal Huntington's front office also are using their players in smarter ways.
When Huntington and Hurdle talked about ways to improve after a 79-win season in 2012, they resolved to implement extreme shifts in the infield and radical defensive positioning when the tendencies of hitters suggested it, with even weak hitters of a daily fielding plan based around the Pirates' pitchers.
Hurdle was a relatively easy sell for Huntington, in part because he had spent four seasons playing for the highly innovative Whitey Herzog.
"Whitey was probably as aggressive and creative with defensive shifting as anybody I know,'' Hurdle said. "He kept his own personal spray charts. That is one thing that I carried with me as soon as I started managing in the Minor Leagues.''
Long before the cutting-edge executives like Mark Shapiro, Billy Beane and Theo Epstein started utilizing propriety software for their organization, even before there were databases that could be accessed on iPads, Herzog kept his own hand-written records of where opposing players hit the ball. He tried to give his teams any edge he could. Hurdle and most other players paid little attention to the detail work that occupied their manager, who was often scribbling away with a collection of markers.
"I'd watch this man show up to the park with his bag and his colors and his ruler and his papers,'' Hurdle said. "Finally, one day late in my career I asked him, 'What are you doing?' And he showed me, explained to me. Sat me down. He said, 'I've been doing it since I started managing.' Actually in Kansas City is the first time [I noticed]. I don't think I got the courage until I got to St. Louis to ask him what he was doing. I thought he was just coloring.''
Hurdle laughed when he thought back to the first time he heard anyone discussing a shift in the infield.
"Somebody was telling me a story about Ted Williams,'' Hurdle said. "It was umpire relaying a story from another umpire, but [Williams] stepped to the plate at Fenway, and they had the tremendous shift for him. First time it had happened. He stepped back and looked at it. The umpire goes, 'That's interesting.' He said, "Not really. They can't play me high enough.'"
Huntington, an Amherst grad who spent 10 years working alongside Shapiro in the Indians' system, has long been a big believer in the power of data. He hired Dan Fox, a former writer at Baseball Prospectus, to lead his analytics effort in 2008, his first year on the job.
Fox gathered information about the trends for hitters and took them to Huntington, suggesting they develop a specific plan for every hitter. The Pirates moved slowly, knowing how difficult it can be to change the thinking of big league players, using defensive shifts on rare occasions in 2011, a little more last season and regularly this season.
"It's definitely a new wave to the game, and one that's made significant difference and helped a lot of different advantages for a lot of teams,'' Hurdle said. "Ours in particular.''
According to totals compiled by Fangraphs, the Pirates' defense saved 68 runs this season, the third-best total in the Majors. It was fifth in defensive efficiency rankings, up from 10th in 2012 and 25th in '11.
Fox and his fellow Pirates analysts, including Mike Fitzgerald, draw up a specific plan for opposing hitters before every game. That scouting report gets passed along to players through coaches Nick Leyva and David Jauss, and the results have impressed everyone involved in the chain of information.
"Giving into it has been, in my opinion, pretty successful,'' Walker said. "I haven't seen the numbers as far as runs saved and things like that, but I know that usually where we're playing, it's pretty much in the right spot.''
Not that it always feels like it.
"To be honest with you, there are certain times you feel like you're in no man's land as a middle infielder,'' Walker said. "You're playing far in that four hole or the shortstop's playing way in the six hole or he's playing over the top of the bag. You're in certain spots that when you catch the ball, you kind of feel like you don't know where you're at, and that's kind of a strange feeling … but I think that's something that's going to be universally kind of implemented in the game of baseball, if you ask me. It's going to take some time, because most people don't want to give into it.''
In the end, nothing sells any idea like results.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.