The Clint Hurdle era

Late last month, the Colorado Rockies fired Clint Hurdle, after helming the club for a franchise record 1,159 regular season games. In fact, he had the longest reign any skipper has ever had with any of the 1990s expansion franchises. Heck, he lasted more games than any Royals, Astros, or Mets managers. Ultimately, Hurdle’s tenure was the 53rd longest lasting ever.

When Hurdle lost his job, he possessed the fifth-lengthiest current tenure, behind Mike Scioscia, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Ron Gardenhire. Hurdle’s name doesn’t quite fit in. LaRussa and Cox are shoe-ins for Cooperstown. Scioscia is arguably the best-regarded manager of his generation. Many people, most notably Joe Posnanski, testify that Gardenhire is the most underrated current skipper. Hurdle? He was just that guy in Colorado.

Hurdle won some accolades for leading Colorado to its miracle pennant in 2007, but otherwise the team was consistently underwhelming. Hurdle doesn’t necessarily deserve the blame for Colorado’s records but, it’s rare for someone with his track record to last that long.

I have a sketchy impression of Hurdle as a manager. Colorado fans, or rooters of any NL West bunch, can give you a more detailed portrait of what he was like as Colorado manager.

However, I can comment on a few items. I spent far too long working on book about baseball managers for McFarland. (I submitted the manuscript and the sucker should be out later this year.) I hardly discuss Hurdle in it (there is in-depth commentary on 89 skippers, but not him), but some bits of research performed for it illuminates his Rockies.

Leadoff hitters

Clint Hurdle’s most striking tendency as manager is that he has arguably done the worst job picking batters for the No. 1 slot of any manager in the last half century where the data exist.

In seven seasons as manager, his No. 1 slot had a lower OBP than all other non-pitcher slots three times: 2003, 2004, and 2005. In the 50-plus years for which I have data, no manager has presided over four such seasons. Based on the info I have, only one team in 15 achieves this undistinguished distinction.

Hell, in 2003, Colorado’s leadoff slot’s OBP (.298) was only 5.7 percent higher than the ninth slot’s OBP (.282). That is the slightest lead any leadoff slot has on any pitcher spot by any NL team for which Baseball-Reference provides splits information. The ability to get on base is the most important feature for the lineup’s table-setter, and Hurdle was consistently bad at that.

To be fair, there are other factors a manager must recognize when accounting for a leadoff hitter. Most famously the ability to steal bases matters. Sometimes a skipper must keep in mind handedness when filling out the lineup. Also, the players with the highest OBP are often the best hitters, who belong at the heart of the order.

While it is true other factors come into play when determining who is the leadoff man, one shouldn’t get so fixated on the secondary issues that you lose sight of the big picture. Constantly giving your most reliable out-maker the most plate appearances is virtually never a good idea.

Hurdle came incredibly close to being the only known manager with four seasons where his No. 1 slot had the worst OBP by non-pitchers. Last year, Colorado’s leadoff slot OBP of .311 was lower than six of the seven non-pitcher slots. The sole remaining slot also featured an OBP of .311. Added bonus: the other slot with a .311 OBP was the No. 2 hitter. That is an impressively unimpressive job setting the table.

I have batting order splits for 1,340 teams, and looking at how leadoff OBP compares to the second through eighth slots, teams normally have better OBP from 3.25 spots in their batting order than the first man. Clint Hurdle averaged 5.86 slots with superior OBP to the first one, and always had at least four.

Out of 100 men who were a team’s primary skipper for at least five seasons, only one (Fred Haney with an average of six) did worse. No other manager in that set of 100 averaged worse than five. In seven years, Hurdle had 41 batting slots with higher OBP than the leadoff man. In comparison, Bill Virdon only had 29 such occurrences in 13 seasons as a team’s primary manager.

Ultimately, either everyone else pays too much attention to placing OBP in the top slot, or Clint Hurdle didn’t pay nearly enough.

Developing ‘em

While the above is awful nice and stuff, I think a bit too much is made of it. A manager’s tactical decisions are the most frequently commented and analyzed part of the job because they are the most obvious and thus easiest to comment on and analyze. However, that does not therefore mean they are the most important aspects of his job.

To paint in broad brushes, I have found that managers tend to fall into one of two categories. They either believe those subtle and hard to quantify portions of the job (handling and coaching the players, setting goals, enforcing rules, running the clubhouse, working with the coaching staff, etc) are the most important elements of being a manager, or they think managers are generally not especially significant.

Most fall into the first camp. You’re more likely to find the second group in the sabermetric community, but even there I think a majority believe a manager’s job is like a glacier: most of it is beneath the surface, where you can’t quite see what is going on. That’s certainly my belief. I think managers are fundamentally managers of men, and only secondarily managers of the game.

One element of the job that occurs around but just under the glacier’s waterline is player development. It’s virtually impossible to pinpoint how a manager affects the maturation of a particular player, that doesn’t mean he has no influence. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that player development is something that only happens in the minor leagues, establishing oneself in the majors and growing from there might be the most important parts of development.

In fact, you can look at some managers who have some rather consistent and very impressive track records of turning the raw clay of minor leaguers into successful major leaguers. Bill James, in his book on managers, made a memorable case for John McGraw‘s ability to develop young players. If you look up Dick Williams‘s career, you’ll see a slew of players who established themselves under him. Even less-heralded skippers like Burt Shotton and Art Howe oversaw a surprising number of players reach their potential. Conversely, some managers seem to have consistent trouble making their players take that leap to big leaguer-dom.

Bringing this back to Clint Hurdle, he seems to fall into the second category. The Rockies have had some rather considerable difficulty making their can’t misses actually hit. In a thread at Baseball Think Factory, Rockies fan Tom Nawrocki noted that:

[T]his team really does have a lot of young talent on it, and exactly none of it has developed under Hurdle. [Tro] Tulo[witzki] has regressed since his rookie year (offensively; with the glove, he’s still great), [Chris] Iannetta took a step back this year, Manny Corpas has completely fallen apart, Stewart has done nothing this year. Dexter Fowler is their big success story, and he’s hitting .266/.355/.406.

Some people might look at the team and say, What do you expect Hurdle to accomplish when Ian Stewart is hitting .187? My feeling is, let’s get someone in here who can provide the right combination of teaching, encouragement and discipline to ensure that Ian Stewart hits more than .187, because he’s sure capable of more than that.

To be fair, Colorado produced some clear successes in creating quality players under Hurdle—most obviously Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe. Still, while Colorado has had successes, the team also has overseen more than its share of guys going backwards or spinning their wheels when they should be moving forward.

In 2007, the Rockies won the pennant with one of the NL’s younger offenses. While the league as a whole had an offensive age of 29.0, the Rockies’ hitters were 27.9 on average—and only a pair of teams were younger than 27.1 years old. Normally, youth plus a winning record is a good combination. While their pitching was what got them into the postseason, their batters should’ve gotten better moving forward. Didn’t happen. A team OPS+ of 97 in 2007 flopped to 91 last year and is at 89 as of this writing.

Aside from the players Nawrocki mentioned, some others can be named. Garrett Atkins established himself as a terrific young third baseman in 2006. He’s regressed every season since, devolving from 3.8 Batting Wins at age 26, to -1.7 BW currently this year at age 29. Even if 2006 was flukerifcally high for him, that doesn’t explain why he’s gotten worse every season since then and as of this writing is hitting .188.

Luis A. Gonzalez posted an OPS+ of 94 in 2004 at age 25. Two years later, his OPS+ collapsed to 53, and he hasn’t played in MLB since then. Cliff Barmes has spun his wheels offensively. Aaron Miles has a superior OPS at sea level than he did in Colorado, despite playing in Denver at ages 27-28, which is when hitters normally peak.

A bunch of guys in their early-to-mid-20s seem to be standing still or worse for Colorado. It could be a franchise-wide probably that is bigger than the manager. Or it could be that they were all over their heads early on. Still, comparatively young offenses aren’t supposed to get considerably worse in the years when they should be peaking.

Colorado and Ks

In the games Clint Hurdle managed the Rockies, Colorado’s hitters fanned 8,102 times while their pitchers struck out 6,857 opposing batters. That works out to a differential of -1,245, which is the second worst for any manager in baseball history (behind Sparky Anderson).

Neat, huh? Yeah, but the real question is if that actually means anything. Please note, that’s actually a two-fold question. First, does it matter if a team fans more than it fans others? Second, does it tell us anything about the manager or not?

First, it is significance. Making contact puts the ball in play, and some of those always fall in, even if they aren’t hit well. Thus all other things being equal, striking out more than the other side means fewer hits. Also, please note a negative strikeout differential is an especially alarming fact for a team in Colorado. If ever there was a ballpark where making contact more often than the other team mattered, it was up in that stratosphere.

OK, so it’s bad. Does that tell us much about Hurdle? First, the negative differential tells us more about the players than anything else. That is always the case. Second, it primarily enlightens us about the front office. After all, the GM is the one who assembled the team. Frankly, there is no obvious impact a manager has on this element of play.

That again takes us beneath the glacier’s waterline. There are some ways a manager can indirectly affect team strikeouts. Most obviously, he determines who plays and who rests, and what criteria separates the former from the latter. He chooses the hitting and pitching coaches and can involve himself in the coaching as well. Though the general manager signs the players, the manager is usually consulted and his voice heard when it comes to roster construction.

Most importantly, the manager establishes the overall baseball philosophy for the team. I once heard a theory that companies and divisions tend to take on the personality of those that run them. From my personal experience that’s been true. People know what matters on which the boss is a stickler and what he’s lax on, and that frequently affects how they work. In some ways baseball is just like any other job.

To make an analogy, the Angels possess the best strikeout differentials in the 21st century. If you know the baseball approach of manager Mike Scioscia and his hand-picked hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, that isn’t too surprising. Simply put, while managers have only a secondary or tertiary impact on strikeouts, it’s difficult to be among the all-time leaders in any sort of differential without telling us something of the manager.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an extreme strikeout rate must be at least partially caused by the manager. Maybe the players are just that bad. That was the case with Gil Hodges, who had the third worst strikeout differential of all time.

So what about Hurdle? Well, Todd Helton, Larry Walker, Preston Wilson, and Yorvit Torrealba are the only guys with at least 1000 plate appearances under Hurdle who also spent significant time with other skippers. By and large, they strikeout as much for Hurdle as they did elsewhere. If anything, they strikeout a little less often.

Looking at the pitchers, seven individuals who threw 200+ innings for Hurdle also plied the trade for significant stretches under different managers: Joe Kennedy, Jamey Wright, Josh Fogg, Jason Jennings, Shawn Chacon, Shawn Estes, and Byung-Hyun Kim. By and large, they struck guys out at about the same rate they always did. Some saw their rates decline, but others didn’t. If you look at the names above it’s clear that these were pitchers who just plain couldn’t strike batters.

This puts me in an awkward spot. You know all that nice, pretentious pontificating I just did above? Apparently, it doesn’t apply here. Dammit. I think the principles elucidated above hold true and are generally sound, but that doesn’t mean they work in every specific incident. General manager Dan O’Dowd just doesn’t pay much attention to strikeouts.

Overall, I don’t think Clint Hurdle was that much of a manager, but I also don’t think the Rockies are much of a franchise at the moment.

References & Resources
Tom Nawrocki’s thoughts helped with this column, obviously.

The splits info came from B-ref. The splits info here is based on the NL from 1954-2008, and AL from 1955-2008. I couldn’t get the AL 1954 to come up, so I assume the site doesn’t have that info. (Actually, I should note for my book I only used split info for 1956-onward. When I did the research that’s what was available, and when more splits became available I had to make a judgement call on what to spend time on and what not to. I just didn’t have the time to get all the info I needed and process it in the manner I sought. This doesn’t affect the article, but I feel obligated to mention it.

On a totally random note, I originally thought Hurdle had the 52nd longest tenure of any MLB manager ever. I asked a trivia question about it at BTF, in part wondering if anyone would catch one I missed. Sure enough, someone named one I hand’t included, which is why the above article now says 53rd longest tenure.

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