Pirates manager Clint Hurdle a positive force

Manager of the year candidate Clint Hurdle created an environment where his players could thrive

Clint Hurdle's credentials speak for themselves.

His Pirates won 15 more games in 2013 than they did in 2012. They earned a playoff spot for the first time since 1992 by winning 94 games and lost in a five-game National League Division Series.

Hurdle didn't strike out 209 batters in 191 innings. That was A.J. Burnett. He didn't hit 36 homers (Pedro Alvarez) or assemble an MVP-caliber season with a .317 batting average (Andrew McCutchen). In his third year managing the Pirates, Hurdle's main contribution was creating an atmosphere that allowed those things to happen, and for that, he was named a finalist for the NL manager of the year award.

"There's not a manager that's ever won this award, or been a finalist or even nominated for this award, that hasn't managed a good team that year," Hurdle said.

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted for the award, which will be announced at 6 p.m. Tuesday on MLB Network. Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly also are finalists.

For only the second time in his 11-year managerial career with the Pirates and Colorado Rockies, Hurdle managed a team to a winning record and the playoffs. The previous time came in 2007, when a September winning streak shot his Rockies into the playoffs at warp speed before they were swept in the World Series by Boston.

Hurdle is many things, but above all else he is positive. He believes in those who work for him, sometimes in the face of evidence that he shouldn't. Hurdle likes to tell a story about recusing himself from the evaluation process when the Pirates were scouting Jason Grilli in 2011. Grilli at the time was in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league system after missing an entire season due to injury, and Hurdle, familiar with Grilli from their days together with the Rockies, remained so enamored with Grilli the person that he wanted an unbiased opinion on Grilli the pitcher.

"He's very optimistic, and that's a big key," McCutchen said of Hurdle. "It's hard to be as optimistic and as positive as he always is every single day."

Hurdle's conception of his role as a leader extends beyond setting lineups and coaching up hitters. He culls information from a variety of sources: politicians, military leaders, confidantes around the game. Stacks of books on leadership sit on the desk in his clubhouse office. He often speaks of the importance of gaining the trust of his players, which he hopes to accomplish via open communication.

"The players, they went out and played for one another and the city," Hurdle said. "From that perspective I tried to stay in the background, stay out of the way. Every once in a while just share some reminders and maybe get them back on course."

Hurdle did make some tangible impact on the team this season. He did away with pitch counts for his starters. He continued to tweak the way he used his relievers. He and his coaching staff stuck with their implementation of defensive positioning based on batted-ball data, helping the Pirates rank tied for seventh in the major leagues in defensive efficiency.

Hurdle told his starting pitchers to think about finishing seven innings rather than worry about their pitch count.

"If they're in the fourth inning and they got 83 pitches, they're like, oh [no]," he said. "It takes them out of the lane they need to be in, so I just tried to help them with their mindset that way."

Relievers who pitched two days in a row generally did not pitch in a third consecutive game, and only did so if their pitch count the previous two games was low enough. The team also tracked how often the relievers warmed up in the bullpen, how many pitches they threw and how often they pitched stressful innings, those with runners on base.

"I do believe keeping the starting pitching in place, from the starters all the way to the bullpen, that helped us finish the month of September on a 13-7 run to get us where we needed to get and get us in the playoffs," Hurdle said.

It won't show up in the win-loss column, but Hurdle took strides toward his goal of re-connecting the city's fans with a version of the Pirates they could be proud of. The effort came to a crescendo, literally, at the wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds, the first playoff game at PNC Park.

"He's just a guy who had a dream when he got here, and he didn't let go of it," McCutchen said. "He's still not going to let go of it. That's taking this ball club and rebuilding this city with the baseball team, and giving the city a baseball team, one that they haven't had in a long time."

It turns out there is more than one atmosphere Hurdle had a hand in creating.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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