On the Pirates: Was 2011 a glimpse of what could be?
Manager Clint Hurdle doffs his cap to the crowd at PNC Park last Sunday during the final home game of the season -- his first as manager.
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Clint Hurdle opted for a jacket Wednesday afternoon, thanks to the cool climate in the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park. He was 161 games into his tenure as Pirates manager, the first 100 a glimpse into what could be and the last 61 a reminder of the reality.
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Hurdle, a hands-on manager who usually dons a light batting practice warm-up as he hits grounders before games or tosses balls in the batting cage, switched to the heavier gear, which also represented the time of year: The end of his first season as Pirates manager.
When asked about his memories of the 2011 season, his response was anything but chilly.
"I will hold onto the crowds in the summertime," Hurdle said. "That will be my walkaway. The excitement, the synergy around the stadium. The comments from vendors, from street vendors, restaurateurs, everybody around. It seemed to be an energy boost, an economy boost, a fan boost."
For a while, the fans descended upon PNC Park in droves and stayed late to watch the first-place Pirates win important games. Reality -- in the form of the regression to the mean by the pitching staff and the lack of offense -- eventually caught the team and dragged its record, 72-90, below .500 for the 19th consecutive season.
"I think the excitement we saw this summer when the team was in contention just redoubled everybody's determination to make that a full summer," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said in mid-September.
These grades are based on the entire season and account for the Pirates' ranking compared with the rest of baseball.
The Pirates ranked third in the majors in strikeouts and the offense struggled enough to score 3.77 runs per game this season, 14th in the National League. Andrew McCutchen, a career .276 hitter, hit .259, .216 in the second half, though Derrek Lee and Ryan Doumit proved tough outs later in the season.
"One thing that we have done a great job of is not giving up, not giving in, no matter what the situation's been," Neil Walker said of the offense.
Although fielding percentage is a subjective statistic that does not accurately reflect a team's defense, their .982 mark ranked tied for 18th in the majors. Their total defensive chances, however, ranked third in the league because of their pitch-to-contact staff that did not strike out many batters. Controlling the running game was a problem: The Pirates caught 25 percent of potential base stealers, 11th in the NL.
"Our pitchers can do a better job at some things and our catchers can become more efficient at throwing," Hurdle said.
Starting pitching: C
The starters' 4.21 ERA ranked in the middle of the pack in the major leagues, but they struggled in the second half of the season. Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm suffered injuries, and Ross Ohlendorf pitched inconsistently after returning from injury. Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens made massive improvements, but both skipped starts as well.
James McDonald improved his efficiency in the second half, and Brad Lincoln, who joined the rotation after injuries opened a spot, displayed enough to compete for a job in 2012.
"As far as working extremely hard to get better in many areas that were exposed last year, we've a made some strides in those areas," Hurdle said.
Relief pitching: B--
The bullpen ranked 27th in the majors in WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) but ranked in the top 11 in saves, thanks mostly to Joel Hanrahan's phenomenal season. It had to work hard, pitching the second-most innings of any bullpen in the majors.
The Pirates finished below .500 for a 19th consecutive year, but Hurdle and his staff made drastic improvements. Players praised Hurdle for a change in atmosphere, the Pirates won 15 more games than in 2010 and finished above last place in the division for the first time since 2006.
"We want to win," Hurdle said. "That being said, we haven't won enough. We have a core group in place. Obviously we have some areas that we need to improve upon."
Pitching coach Ray Searage got the best out of his starters when they were healthy, and Hurdle mixed young players into the lineup effectively. The strikeouts and inability to hit, along with the slow development of Pedro Alvarez, reflect poorly on the coaching staff.
Front office: B+
General manager Neal Huntington traded for Derrek Lee, who has played terrific baseball, and Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline to improve the offense. He also found Michael McKenry and Jason Grilli as inexpensive options to bolster the catcher's position and bullpen.
Most important for the future, he signed top draft picks Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell.
Huntington and his staff still are ultimately responsible for the record, but he made enough strides to earn a contract extension.
"We're on the right path," Huntington said. "We're maybe not moving as quickly as everybody would have liked and we understand that.
"We've got a lot of work left to do, but there's a lot of good things going on and we're excited to be able to continue that."
First Published October 2, 2011 12:00 am