Clint Hurdle didn't blow the game.
In a team sport that takes 25, when the majority of those 25 are flailing in most facets, one manager's call for one sacrifice bunt that brings about one out can't be blamed for a broadly bad outcome. Particularly not when those 25 had tons of other opportunities, as these suddenly plodding Pirates did in falling to the Phillies, 2-1, in 11 innings Sunday at PNC Park.
And yet ... man, when things aren't going well, no one needs a manager's call that's not only problematic but also passive.
This was the 10th inning. The home team had just left bases loaded in the ninth, but Adam Frazier got the next one going with a rifled double to right-center:
"It definitely felt good," Frazier would tell me, referring to being 4 for 27 since the All-Star break before that double. "It's nice to barrel one up."
It'd have been nicer to let someone else do that, too. The heart of the order was due up: Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte. Those three, plus Josh Bell and Melky Cabrera right behind them, are the best the Pirates have. And Newman, specifically, has been better than anyone of late, reaching base safely three times on this day and batting .395 -- 17 for 43 -- in the past 10-plus games leading to this at-bat.
No, check that: Newman was told to bunt.
And to his credit, he bunted very well, almost beating it out but for an athletic whirl by the Philadelphia reliever, Ranger Suarez:
That'd be that. Reynolds struck out. Marte bounced out. And again, those guys could have won the game, too, and didn't.
But that doesn't expunge the bunt call, as the analytics powerfully support:
That's a run expectancy table, and it's anything but advanced: When there are runners on the bases listed in the left column, match that to the number of outs to see how many runs get scored. This is averaged over five actual seasons this decade. So, with Frazier on second with nobody out -- and no bunt, obviously -- the Pirates can be expected to score 1.068 runs in that situation. Once Frazier's bunted over to third, that drops to 0.865.
Now, being that only one run was needed to win, Jason Rollison and I discussed how that might impact the metric. And the best table we found on that front was this:
This one backs Hurdle all the way. It's based on percentages, unlike the one above, meaning how often a run gets scored in all situations. As one can see, if Frazier's not bunted over, there's a 61.4 percent chance he'll score. If he's at third base with one out, that increases to 66 percent.
As ever with analytics, true objectivity is advised. In my eyes, without ranting on in this regard, both have merit.
But then there's this: Hurdle, to repeat, had his best hitters up. Not just any hitters. Not a five-year average of all hitters, as both of those tables surveyed. And reducing the hottest of those hitters to a bunt renders him no more or less effective than an American League reliever uncertain of how to hold a bat. These batters have a 1-in-3 chance of stroking a single. Or a groundout or a sac fly that advances Frazier without having to willingly give up an out.
And did I mention Frazier's fast?
How many runners aren't?
I asked Hurdle why he went this way.
"We're bunting Newman to get our best hitter against left-handed pitching up to the plate with a runner on third base and one out," he replied, referring to Reynolds and his .314/.355/.514 split vs. lefties.
When Hurdle didn't elaborate, I asked if there'd be any back-and-forth about this beforehand in the dugout, maybe with bench coach Tom Prince, something he'll occasionally acknowledge.
"There's not a lot," Hurdle replied. "I mean, we're on the same page."
So was Newman, apparently. When I asked him about making that play maybe tighter than expected, he coolly replied, "I was bunting to get him over. I wasn't going for a hit. I wanted to get the ball down, first and foremost. And once I put it in play, I'm running my hardest down the line."
He was doing as told.
I've heaped praise upon Hurdle for keeping this team's collective head above water through a full roster's worth of injuries. I've also expressed more understanding than most locally for his player usage, in particular how frequently they'll get a rest. I happen to feel this franchise is fortunate to have him, occasional Whitey Herzog tendencies and all.
But this season isn't slipping away so much as it is careening off a cliff. At the All-Star break, the Pirates were a game under .500 and 2.5 off the Central lead. As this is typed, they're 46-52 and 7.5 back.
This isn't the time for small-ball or for any small thinking. Swing away.
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