The Pittsburgh Pirates fired John Russell following the 2010 season and replaced him with Clint Hurdle. It’s hard to argue with the results. The perennial also-rans went on to become one of the best teams in the National League.
Hurdle deserves the praise he’s received. Given a second opportunity to manage — Colorado had canned him in 2009 — he’s made shrewd in-game moves and overseen a cohesive clubhouse. Along the way, he has adroitly balanced his old-school instincts with the data-driven philosophy of the front office.
Could the Pirates have turned the corner had they not made the change? It’s not implausible. In many respects, Russell and Hurdle are the same type of manager. According to Pirates GM Neal Huntington, there are “similarities in their foundations,” and he described Russell as “a quality person (with a) willingness to embrace different schools of thought.”
He sees differences as well. In Huntington’s opinion, their “execution of the role” isn’t the same, and Hurdle represented “a different voice with a different approach and skill set.”
Russell — now the bench coach in Baltimore, under Buck Showalter — agrees that a different voice can be needed. That doesn’t mean he feels it’s always necessary.
“I think it depends,” Russell told me. “Sometimes change is good. Other times it creates more indecision and takes longer to get things pieced together. The biggest thing is the direction you’re headed, and I feel we were on the right path in Pittsburgh. It showed.
“The day he let me go, I told Neal that whoever comes in is going to look really smart, because of what we started. I’m not knocking Clint. Clint has done a great job. But the foundation had been put in place. They’ve taken it and run with it; they’ve had a lot of success. Good for them.”
Russell’s words shouldn’t be interpreted as sour grapes. He was disappointed to be let go in Pittsburgh, but at the same time, he’s long since moved on. He’s happy in Baltimore, and by all accounts, he respects Huntington, Hurdle, and the entire Pirates organization.
The feeling is mutual. Huntington told me that Russell has “many similarities to other managers that have experienced a great deal more success in their second opportunity.” He hopes that he will get a another chance to manage in the big leagues.
Russell would embrace a second chance.
“I think it’s something I’m qualified for,” said Russell. “It’s something I really enjoy, and if the opportunity arises someday, that would be great. But as long as Buck wants me around, it’s great to be here, too.”
Last Sunday, this column highlighted Kirby Yates’ rise from non-drafted free agent to big-league pitcher. His underdog story has seen him go from Tampa Bay, where he spend the past two seasons, to New York, where he’s now pitching for the Yankees.
The transition has included a shift in philosophy.
“It’s different styles and different information,” is how Yates compared the two organizations. “Tampa was very… they were really into PITCHf/x and how the ball moves. Things like that. There’s some of that here, but it’s more of the eyeball test. They’re very hands on and mechanical here.”
Yates made it clear that he wasn’t criticizing his old team — “I can’t say anything bad about Tampa; they’re the team that gave me a shot” — but he sounded like he’s more comfortable in a less-data-focused environment.
“I looked at it a lot last year, but I haven’t looked at any since I’ve been here,” Yates told me. “I’m not sure I will. I honestly don’t know if it helped me or hurt me. I think it maybe put a little more thought into my head.
“I looked at how my stuff moved. On the cross hairs, what was it doing? How much ride did I get? How much carry did I get? I did like to see the trajectory of my breaking stuff — I think that’s useful — but as far as the carry on my fastball, that’s something you either have or you don’t. Spin rate is something that comes natural. You can’t look at it on paper and take something different into the next game.”
As for how he’s throwing now, the righty doesn’t need numbers to tell him how the ball is coming out of his hand.
“So far, my stuff feels good,” said Yates. “Things might be different if it didn’t, but what if I go the computer and it shows that it’s actually not that good? Right now, by the eyeball test, I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Scott Feldman said something intriguing when I spoke to him in New York during the first week of the season. The subject was game preparation, which the veteran pitcher approaches differently as an Astro.
“I used to do more video before I got to Houston (in 2014),” said Feldman. “It would be a little bit each day, maybe. But the way we do the advance reports here… they’re pretty much the same, only better, than what I used to look for on video.”
When asked to elaborate, Feldman hesitated, then demurred. “Let’s just say our reports are that good,” was all he chose to divulge.
Kevin Gausman is probably going to have take the next step for the Orioles to seriously contend this year. Baltimore’s starting rotation is underwhelming, and the 25-year-old right-hander has the most overpowering stuff of the bunch. Coming into the season, Tony Blengino tabbed him as his Breakout Candidate.
Gaussian has yet to thrown a big-league pitch in 2016 — he made a rehab start (shoulder tendonitis) in high-A on Friday — but he’s expected to do so soon. When he does, he’ll be looking to add nuance to his explosiveness.
“When I first came up, I was more of a thrower,” admitted Gausman, who has 65 MLB games under his belt. “I think everybody would agree with me when I say that. I tried to overpower guys. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how hard you throw up here. You have to pitch.”
He also has to take advantage of his god-given gifts. Blessed with mid-90s heat and a power breaking ball, Gausman would be ill-advised to adopt a finesse mentality. To his credit, he recognizes there’s a balance.
“There’s a happy medium,” said Gausman. “In certain situations, I’m going to rear back a little more. When you need a strikeout, it’s ‘OK, here’s my best against your best.’ A few years ago, Jason Hammel told me that his best stuff doesn’t come out until guys are in scoring position. I didn’t understand that at first, but I do now.
“You’re kind of two pitchers out there. You’re not throwing those aggressive 0-2 breaking balls on 0-0 when there’s no one on base. But when it’s bases loaded with no one out, it becomes ‘All right, here we go. I’ve got to bring my A game now.’”
Things started to unravel for Darwin Barney in 2013. After a pair of seasons where he slashed a combined .265/.306/.354, the slick-fielding second baseman tried to become something he wasn’t.
“My (contact) rate had been one of the best in the big leagues, and I felt like maybe I could get a little more out of myself,” explained Barney. “I went for it. I tried to pull the ball a little more and increase my slugging, and it just didn’t work out. I take full accountability for that.”
Barney was with the Cubs at the time — he’s now a Blue Jay — and “didn’t work out” is an understatement. His numbers plummeted to a .208/.266/.303. To say he regrets the failed transformation is also an understatement.
“When I was myself, I was a guy with a knack for getting hits,” said Barney. “Maybe I didn’t walk enough, but playing the defense I did, and getting some hits, helped me win a job. When I tried to leave that — when I tried to be someone I wasn’t — it was kind of downhill from there. It’s taking me a little bit of time to get back to the person I was.”
Another understatement. Two-plus years later, he’s yet to fully regain his footing. Since his woebegone 2013 campaign, Barney has been traded twice, spent most of a season in Triple-A, and been relegated to a utility role. Playing time has been at a premium.
He’s not making excuses.
“Baseball doesn’t owe anything to anybody,” Barney told me. “You don’t walk into a clubhouse and have things handed to you on a platter. In this game, everything is on you. You have to take accountability for what happens. I’ve struggled and it’s all been on me. I’m just trying to move forward.”
Barney has appeared in five games with the Blue Jays this season. He has three hits in 14 at bats.
Prior to the start of the season, Twins GM Terry Ryan said “The secret to most team’s success is the rotation. If you don’t pitch well out of the rotation, all that other stuff is secondary.”
The logic was sound, but the early-April results tell another story. Ryan’s squad began the season with nine straight losses — the worst start in Minnesota history — despite allowing four-or-fewer runs in eight of those games. The starters weren’t the problem. The offense was downright offensive, producing a grand total of 14 runs.
Joe Biagini is a 25-year-old pitcher who made the Blue Jays opening day roster as a Rule 5 pick from the Giants organization. Based on my conversation with him at Fenway Park yesterday, he’s also a good quote. Biagini told me he doesn’t like cliches, and any doubts I might have had on the veracity of that statement were quickly dispelled.
When I asked the rookie right-hander what it was like to stand on the Fenway Park mound for the first time the previous night, his response was anything but canned.
“I’m not sure,” Biagini deadpanned. “I’m not sure if it actually happened or not. It might be a conspiracy, like The Matrix or something.”
After a pause, Biagini continued.
“I remember thinking to myself in between batters, ‘I can’t believe I’m out here. How did this team let me on their roster? It’s crazy.’ So yeah, it was cool. This place is kind of like the cathedral of baseball.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Dispatch, the Cardinals caught a break this week when Randal Grichuk briefly passed Brandon Moss on the base paths and nobody noticed. Had the umpires, or the Brewers, been more attentive, a two-run homer would have become a run-scoring single.
MLB.com’s Mike Petriello wrote about the Phillies, speed and spin.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Washington Nationals’ 9-1 start is the best ever for a DC-based team. The 1951 Senators started 7-1 (and finished with a record of 62-92).
The Orioles’ 7-0 start was the club’s best since moving to Baltimore in 1954. The best in franchise history came in 1944, when the St. Louis Browns started 9-0.
Hank Aaron was the last Negro League player to play in the major leagues (he retired after the 1976) season. Ike Brown was the last Negro League player to make it to the major leagues (he debuted in 1969).
On this date in 1945, Pete Gray made his MLB debut with the St. Louis Browns. Gray, whose right arm was amputated as a child, went on to record 51 big league hits.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.