PITTSBURGH — In 2011, Clint Hurdle made for a perfect fit as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hurdle, two years removed from a seven-year stint with the Colorado Rockies that involved a trip to the World Series in 2007, had the gravitas to demand respect in an MLB clubhouse. He also felt that after being fired in Colorado, he needed to be wiling to reinvent himself to learn more about the rapidly changing information coming out about the game.
Hurdle bought into the Pirates’ front office’s ideas about defensive shifts, two-seam fastballs, prioritizing catching defense and more, and he was able to get players to buy into those ideas, when a manager of less stature might not have been able to.
But as the baseball world’s knowledge base continued to rapidly expand, Hurdle didn’t seem keen on keeping up with the components. He frequently failed to maximize bullpen usage, had to be weaned from bunting in key situations, and generally held the Pirates fast to the 2013-15 era instead of moving them forward.
That’s among the reasons that long before the Pirates knew they would be replacing general manager Neal Huntington, they knew they would be replacing Hurdle.
One of the people on Huntington’s short list for an interview was Minnesota Twins hitting coach Derek Shelton. In fact, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the Pirates retained Huntington and Shelton was still introduced at a press conference at PNC Park on Wednesday.
The reasons are multiple, but the overarching theme is that the things that made Hurdle desirable in 2011 are no longer necessary.
Players don’t need to be sold on analytics. They’re looking up information on their own and seeking out new ways to attack the game from wherever they can. The hard part is no longer getting players to buy in, but to get the entire organization, from the front office, down through the minors and into the major league clubhouse, on the same page on things
“I’ve been very fortunate that some of the places that I’ve worked, it’s been a situation where it’s very important to them,” Shelton said. “And I think it’s very important to the players, because the players want information.”
What Shelton brings to the table is a personal relationship with Ben Cherington and experience in some of the best organizations when it comes to deploying those tactics at the Major League level.
Long-time baseball fans can recall plenty of examples of there existing tension between the front office and the manager’s office, and not just in recent Pirates history. That’s no longer a tenable situation. The cutting-edge tools that Cherington and his staff come up with are going to be implemented the way they want them to be implemented, make no question.
“We’re going to talk about things all the time, we’re going to share information, we’re going to help each other,” Cherington said on Wednesday.
As a hitting coach with the Minnesota Twins, Shelton described the process used to disseminate information from the front office on down.
“Players want information to get better,” Shelton said. “That’s the reason they want things. They want to know how they can go from Point A to Point B. It’s part of my job and my staff’s job to take the information that we have and I don’t know if dilute is the right word, but isolate it so that we can deploy it the right way for that guy.”
So Shelton comes to Pittsburgh without MLB managerial experience, but that shouldn’t hold him back from what he’s looking to accomplish, which is to establish the same kind of learning culture he experienced in places like Tampa and Minnesota.
“That’s something we’re looking to create here,” Shelton said. “When you have cultures like that, usually good things happen.”
Cherington said that he wasn’t specifically looking for that experience when he picked Shelton, but that it also didn’t hurt.
“It was someone who had experience in really good coaching and team environments, no matter the market size. It was more focused on that and it didn’t matter as much about payroll size, but who has been in environments recently that we felt like were really effective in terms of helping players and putting players in the best position to succeed.
“But then, underneath that, yeah, it doesn’t hurt to have some hands-on experience in places that maybe have some similarities to Pittsburgh.”
Shelton also talked about creating a fun environment in the clubhouse and creating a positive culture. He also seemed relatively polished in dealing with the media, something that’s important with the manager’s role as the forward face of the franchise.
The Pirates’ new hire reflects the changing landscape of Major League Baseball and the changing roles of managers in baseball, and there’s a good reason that Shelton was a candidate for multiple managerial positions, and sought out by both Pirates general managers. He’s a good fit.