As a longtime baseball fan, much moreso than a partisan fan of one team, I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Pirates finally overcome The Curse of Barry Bonds, under manager Clint Hurdle. After losing Bonds to the Giants via free agency following the 1992 season, the Pirates went on to set a North American major team sports record with 20 consecutive losing seasons, before finally breaking through with 94 wins last year and 88 this year, including back-to-back playoff appearances. Hurdle has done a great job managing the team, winning NL Manager of the Year honors last year, and certain to get votes this year as well.
However, Hurdle made a major blunder that cost his team its best shot against the Giants in Wednesday night's Wild Card game, for which he was questioned but not roundly criticized, which he should have been. Let me explain.
On the final day of the regular season, Hurdle started his ace, Gerrit Cole, in Cincinnati against the Reds, because the Pirates still had a shot at the division title. For the most part, he was applauded by fans and the press, for doing everything he could to finish first, and avoid the Wild Card game. But in the process, he wasted his ace, and had to depend on the less reliable Edinson Volquez against the Giants. Bear with me, as we go inside the numbers.
For the Pirates to win the division title, three games had to go their way:
1. They had to beat 19-game winner Johnny Cueto Sunday in Cincinnati.
2. The worst team in the majors (not just the National League), Arizona, had to beat 20-game winner Adam Wainwright Sunday in Phoenix.
3. If numbers 1&2 above happened, the Pirates then had to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis in a one-game playoff on Monday.
In other words, the Pirates did not control their own destiny. Far from it. The Reds were fired up to win Sunday, with Cueto going after his 20th win. The Pirates were not a strong road team this season, finishing 37-44. The Reds were 44-37 at home. Giving the Pirates the benefit of the doubt, let's call this game a toss-up. Let's say the Pirates had a 50% shot at winning.
If the Pirates had won, the Cardinals had Wainwright ready to start later in the day at Arizona against the 64-98 Diamondbacks. I'd say the D-Backs had no better than a 25% chance of beating Wainwright, and that's being generous. You could say I'm giving Hurdle the benefit of the doubt.
If Arizona did, indeed, beat Wainwright, what are the odds the Pirates would have beat the Cardinals in St. Louis on Monday? The Cards were 51-30 at home this season, compared with the Pirates road record, again, of 37-44. But I'll give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt again, with a 50% chance of winning that game.
So, even giving the Pirates the benefit of the doubt in two difficult road games, do the math: With these numbers, they still had only a SIX PERCENT CHANCE of winning the division: 50%x25%X50%. I guarantee you that Clint Hurdle never analyzed the probability factors involved in the three games. In this respect, Hurdle is very old-school, and I'm pretty sure that most managers are. They think day-to-day, and they concentrate on what they can control. In Hurdle's mind, he had a shot at the division title, so he was going to use his ace, the other critical factors be damned.
Hell, even ESPN radio didn't understand the factors involved, because the following morning, while the popular duo of Mike&Mike debated Hurdle's decision, they weren't even aware that a one-game playoff Monday in St. Louis was part of the equation. They thought a Pirates win on Sunday, coupled with a Cardinals loss, gave the division to Pittsburgh. Maybe that's what Hurdle thought.
So that's where Pirates general manager Neil Huntington enters the discussion. It was his job to sit down with Hurdle to make sure he understood the strong likelihood that St. Louis was going to win the division even if the Pirates won Sunday, and then to collectively consider saving Gerrit Cole for the Wild Card game. Huntington even could have--should have--pulled a Billy Beane and ordered Hurdle to save Cole.
Some, of course, would say that it wouldn't have mattered, since Madison Bumgarner tossed a four-hit shutout in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. But once Brandon Crawford hit that fourth-inning grand slam off Volquez, the pressure was off Bumgarner and his teammates, and the collective air was gone from PNC Park and the Pirates dugout. We'll never know how Cole would have done instead, but he's the Pirates ace, and unless you've got a good shot at the division title on Sunday, you've got to save your ace for the one-game Wild Card game on Wednesday night. It's a no-brainer, because if you lose the Wild-Card game, your season is over.
Gerrit Cole was the number one pick of the 2011 draft, out of UCLA In parts of two major league seasons, the 24-year old Cole is 21-12 with a 3.45 ERA, with 238 strikeouts in 255 innings. He is the Pirates ace. He's their horse. He's their Madison Bumgarner. He should have been on the mound Wednesday night, to give the Pirates the best chance they could possibly have to beat the Giants. Instead, he was needlessly watching from the dugout. That's on Hurdle.