Winter Meetings interview with Clint Hurdle

Winter Meetings interview with Clint Hurdle

Q. What is your reaction to the contract extension with Charlie Moore today?

CLINT HURDLE: Well, I think everybody involved is pleased. As you continue to look for ways to maintain sustainability, you look to your pitching staff first for stability. Charlie took big steps forward in many areas this year and to have him now is one of the staples moving forward I think is good for all of us.

The dynamics of the industry as well continue to shift and change as we see again this winter. So to have men that you know who you've put time in together where there are no unknowns and you don't have to recreate or tweak, I think familiarity also is a good thing for everybody involved in this.

Q. You've resigned (indiscernible) Morton, you get A. J. Burnett back potentially (indiscernible). If not, do you guys look to get a starter in free agency or something of that nature?

CLINT HURDLE: We are, as every other club here, looking for ways to improve every day. I'm sure that the largest volume of teams here will try to get better off the mound first and that begins with starting pitching. So we do have a group of analysts, Neil included, just from his perspective. But we usually highlight a few names every winter and guys that we think could bounce back and help, and we definitely have those men targeted again this winter. We're still actively engaging in many different processes.

Q. You've been in this position before where a team has a somewhat magical type season, a landmark type season. How do you have to    what traps, what things do you look out for the following year? When you assemble those guys in Bradenton for spring training, what do you tell them or what do you look for in them going forward into this season?

CLINT HURDLE: We'll have conversations before we get there. I will ramp up that process now with the holidays that are left. There will be a number of men involved in the mini camp that we'll have a conversation with. I want to get their feedback first on what they felt we did well, what they felt we need to improve upon. Have a gap analysis approach. Here's where you are right now. Where do you want to go? How I can help you get there? How can our coaching staff help you get there? Where's the team right now? Where do you want the team to go? And how can we help you get there?

I have some thoughts. I'll probably share some experiences from Colorado. I thought things we were able to sustain and do well, and things that challenged us the following year. But those conversations will be had with them. I don't want to throw out 18 different thoughts right now, because a lot of them might not be appropriate.

Q. You want players to develop over time, how do you evolve as a manager from last year to this year and from previous years to now?

CLINT HURDLE: You've got to use your eyes and you've got to use your ears. Most of us at this level have had our ego beaten out of us, so we don't carry that in the forefront of everything we do anymore. For me, that's been critical that I continue to challenge my staff that I don't ever want to be the smartest man in the room. If I'm the smartest man in the room, I need to look for a new room or a new staff.

I have no challenges with that in Pittsburgh whether it be the coaching offices or the front offices upstairs. We have a lot of gifted people, and I think that's been one of the reasons we've been able to develop and get better is we all acknowledge the gifts of one another and skills of one another, and make sure they align properly and let everybody do their work and do their job without micro managing. That's seemed to work.

To this point in time, it's helped me develop. The players helped me develop. The leadership council this year was a big step forward for my team and for myself. We had five men picked by the players in spring training meeting twice a month, and we talked about everything. It wasn't just baseball. It could be kids at home. It could be whatever came across, you know, different challenges in other ballparks. So the gloves were off, and there was a lot of trust involved.

I've shared with them in the past, well, how do we know whether we can trust each other? I said I will tell you something here that if it gets out, I'll be very disappointed. I'll tell you about myself. I shared something with them, and so far it hasn't gotten out, so good.

Q. Where did the idea for the leadership council come from?

CLINT HURDLE: It was something that I had thought about. I had heard in a couple collegiate ranks where there were a couple coaches that I had talked to that put the programs in play. When I first asked about putting it in, I was just new here in Pittsburgh. We really didn't have a good feel. Maybe that wasn't the right time.

So I think the third year in, one of the ways we thought we could help sustain focus and preparation throughout the season and have a group of men that I could rely upon and they could take things back to the playing staff. So I don't think there is ever an original thought anymore. I did borrow it from somebody else, and it worked out well for us this year, and it will be in play again next season.

Q. What's the club's stand on A. J. Burnett right now?

CLINT HURDLE: Neil and A.J. are having the conversations that Neil and A.J. have to have. And that is really all I care to share with you all because that is all that needs to be shared at this time.

Q. Can you talk about Francisco and what he meant to you guys getting as far as you guys got?

CLINT HURDLE: Fantastic season. He was one of the guys that our group of men identified over the winter. A bounce back guy, a go to guy.

A.J. was the guy after the 2011 season that was No. 1 on our list to go get. Francisco was No. 1 on the list. I don't think you ever hit on all the guys you get, but we've hit on the two we've highlighted the last two seasons. I've heard a lot of people want to take credit for what Francisco did this year. I'm not one of them. I do believe there is a point in time when you have to give the athlete some credit, the player some credit, the man some credit.

And in the conversations I had with him, I asked specific questions about what he felt. There were two things that he has shared that he thought made a huge difference this year. Number one, his ability to just take it pitch by pitch, to really slow things down, to calm the heartbeat, to stay in control. Keep the ball in his hand, not the ball gripping him. I believe that tightening up the fastball command is the best I've ever seen. That was point one. The fastball command was critical because he's always had swing and miss breaking ball, swing and miss changeup, to get ahead of more counts than maybe he ever had before helped.

The second one in the past when he got in problematic challenging times, he'd get in a hurry. You hear that term a lot. Well, what does that mean to you? Well, I wanted them to disappear. I wanted to get them out in nine pitches and wanted them to strikeout. That ramping up and manning up mentality worked counterproductively and he embraced the fact that if I make one really good pitch right here, I can get two of them. It's not about the nine I've got to make perfect to get them to swing and miss, but if I make one good pitch, I can get two, and I make one more good pitch.

And I do think men, hopefully some of us men in this room one day can some day wake up and be a little bit smarter than we were previously through some of the experiences we've had. And I think frankly he got tired of some of the challenges he's had in the past as well and just said, you know what, I'm going to get something done this year in a different fashion.

Q. How rare is it to find someone in his situation be able to turn it around and have a season like that?

CLINT HURDLE: It's not just professionally, but physically with the challenge that he had over the Christmas holidays, and then to have to recreate a contract. I do think he came in with a very good professional edge in spring training that enough of this nonsense. I'm going to focus what I can control and do the things I've been good at and work on some things I haven't been as good at.

Doesn't happen all the time. If it was that easy, you'd go out and get one every year. But they do have a comeback Player of the Year award every year and somebody always gets it. So there is usually a story or a man that's been able to find a way to meet a challenge physically or professionally. And Frankie's done it twice now in his career? Is that accurate? That's my understanding. That's pretty significant. It speaks to the character of the guy, the perseverance and the toughness.

Q. What did you see of Polanco you were down in the Dominican?

CLINT HURDLE: He's a very good looking, young player. He's maturing and growing up right in front of our eyes. I met him three years ago. The body is starting to fill out. He is one of the more physically imposing guys in the league right now, just his presence and size.

The game that we saw    one game we saw him play, all the tools showed up. The bat showed up, the ability to go get a ball in the outfield, the throwing arm, the speed. He's a young, large gaited guy that actually runs really fast. You don't probably notice it because it doesn't look like a smaller guy running fast, but he eats up such    almost like Larry Walker did back in Colorado, if you remember the days there. It's four or five strides down the line and he's there. So he's growing up. He's getting better every day. He's getting closer. You've got to like what you see. You like the attitude and the dedication he's put into his trade as well.

Q. Now that (No microphone), how crucial is it to sustain that into this year?

CLINT HURDLE: It's like next year, do you want to    how crucial is it to get off to a good start? It's all crucial. You have to keep it all in perspective and focus on the things that you did to get them back. They want a team they can be proud of. They want a team that plays the game smart, plays the game hard. Guys that will dig balls out of the dirt, slide, and break up double plays, all the stuff that a blue collar city can relate to.

Obviously the winning factor is the piece that's been missing. I don't think it's any secret that the Ws add up, and they get on the right side of the column, the place is electric. I do think they have a belief now in place that they haven't been able to hold on to. It's not just hope anymore. They saw tangible evidence of a team that could show up, play, complete and they were proud of. We need to give them more of that.

Q. You talked a little bit about how you've evolved as a manager, and embracing things like defensive shifts last year. Do you think that kind of evolution or adapting is something managers need to do to survive in today's game? You need to have the willingness to embrace change?

CLINT HURDLE: I needed to. I'm not going to speak on behalf of anybody else. The game is hard to play. The game is challenging to manage. I've learned a lot of valuable lessons in my life professionally and personally.

I'm to the point now that I just need to sit back and watch the skill sets of others and know that everybody can add value.

From a traditionalist view, I'm one of the older guys in the building. You break down the employees and I'm one of the older men in the building. Tradition can be wonderful, but it can also be a vision killer. I was kind of that guy. If I was pitching, I would have looked over my right shoulder when I got a runner on first and one out. And I would have thought the shortstop should have been there, and now I have to yell from the dugout, no, you're right, other shoulder, just look over the other shoulder. That's where he's at.

As I explain it to my players so just they understand what I'm trying to become to help them, I played in an era where a hard groundball up the middle was a base hit nine out of ten times. Now it might be a base hit two out of ten times. So if the information is there, it's real, it plays out, you're really not doing the best job you can to help your team win if you're not paying attention to it.

We have some very gifted people on that third floor and in Pittsburgh that do some remarkable work and tactically give us a very competitive edge as far as I'm concerned. I need to listen to them.

Q. Do you think the tolerance for what is sometimes perceived as showing up the other team or celebrating too much has changed in recent years and it's been more difficult for players to kind of police that like they used to with opposing teams?

CLINT HURDLE: Number one, I think we are far removed from the day of showboating that went on years before. We don't hit the homers we used to hit, don't hit them as far as we used to hit them. I mean, so from that standpoint alone, it's become more pitcher dominating.

The game has evolved as well. There is still a game within a game to be played and the elite teams play it. Fastball command will always be the biggest staple off the mound, whether it's in, away, up or down, whether you're playing the four corners of it or you've got to be able to throw strikes inside. You've got to be able to move the ball inside for discomfort, and you've got to be able to move the ball inside for effect.

I think everybody understands that. I think just some teams do it better than others, and that can complicate things in some people's minds from time to time. But we didn't have many instances of somebody on the other team showing us up this year that I can speak to. We tried to stay focused on our side. Our thing is we play really hard and we like to have fun doing it, and that's the kind of bling we take out there. There are certain things you can control, certain things you can't. When the things you can't get out of the way, what can you control to reel it back in, and that's what you do.

Q. Do you think the good teams though are better at knowing when to send a message or better at executing it?

CLINT HURDLE: They're better at executing it, number one, and maybe they are better at the awareness of it. It goes hand in hand.

Q. Talk about some of the young arms you have like (indiscernible) that made a huge impact especially in Game 2. What kind of impact can they make next year and in the future?

CLINT HURDLE: Our farm system is in a very good place. We're deep in a number of areas. The pitching has been an aspect has been one that seems to be in the HOV lane the last few years. We've paid more attention and put more dollars into it, and we've fortunately gotten results from it as well, and that's not always the case. That's when you can get sit back when you're drafting high and spending money and you're not getting that player to produce or find his way to the Major Leagues.

Our scouts have done a fantastic job in being creative in their abilities to get out there and see people and then make the connections and get in the houses and talk to the parents.

Our player development people have been fantastic in their creative abilities to continue to develop these young men as they grow up and become Pirates as well as professionals.

So the combination, it's old school. You scout, you develop your own, you bring them up and give them the opportunity to play. Very rarely in this game is a player a finished product when they get up there. So you still have work to do when you get to the Major Leagues.

Our coaches throughout the system have been without ego. They've all been a part of that is assembly line. It's been wonderful to watch when these men have the successes they have on the give back that those coaches get when they get to Pittsburgh and get out in front of things and do things like a Gerrit Cole was able to accomplish this year.

Q. Will Mercer be your everyday shortstop?

CLINT HURDLE: I believe so. I believe so. I believe that there are opportunities for growth and development still in play. That's what is important is he's getting the opportunity.

Will he be able to use some help along the way? I would anticipate that as well. But for us where we are organizationally right now, it's time to give the ball in the glove and the bat and let him run out and see what he can do with it.

Q. You bring in a back up shortstop, would you prefer it be a mentor type person with him as opposed to a physical on the field back up?

CLINT HURDLE: If we get both, that would be great. But we want to bring in a guy to catch the ball. We want to get a guy that can catch the ball and put putouts away for the days that Jordy's not at shortstop. There might be one or two men still on the market that can do both. So I believe Jordy had an invaluable experience last year working with Clint Barmes, and the selflessness of Clint Barmes throughout the entire season. It played out for us, and I believe it's one of the reasons Jordy improved as the season went along and had some of the successes he had. There wasn't a conflict with the other shortstop. There wasn't a challenge for playing time. There wasn't an ego involved. It was an older guy not so much passing the torch, but gonna help him because there are going to be days you're going to be playing and I want to win. So I want to help you do everything you can to improve as a player and help us win.

I think a lot of good was gotten from that relationship last year. You'd like to recreate it if you can. If not, create a new one.

Q. What are your thoughts on first base? I know O'Neill has mentioned he's pursuing all types of platoon situations, a trade, an everyday player there?

CLINT HURDLE: My thoughts are right along the lines of Neil's. We have a game plan in place. We have talked to our guys internally about what we believe Sanchez can do to help us there, what Lambo could do if it works out where he gets time there. We don't believe we have anybody internally. Matt Hague's name will come up and we'll consider that. But then outside of that is there another partner that we could creatively make a trade with that could bring in a first baseman? There are still a couple guys or two on the free agent market that we've had discussions about.

So we're not desperate. We have a plan. We'll stick with it. The market is what it is. We can play to it at the level we can play to it. And there are certain things we can't play to, so we get it. We don't get confused by it. We don't get angry about it. We find different ways to get it done as do many other teams within our industry.

Tampa Bay has given us a fine example for everybody to follow over the years. Steadfastness, and being smart with the dollars that you do have.

Q. How do you feel about the efforts on the home plate collision?

CLINT HURDLE: I need to listen to the people that make these decisions. When I'm asked my opinion, I'll share it with them. Nobody wants anybody to get hurt. I think we all have the same common goal at the end of the day. We might have varying opinions on how to get there over time.

It's hard to sit in a room    it would be hard for me, anyways, to sit in a room when guys like Joe Torre and Tony La Russa in there and talking about things and even think they don't have a good grasp of things. These men have gone before me. They've experienced it. When they're on these panels and these committees that they're putting together to try to enhance and make the game better, I need to be quiet and listen. That's my take on it.

Q. Speaking of the replay, I know you had a meeting today, is it more clear now how this is going to work?

CLINT HURDLE: I never was unclear because I'd never listened to anything that's been said up to this point. I figured I'd wait and then talk to the people I needed to talk to about it, because there's been a lot of speculation, a lot of thoughts and a lot of opinions from people that had nothing to do with this out there. I'm in a good place.

Again, it goes back to listening to Joe and listening to Tony sharing information. Tactically we're working on a program that's going to take three years to phase in. This is phase 1. We have a chance to be part of something pretty historic. I think we all need to be like minded on getting it right. Understanding that everything's not written in stone right now, but this is the way we're going to start. Can we adapt, improvise and overcome throughout this process? Very well, we possibly could.

I'm good with the way the game is trending along those lines. Very good, very comfortable.

Q. Is it a better late than never kind of thing?

CLINT HURDLE: I don't know if it's better late than never. Again, we feel this is the appropriate time for baseball. There haven't been many changes to the game where the NBA, they've cleared out the lane. The NFL's made adjustments along the way. The people that run our game have felt our game has been in a good place, and there are many different numbers to look at that substantiate that. And they think this is the next step for us adding more value.

Q. What did you think of Marlon Byrd last season when you had him? Do you think he's found his swing and can be effective in this league for a couple more years?

CLINT HURDLE: We liked Marlon. That's why we went and got him. He was everything we could hope he would have been while he was there. He hit in the middle of the lineup. He drove in runs and scored and he played solid defense. He ran the bases extremely hard so, he showed up and played ball. It would be hard for me to understand why he can't continue. He's going to a very good ballpark to hit in with an organization he has history with, as the firsts coming ups. They're in a good place for him to take the next step and continuing taking steps forward at his age.

Q. Do you have any advice for Andrew as he's giving up bachelorhood?

CLINT HURDLE: Wrong guy for me to talk. I was very excited for him today. I finally got the video clip. So good for Andrew. Good for Maria. Yeah, I got married three times, so I've been able to experience that quite a few times.

Q. It's been almost 35 years since you were on the cover of "Sports Illustrated". What do you think now when you see that? I'm sure you see it all the time still, but what does it mean to you?

CLINT HURDLE: To get past just the initial shock at how young I looked and how long my hair was, I think it's nice to take a step back. If you can take a step back and look at the picture and realize where you are now, what I was talking about our players, it's gap analysis. What was I thinking there? What was important to me then? What am I thinking now? Where am I now? And look at the space and time that's been covered.

I've been fortunate that I've had people in my life that have really helped me along that journey. It's been a heck of a ride. I am the same guy in some respects, but I'm not even close to being the same guy in a lot of others. We all look to get better and improve.

From that standpoint, I probably get reminded of it more than most because I'm still asked to sign three or four of those covers about every week. They keep showing up. I don't know if they keep making them or they just keep showing up.

Q. With your right field situation and Neil indicating that you're probably going to stay in house on that, how do you deal with that in spring training with several guys in that mix and making sure they're not feeling like they're just a place holder for Polanco who will eventually be coming up?

CLINT HURDLE: You have that conversation with each one of them. I'm a big believer in getting things off of them that don't need to be on them. Eliminating every distraction I can for the player. So we'll go in and we'll explain to Travis, to Lambo, to Tabata where we are and revisit where they were last year, the roles they individually played, the contributions they were able to make, the challenges they had, where their areas of improvements lie. And let's move forward together to get the best deal out of this for all of us. I think they're all well aware there is not a manager out there that doesn't want all of them to play well. Very rarely is that the case that works out. But knowing that they're all going to get the opportunity and we'll make best the decision for the ballclub. I think in my three years here, that's the way we've done it and the way we'll continue to do it.

Q. (No microphone) what is his next step this year?

CLINT HURDLE: I thought it was Pedro's biggest step so far in his young career, a step forward. His all around workday has really become professional. Not that it ever wasn't, but sometimes it was too much. Now he's become more tactical in how he works, what he works on. His focus is as good as it's ever been. He is mindful of his defense and his offense. It's not just I'm going to get nine innings on defense and these four at bats are huge. Now it's I've got to play nine innings of defense every night and I'm going to get to hit four times. And the role I have those four times can change. From an offensive standpoint, the man has gone from trying to perfect his swing to actually trying to have the best at bat he can at the time. He's starting to figure out what pitchers are trying to do to him and with him versus him just trying to get something done.

As impactful as anything for me was the postseason play that he was able to throw out there. It was good at bat after good at bat. We'll see how that plays. I do have to believe that he's been able to empower himself. His teammates were empowered by it, the quality of his at bats. And he went to the post for us. If you look up the games played, I put it on Pedro last year. I challenged him in a very strong fashion, and he responded very, very well.

And the defensive play, the number of errors is always something you can grab. But for those of you, you covered that ballclub all year, he made some plays. He was not a defensive problem. I mean, he's become a good, solid defender. I think he's in a very good place to continue to grow.

Areas that we're going to try to talk about is more bat to ball contact, better outs with runners at third base with less than two outs. He did so many things incrementally better this year. There are still a couple areas if we can highlight. If we can knock X number of strikeouts off the board, get it down to 100 and a half, hit the ball 40 more times. Where's that going to go?

Q. He's a triples hitter now.

CLINT HURDLE: He hit some triples and nobody had that going in, did they? I didn't.

Q. Do you project he'll be your third baseman long term or is there some thought he might have to slide across?

CLINT HURDLE: The only thought I hear about sliding out is from people outside our clubhouse. It is the first thing they grab. Actually, we're a better team with him impacting the baseball offensively when he's at third base. He wants to play third base. And as long as Pedro wants to play third base and works hard at playing third base, I'm with him.

Q. Have you thought about bringing back Barmes? Have you had any conversations with him as a reserve guy?

CLINT HURDLE: We had a conversation out the door in our exit interviews about the role we could envision he could play for us this year. We spelled it out directly to him. I do believe this is always a challenging time for a player of Clint's    he wanted to see if there was a job to be available to play a large volume of games to be a starting shortstop. If there's not, I think a conversation could be had about his opportunity to revisit here. I think it's a place he knows us. We know him. He's a very good defender. He's an impact defender. He's very good with our younger players. He's very good in the clubhouse. So there is a lot of tangible and intangible aspects of him we still like.

Q. Can you touch on the immediate impact that a lot of these young starting pitchers are having especially last year with Wacha, and Cole, and Fernandez? Why is that in your opinion that they're coming in and having such an impact right away?

CLINT HURDLE: They are incredibly talented. I do think the game runs in cycles, and you are seeing a huge cycle of up arms, big time arms that have skills. They're not just throwers. Basically every one of these guys can pitch. They've all got secondary pitches. Some of them have three pitches that they can go out and get.

The game offensively is being challenged as well. This is a five, six, seven year decline all over the joint. So it's almost a perfect storm. Incredible talents and an offensive game that's being challenged. These guys are mowing some people down. Good pitching will always beat good hitting. You're just seeing more younger pitching beating good hitting clubs right now than what's happened in a long time.

Q. Particularly with the young guys that felt like they've had that success, the focus and realization of what it took to have that success in a year or two can sometimes slip away. Have you thought about what to do to keep guys going?

CLINT HURDLE: Part of what we do is we do ask them questions. Every spring we come in and have that same entrance interview that we do leaving the season called the exit interview. What did you do well? What challenged you? I imagine if we get the player that says he doesn't have any challenges, we might be able to help him along the lines of what he might anticipate being challenged by the next season based on X, Y or Z or this player's career.

What can be the norm of challenges for a young player that has early success? Overconfidence is always at the top of the list. Maybe thinking that I've got this. There are two types of players. Really there are two types of people. But I share with them all the time, there are two types of players in this game. Those that are humble and those that are about to be. Which one are you? Because there is a chance that you're going to be both. It only takes you one time on that other side that you realize, okay, I need to slow things down. There is always something to learn and improve upon.

I do think we have a clubhouse that's very good at honing their own right now and keeping them sharp for one another. And pushing them collectively together to improve, little individual challenges along the way. So I believe that we're in a place to address those challenges when we do have them.