WHYGAVS Interviews Neal Huntington: Clint Hurdle and Pitching vs. Defense

This is part three of my interview with Neal Huntington; you can find the introduction and all the other parts here as they’re posted.

WHYGAVS: Did you have any previous relationship with Clint Hurdle before hiring him? He seemed to come off of the radar a bit during the search. 

Neal Huntington: I did not. I know a lot of people that either worked with or know Clint, but no, I didn’t have any prior relationship with him. Obviously the things he was able to do in Colorado speak for themselves in terms of taking a young team and leading it out of some dark days  and putting it together and getting to the World Series. He’s had success as a coach, both in Colorado prior to managing and in Texas this past year. He’s been through a lot as a player. He was the stud prospect that everyone talked about and went through some adversity and he battled back through that to become a role player. Now he’s worked his way through the minor leagues as a manager and a hitting coordinator and obviously brings a ton of experience to the table. He’s got tremendous energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion. Passion for the game, passion for teaching, passion for leading and communicating. 

As we went through the process, we didn’t just want to throw this thing in reverse and shift our philosophy. We have a pretty strong core philosophy in place as to how we scout, sign, and develop players. We talked from day one that that alignment from top to bottom is crucial to us. Clint is going to add to that dynamic. We’re aligned philosophically. We’re not always going to agree or see eye to eye, but our belief is that we’ll be able to communicate through our differences and he’s going to bring a ton to this organization. He already has and will continue to do so. He didn’t have to come here and he chose to. I think that’s a strong statement on his willingness to accept the challenge and also his belief in what we’re doing. He’s been up front about that; he’s talked about the impression that he had from Greg Smith, Tyrone Brooks, Kyle Stark, the work that he did on us behind the scenes and how we go about things and he wanted to be a big part of the turnaround. 

So Clint researched you as much as you researched him?

In talking with him and hearing him speak, yes, he’d done a lot of work on us. He asked challenging questions. He wanted to know our conviction of doing this the right way, our conviction of building this to where we believe it’s going and based on the fact that he’s here he must’ve liked the answers that he got. 

The readers on my site and all over the internet like to debate pitching vs. defense — sort of a chicken vs. the egg kind of thing. Does a good defense have to be in place when you have young pitchers coming up? Is that something you’re concerned about? Obviously the defense was not very good last year and maybe that was to be expected without Wilson and Sanchez …

Well there’s a couple of answers that are valid to that. One, fielding percentage is not the way to measure defense. There are a lot more advanced metrics out there. Some are kind to us, some are not. We’ve got our internal beliefs. 

So Dan Fox and his team have their own internal defensive metrics for you?

We do. Dan’s got to be one of the best in the game and he and his team make a significant impact for us.

One of the main reasons we went and got Lyle Overbay this year was to upgrade our infield defense. It’s not just the ground balls that he’s going to field; it’s the picks, the confidence a player has throwing to a guy with soft hands. Lyle brings all that to the table. That gave us the opportunity to upgrade what was going to be our right field defense with Garrett Jones instead of Ryan Doumit. There’s a significant upgrade from Doumit to Jones there. Matt Diaz and Jones as a platoon upgrades our offense and Matt’s been OK on either corner. 

We need to help Ronny Cedeno get better. We believe Neil Walker — remember he came to the big leagues with 21 games at second base in his life, not in a season, in his life — is going to continue to get better. With the work that he’s done with Maz and Nick Leyva this spring, his double play pivot is much better, his footwork is better, his angles are better. We believe he’s going to be a better second baseman. Pedro Alvarez physically just wasn’t in a spot to be a good defensive third baseman last year. He’s gotten better. We believe that with Nick and through repitition, Pedro will be a better defensive third baseman this year. He’s probably not going to win a Gold Glove, but he has the ability. He has the physical tools to play third base; he has the feet, he has the hands, he has the arm strength, he has the arm versatility. It’s a matter of applying it pitch in and pitch out. He can’t take a play off defensively. He doesn’t have the physical athleticism of the gifted third basemen that he can take a pitch off. He’s got to be locked in every pitch defensively, Neil has to be locked in every pitch defensively, Ronny’s got to be locked in every pitch defensively.

You can help your defense by striking more batters out and when we look bigger picture, we’d like to get guys that can strike more hitters out. They’re not cheap or easy to find. We’ll take ground balls over flyballs. We’ll take strikeouts over balls in play, but you marry your personnel to what your structure is. I guess the very long-winded answer to your question is that we can improve our pitching by improving our defense and we can improve our defense by improving our pitching.

You mentioned Pedro and a lot has been made of what kind of shape he was in before camp started. Now that I’ve been down here and seen him in person a couple times, he looks, if anything, to be in better shape than he was last year. 

Yes, he is. The weight gain was misrepresented. Pedro is bigger than he was at the end of last season, but every ounce of weight that Pedro Alvarez put on this offseason was strength. Is the body composition ideal? No, but the weight gain was made to be that he put on a lot of fat; Pedro put on strength. The body is toned up and he is moving better. He’s a big, strong, physical man and sometimes big, strong, and physical might just outgrow third base. He’s working hard, though, and he doesn’t want to leave third base. We don’t want him to leave third base, but he’s got to be able to play adequate defense over there. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.