Every step they take: Bucs keep eye out for fatigue
Pirates, Hurdle tally players' steals, total bases, ground covered on defense
PITTSBURGH -- We live, and baseball is played, in an analytical age. Everything is measured, presented digitally, then interpreted. MLB Network has Statcast™ to track players' movements and shed metrical light on events that previously had only the "wow" factor.
The Pirates have their own system, which also tracks players' movements, but only to let manager Clint Hurdle know when they need to be unplugged.
"Every step they take, we keep track of. All the activity," Hurdle said. "You keep those numbers, and when they start going the wrong way, you bring them in and tell them it might be time to back off."
Out on the road, if you drive too fast, you get pulled over. On the field, it works pretty much the same way except, instead of being red-lighted, players are red-lined.
Hurdle's traffic cop is Brendon Huttmann, the club's strength and conditioning coach.
"Brendon tracks it," Hurdle explained, "comes in and says, 'Hey, this is my perspective: This guy's been on his feet, he's done a lot of work, you may want to look for an opportunity to give him a break.' I get a weekly printout from him."
A couple of weeks ago, the printout recommended a break for Andrew McCutchen. He'd been on a tear, doing a lot of hitting, which meant he also had been doing a lot of baserunning.
"We knew Cutch was red-lining," recalled Hurdle, who could not talk his red-hot All-Star to the bench.
A couple of days later, McCutchen tweaked his balky left knee, which was telling him the same thing the manager had tried to: Time to rest.
General manager Neal Huntington winced when made aware of his manager's discourse on the Pirates' player tracking system. One of baseball's most innovative executives, Huntington is understandably protective of the methods he and his training staff have introduced to keep the Bucs running healthier than average.
"Let's just say, Clint is a little more transparent than I am," Huntington said. "We don't want to be too open about how we go about things. If we were, other teams could become even better at it. I'm more comfortable keeping some matters in-house."
What we do know is that this is a fascinating process, because it is so all-inclusive.
The core of the Bucs' tracking system is relatively basic: Logging distance run on the bases -- simple math with 90 feet between them.
"They just log how many bases you actually run," Jordy Mercer noted. "That's where it all starts."
From there, it gets quite creative. Steal attempts or hit-and-runs when the batter fouls off the pitch and the runner has to return to his base? Taking and leaving defensive positions? Yep, all calculated.
"We may not count the steps as they start to walk out to their positions, but when they start to run, yes," Hurdle said.
That distance covered is obviously more significant for outfielders, who also cover more ground making plays. McCutchen is also the Bucs' leading ground gainer, a natural for the onetime prep football star.
"Some games, on defense it seems like every ball is hit in the gap. It's important that we keep score, so we can show them the numbers," Hurdle said. "But you still also want to trust your eyes. That first step on a hit when you're on base? If it seems slower, it might be telling you that you're a little bit fatigued."
Still, hard numbers are most compelling when Hurdle prescribes a blow.
"We always time guys running down the line," he said, "and at some point we'll bring them in and say, 'You know, you look like you're running as hard as you can, but you're three-tenths of a second slower getting down to first. I believe it's fatigue. What do you think?'"