baseball history, mental approach, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Tinkering at the Edges Won’t Correct the Game’s “Speed” Problem

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I’m almost afraid to raise my voice in a peep, having heard both Trevor Bauer and Paul LoDuca taking Rob Manfred to the woodshed… and their venting was powerful.  In the matter of the Commissioner’s brutal chiropraxis on the ailing playoffs, the critics seem spot-on to me.  I’ve long ago aired my own plan for post-seasonal baseball: create a third league, so that you have the East Coast, the West Coast, and flyover America all covered; make all regular play intra-league and shorten the season (eleven teams playing sixteen—or even fifteen—games against each league rival); ditch the All Star Game for the Home Run Derby and other “fan favorites” (place-hitting contest?) to celebrate mid-season, which now has major significance (see following); have a season-ending championship round between first-half and second-half winners of all three leagues; then stage a tournament of five games between the surviving three teams, reverting to a double-elimination format if no clear victor emerges after the scuffle.

The World Series Tournament, by the way, could feature every game in a ballpark familiar to neither of the two participants. One of them, naturally, would be designated “home”; but the Yankees and the Dodgers would fight it out in Kansas City, while the Cubs and the Yanks would go to Seattle. This “Super Bowl” approach to venue would draw spectators to the event whose hometown clubs suffered disappointing seasons. It would also minimize the possibility of some extraordinary home-field advantage (such as doomed-stadium blowers that rev to full blast in the bottom of each inning) producing a warped outcome. Wouldn’t that all be cool?

Instead, we now have… I don’t know.  I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.  I don’t think Rob Manfred has, either.

But as far as other changes are concerned… the “face three hitters” rule for relief pitchers doesn’t bother me at all.  There’s nothing more tedious than watching Aaron Boone or Joe Madden come strolling back out to the mound with an arm in the air just after a new pitcher has induced a fly ball.  By the way, that particular alteration in the rules isn’t undermining the historical game, either.  On the contrary, the manager’s yoyoing between dugout and mound during the late innings is something you’d never have seen before about 2000, or even later.  It most emphatically does slow the game down; but more to the point, it creates a contest of technicians and specialists.  It drains versatility and individual heroics from the performance.

Was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell whom the Mets would alternately nudge off the mound into the outfield during big games, swapping one for the other as righty and lefty hitters stepped into the box?  I’m not talking about a formally “two-position player”, something also covered (rather needlessly, it seems) by this season’s rule changes; I mean literally putting your neck on the block, as manager, by allowing a pitcher to serve in left field or at first base during an at-bat, then switching him (no warm-up tosses allowed) with the hurler who just fanned Rusty.  That was fun to watch—and it was also always perfectly legal, though few skippers had the guts to try it.  The better bet is the pitcher who can frustrate hitters on both sides of the plate.

What really slows the game down, however, continues not to be addressed, or even (in most quarters) recognized.  Maybe it’s so obvious that we fail to see by looking too hard… or maybe the passage of time has produced a smokescreen.  My wife and I were both virtually put to sleep last week by watching a 2019 inter-league match-up between the Phillies and the Indians that should have been critical for both teams.  The Phils were fighting mathematical elimination, and the Indians began the day a half-game out of the second wildcard spot.  I wondered why the whole thing was so dull.  As an experiment, I dug out the first game of the 1975 Reds/Red Sox Series: Gullett vs. Tiant, hard-throwing lefty against Satchel Paige Redux.  Yeah, it was fun watching El Tiante’s gyrations and contortions… but a lot more was involved.  The tempo was entirely different.  Hitters stayed in the box, or stepped out just long enough to study the third-base coach.  Pitchers got their sign and went to work.  (Gullett actually balked at just about every delivery with runners on base, though it was Luis who was famously called for balking—by the other league’s umpire—during one whirlybird wind-up.)

Compared to those innings, the crucial Phillies/Indians contest was a sleeper.  Hitters seemed reluctant to step up and hit, pitchers to toe the rubber and throw.  Everyone was so touchy, so prissy.  “Wait, I have to redo the Velcro on my gloves.”  “Wait, I don’t think I want to repeat that pitch so soon.”  Damn, guys!  Just play the game!

As far as I know (though I haven’t seen confirmation), the rule requiring pitchers to discharge an offering within twenty seconds is now in full effect… but why do we need such regulations?  Why don’t players want to play—because it almost seems that they don’t.  Or, to say it better (because I know that’s not the explanation), they seem focused on an excessively narrow objective rather than on the composite endeavor.  You don’t need a perfect pitch: you just need a pitch that produces an out.  You don’t need a jack: you just need to put the ball in play somewhere.  Instead, due to what appears a kind of over-analysis or misplaced emphasis, pitchers end up surrendering huge tallies of walks on borderline calls, while hitters help them out with huge tallies of strikeouts on those same calls.  Of course, the umpire catches grief from one party or the other, every time.

I particularly noticed that batsmen, in the 2019 game, were swinging from the heels whenever they did decide to offer.  All or nothing, every cut.  Instead of Pete Rose setting up far back from the plate and trying to go the other way, Francisco Lindor was putting a sweet but vicious uppercut stroke on everything within his red zone.  I wonder… could the sheer vigor that goes into these all-out swings require more recovery time?  I’m sure the approach must induce more hitters to let more pitches go by—not because they’re balls, but because they’re not home-run suitable.  It appears to me, as well, that more pitches are fouled in such not-so-precise attacks… which, naturally, runs more time off the clock as a new ball is tossed to the mound and must undergo an introductory scrub.  And I can’t really blame pitchers for trying to hit an exact spot each time, since it’s clear that their adversary intends to punish any mistake to the maximum.

Are umpires, too, not placed more in the spotlight when so many pitches are taken and so much rides on the close call?  I know they don’t always get it right: I’m sitting before the tube fuming at them along with every other Braves fan when slow-mo replay proves that Nick Markakis got burned on something three inches off the plate.  (For some reason, that happens a lot to Nick.)  But Markakis is a superior two-strike hitter; like Pete Rose, he likes the opposite field.  For every one of him, there are twenty others whose afternoon will be ruined if they can’t browbeat the Man in the Iron Mask into relaxing his standards.

Bats are shorter by a good four or five inches than they typically were when I was growing up, and they also carry nothing above the trademark that stands a chance of fisting a pitch over the infield.  So the stubborn wait for a mistake-pitch right in the wheelhouse is understandable, I guess.  Sure, you could warn the managers as they bring out their line-ups that you’re not calling Velcro time-outs today; and if other umpires emulate you, and if the trend continues throughout the season, game times would unquestionably diminish.  But would “action” increase, when premier players are already trading forty home runs for a .228 average?

In my opinion, the dynamics of hitting have to change if the game is both to speed up and also recover its old excitement.  I don’t expect Nomar Mazara or Hunter Renfroe to start taking more concise swings and bid for a batting title… but why are Ozzie Albies and Rugned Odor trying to pump everything over the pull-side fence?  The game is slow because offense is two-dimensional.  Pitchers get hitters out because hitters have made themselves easy to get out.  Nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction how you get away with leaving a single infielder on one side of the diamond against hitter after Major League hitter and win games… yet such is our contemporary sport.

If batsmen occupying a few key slots in the line-up would adopt the approach that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess.com, you’d have a very different—and much more enjoyable—experience from your couch or seat in Row 15.

baseball ethics, baseball history, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, umpires, Uncategorized

“Crime Dog” Permanently Exiled to Sportswriters’ Doghouse

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I found an article by Matt Snyder that says most of what I have to say much better than I can say it.  The bottom line is that Fred McGriff again came woefully short of entry into the Hall of Fame, that this was his last year of normal eligibility… and that he’s been done wrong.

Snyder observes that the Crime Dog logged ten seasons of thirty or more home runs.  I would add that seven of these came consecutively, and that the two ensuing seasons of 27 and 28 were both reduced thanks to a players’ strike.  (Well… Snyder had to remind me here that 1994 was virtually cut in half—and he finely observes that McGriff would have blown the lid off several categories if allowed to continue his work that year).  Twelve 30+ home-run seasons adorned Fred’s résumé by the time he hung up the spikes (two of them played out under the extreme distraction of a mid-season trade).

Here’s my special gripe about the matter, which a professional sportswriter would probably be ill advised to express as openly as I will do.  McGriff’s totals were compiled right in the heart of the Steroids Era.  They did not fluctuate so as to indicate mysteriously magnified physical power: they reached a plateau and stayed there for a decade.  That McGriff was his league’s home-run leader in only two seasons (36 with the Blue Jays in 1990, 35 with the Padres in 1992) isn’t a sign that he was an “average” middle-order slugger for his time; it is instead evidence, I should say, that the average was being grossly inflated around him by PED’s.  Furthermore, Fred’s ability to replicate his power numbers in Toronto, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago (Cubs) demonstrates that there was nothing place-specific (e.g., dry, thin air or a secret system for stealing pitches) about his performance.

I’ll diverge from my main point for just a moment.  Let’s stick with hitter-friendly ballparks briefly.  From 1987 to 2002, Fred’s On-Base Percentage dipped into the .350s (still very respectable) only twice.  From 1997 to 2004, however, one of this year’s inductees, Larry Walker, reeled off a really impressive string of nine seasons with an OBP of over .400.  Yet these were Walker’s Colorado years; elsewhere his typical value fluctuated much more than McGriff’s.  Walker’s 383 homers, besides, are not overwhelming when one considers his ten seasons in Coors Field (only one of which—1997—saw his tally exploding up to 49; he topped 30 only three other times); and his career doubles total, while regal at 471, is only 30 ahead of McGriff’s in ballparks where hits didn’t carry with the same force.  Yes, Fred enjoyed about 1,700 more AB’s than Larry… but he also walked almost 400 more times, notably higher than Walker’s rate.

Indeed, I suspect we may see here part of the “reverse mystique” of Fred McGriff.  He was the ultimate in patient hitting.  He consistently gave up the outside corner.  The “damage” he did to his reputation as a savage slugger by exhibiting such self-control makes me recall what I’ve read about Ted Williams’ relative unpopularity when Joe DiMaggio was stirred into the same discussion during their days of active play.  People like to see Mighty Casey expand the zone with two strikes and take his chances on chipping one down the off-field line with a furious hack.  Not only did Fred, like Ted, not fit this model: McGriff, unlike Williams, never had a caustic word for umpires who rung him up on something a little off the plate.  Fred McGriff was as polite a human being as ever wore a baseball uniform.

Another debatable Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, amassed numbers mostly a bit better than Larry Walker’s across the board—and he did so without benefit of Coors Field’s thin air.  Where Cepeda’s figures distinctly underperform Walker’s (BA, OBP), they seem to me to reflect his time’s preference for more aggressive sluggers who didn’t try to work walks.  Again, fans like the “madman with a machete” image of power-hitting—which fact may indeed have impeded Larry’s ascent to the Hall.  (Snyder rightly scoffs at the word-of-mouth “most feared of his day” criterion, another morph of the “wild man” stereotype.)  Cepeda had two other off-the-field factors working in his favor, as well.  One was his Latino identity: the sportswriter clan wanted somebody besides Clemente representing that demographic.  The other was that Orlando ran afoul of laws prohibiting the use of recreational drugs.  The feeling among the chattering white-collar classes (and I lived through those days, so I can tell you that such “feelings” were palpable) was in favor of sticking it to self-righteous “family values” politicians.  That feeling, by the way—in case you’ve been living in a world engineered by your own preferred hallucinogen—has so mushroomed among the Hall’s electors as to overshadow a lot of factual evidence.

Now, I’m not arguing that either Orlando Cepeda or Larry Walker doesn’t belong on baseball’s Mount Olympus.  What I believe we see in an alignment of all three cases is just how subjective the verdict of these “sportswriters” can be.  I’m not even going to tackle the question of Wins Above Replacement: Wikipedia observes that sabermetricians have not even reached agreement on how to make the calculation.  Grounding into double-plays, for instance, apparently brings a mandatory deduction—and I have to say that only a bunch of nerdy eggheads could seriously exact such a sanction.  Double-play balls are hard hit (just ask Hank Aaron, the all-time leader); and any professional batsman will tell you that his objective is to make solid contact and leave the rest to the baseball gods.  You can’t control such factors as how slow afoot the batting champ is who hits in front of you or how slick the middle infielders of your division rivals are.

So let’s return to subjectivity in the voting: to “perception”.  The major issue that seems to me unaddressed in McGriff’s case is steroids.  He didn’t use them.  If the sun rises in the east, this man was clean.  Fred was as thin as a rail, from his rookie year to his last AB with Tampa Bay.  I don’t know how he did it, because most of us bulk up simply from the normal effects of aging.  Larry Walker certainly became “thicker”.  So did Frank Thomas.  Did Walker fall under an unvoiced suspicion among the electors, like Craig Biggio with his Popeye-like forearms in later years—or like Jeff “I ain’t saying nothing” Bagwell (both of them teammates of Ken Camminiti, who lost his life to the effects of PED’s)?  Thomas was admitted to Cooperstown immediately; Craig had to wait three years.  Why?  Was it because the “writers” were afraid to slander the Big Hurt lest their reluctance be interpreted as bigotry—the same dread that made them back off when Albert Pujolz indignantly denied rumors of “using” a few years back?

But the same writers and broadcasters will counter, “No, we never looked at size—you can’t tell by size.  Steroids make you heal faster: they don’t necessarily make you bigger.”  Oh, so… so that lets you conjure up a cloud of steroid-usage pretty much anywhere you want, just to reinforce or justify an existing prejudice.  The astonishing steadiness of McGriff’s output straight through the minefield of the Steroids Era, then, is of no interest to you: you’ll just keep analyzing his performance against the Rafael Palmeiros and Andres Galarragas of his day… and that makes for a mediocre WAR.  Okay.

Fred McGriff deserves to be rewarded for not breaking the rules: besides a career which is distinguished by any measure, he deserves special consideration for that.  How are we to expect law-abiding conduct of our children when they see that (in Leo Durocher’s immortal phrase) “nice guys finish last”?  But the twits who make these calls have little respect for society’s rules.  They’re the same pack, essentially—their intellectual DNA is the same—as persistently ignored Gil Hodges, the supreme first-stacker of his generation who was briefly the National League’s all-time right-handed home-run king, and who served his nation fighting in the heart of World War Two’s bloodiest theater… and who skippered the Miracle Mets… ignored Gil Hodges because he was a quiet man and didn’t vocally, fists flying, champion Jackie Robinson.  So they say, these twits with their algorithms who never had the guts to champion anyone chin-first.

Look at what they’ve done to Curt Schilling.  At least Curt knew what he was getting into by speaking his mind in our “free society”.  As for Fred… Fred is so like Gil, in a way: a quiet gentleman who didn’t spout quotable comments and didn’t fuel exciting controversies.  Just a decent human being who went about his business.  They hate those.

bunting, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, umpires, Uncategorized

More on the Bunt: Practice Can Be Painful!

Thanks to a pair of sore heels that Father Time keeps stepping on, I find that I can’t rehearse certain experimental procedures as much as I would like before cutting a video.  A measure of proficiency is always desirable… but I reach the point of diminishing returns when my rising skill and my stiffening feet pass each other going in opposite directions.

This proved especially true over the weekend as I tried to master a very difficult type of bunt—a fake bunt, really, that involves dropping down as if to sacrifice and then launching toward first base while lowering the barrel into the pitch so as to loop it (hopefully) over a charging third baseman.  When I finally produced a demonstration video that I thought satisfactory, I had already worked through seven or eight takes.  In the process, I discovered that I was forcing the barrel into the pitch too hard—that I really shouldn’t be trying to drive a three-quarters swing through it, as with the conventional slap-bunt.  (Not that slap-bunts are part of any team’s conventions any longer.)  Somewhere in all these do-overs, I also realized that the beginning of a break toward first base would help me trail the barrel and hence direct the pitch more toward third.  Practice makes perfect… but perfection was in no danger of being captured by my practices over the past few days.

As I say in the video that I finally allowed to pass muster, I’m not trying to impress anyone with my skill: I’m only trying to give you things to think about.  I’ve already reached the conclusion that really proficient bunting (including bunt-fakes) would require far more rehearsal than standard swing-away hitting.  I guess it’s no wonder, then, that professionals have grown so very weak in bunting skills.  So much of the contemporary game depends upon power, and so much of the “small” game would demand hundreds and hundreds of reps, that the numbers just don’t balance out.  Honestly, I get it.  I still believe that small ball wins close games, and I know as a fan that games played with such a high degree of skill in the fine arts are the most exciting to watch… but today, with such narrow windows of time and such whopping dollar amounts involved, the Big Club wants its products to come out of the package already nine-tenths assembled.

That’s all the more reason, though, why you need to assemble yourself if you’re not built like a superhuman machine.  Your coaches probably aren’t going to teach you many of those “fine arts”, even in high school—and you certainly won’t learn them during the few practices that your travel or summer-ball team schedules.  Take some of the ideas that you can find on this and other sites, and get to work on your own.

To wrap up this brief update: one of the things that disturbs me about the Fake-and-Throw-Down (as I call it) is that, even though it’s a bid for a hit built upon a bluffed sacrifice, the ump will probably consider a fouled attempt Strike Three.  You can argue till you’re blue in the face with Blue: he’s most likely to notice that you didn’t take a full swing, and to base his decision on that observation.

The next type of bunt I plan to explore has the same liability: the attempt to ground the pitch weakly toward shortstop so that the pitcher can’t reach it and 6 arrives too late to make a play.  I suspect Cobb and Collins did this sort of thing all the time, and did it to almost to perfection.  Their strikeouts were minimal, and the fouled bunt with two strikes was already being logged as a K in 1909.  If the top hand doesn’t slide up the handle on this one (as I suspect it doesn’t—that’s going to be my initial assumption), will the Supreme Arbiter still think that it looks like a bunt attempt when he sees a stationary barrel run up on the ball rather than a swing?

That’s a consideration worth bearing in mind.  Maybe most of these techniques should be tried early in the count unless you’re really confident in your ability.