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 history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Trying Too Hard for Too Long: Baseball’s Peculiar Penalty

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I honestly don’t pay much attention to the Hall of Fame these days.  On the one hand, political concerns (and I mean “political” as in “woke”) are starting to play far too large a role in the unstated criteria for admission; and on the other, new and somewhat controversial metrics like WAR are beginning to nudge aside common sense as a robotic generation of nerds insists that everything can be reduced to numbers.

In my relative indifference, then, I’m afraid that the selection of Ted Simmons to Cooperstown this past fall blew past me like a quick-pitched fastball.  There I was, getting sucked into discussions about Larry Walker… and the committee finally did right by one of the most all-around productive players of the rather unglamorous Seventies and Eighties.  Maybe there’s some use to Wins Above Replacement, after all (or maybe not: Ted’s WAR is almost identical to Fred McGriff’s, who is supposed to be a mere also-ran).

I mean, a switch-hitting catcher who hits for both average and power… how much versatility can you ask for?  Of course, power stats in those lackluster years would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of Steroids Superstars.  In the long, dark shadow of the Nineties, nobody remembers slugger Steve Balboni, who topped 30 home runs only once in his career; and scarcely more fans will recall Tony Armas (Senior), who reached that plateau just three times.  Ted’s comparatively modest average of 15 homers over a span of 14 seasons might fly under the radar; but the decade-and-a-half figure is highly significant.  Balboni and Armas both did their damage over about half a decade… and I could mention, say, Jeff Burroughs or Reggie Smith, who had more protracted and successful careers, but who likewise didn’t regularly log seasonal home runs in the thirties.

Ted’s 2,472 hits especially catch the eye.  His .285 career batting average matches Yogi’s—but Berra, surprisingly, had over 300 fewer safeties.  Johnny Bench is over a hundred behind Yogi, and his average trails that of the other two by almost twenty points.  Now, Johnny fought hard and bravely against injuries and ill health.  He was also the premier defensive catcher of his generation.  Yet there’s something—indeed, much—to be said for durability, particularly at the backstop position.  Ted had that in spades.

I’m sure that the sabermetricians are aware of such intangibles, and also of the relevance of “the times”… but the essence of such things is that you can’t really quantify them.  I respect anyone who tries, up to a point.  I may begin to grow a little disgusted, though, when Dexter Sliderule forgets that he’s only approximating, and shifts into a more insistent mode.  The numbers are helpful.  They’re indispensable, even.  Yet they cannot be considered as the first and last word, with nothing in between.

I’ll devote the final half of today’s ramble to a thought that first struck me when I was viewing the career of Sam Rice.  The lifetime .322 hitter accumulated 2,987 career hits—yes, a puny thirteen shy of 3.000.  Any fan of today would wonder immediately why Rice didn’t polish off such a superhuman accomplishment.  Did he lose his eyesight?  Was his hand destroyed in an off-season accident?  Nothing so dramatic: he simply hadn’t realized that he was within a sneeze of turning over the “thousands” counter!

Now consider how many later players (Sam hung it up in 1934) desperately plod along just to reach some magic number that almost assures admission to the corridors of Mount Olympus: 400 homers (now 500), 3,000 hits or strikeouts, 300 wins.  Because these somewhat arbitrary figures came to achieve canonical status as the game aged, chasing after one of them often grew to be the obsession of the individual player and—with all the publicizing made possible by television—the prime marketing strategy of many a franchise.

The obsession can be fatal.  In wasn’t to Pete Rose: he found other ways to shoot himself in the foot.  But his career average very nearly dipped under .300 (.303) as he stumbled after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.  During his final seven seasons on the active roster, Pete topped .300 only once (and .271 only once more).  His official at-bats over that period ranged between a part-time 365 and a nearly invisible 26.  Anything to get Number 4,190!

Craig Biggio at least registered full seasons right to the end, with his seasonal batting average dipping below .250 just once (by four points).  Why the HOF electors treated him like a pathetic nag toppling over the 3,000-hit finish line on three legs, I’ll never understand.

I mentioned Fred McGriff parenthetically above.  Having come short of 500 home runs by a paltry seven, Fred perhaps damaged more than helped his case by hanging around for a final 410 AB’s only to grind out fifteen more dingers.  His average over this span dipped well under the .250 mediocrity mark.

Duke Snider, likewise, may have rubbed more luster off his career than he added by hanging around long enough to tally 407 round-trippers.  Very similar to McGriff, Duke had a bit over 500 AB’s in his final two seasons, hitting well under .250 during the span.  The trade-off was an additional 18 homers.

You could say that Snider at least found his happy ending (though he had to wait sixteen years for the Sportswriters’ approval).  His teammate Gil Hodges suffered what has been the fate—so far—of Fred McGriff.  The cornerstone of the champion Brooklyn Dodgers’ defense, said to have the surest hands of any first-sacker in his generation, Gil sadly ran out of offensive gas in his bid to reach 400 home runs.  Hodges was already at 298 after his first ten full years of service.  You had to figure that he could round up another 102 within three of four years… certainly within five.  But the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA at just that point, and the shift to a track-and-field stadium ridiculously rehabilitated as a baseball quasi-diamond favored neither his style nor Snider’s.  Gil’s offensive totals plunged across the board; he eked out a mere 25 home runs over his last four seasons—which, to be sure, represented scarcely over 500 AB’s.  Two of these seasons saw Hodges returning to New York (again, like Snider) on the expansion-formed Mets in a clever marketing scheme to capture some of the old Ebbets Field enthusiasm.  Like Jackie Robinson, Gil should probably have said “no” to the original West Coast move; he should certainly have declined to be humiliated over those final four seasons (during one of which—1960—he batted .198).

What shall we say, then, of players who were perennial All Stars for a decade, had probably stacked enough lumber over that period to achieve serious consideration for Cooperstown… and then stayed year after frustrating year trying to seal the deal?  Albert Pujols won’t damage his legacy, or even his first-round election… but he should have retired two or three years ago.  Barry Bonds would not be cooling his heels in Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Limbo if he hadn’t allowed majestic numbers to woo him beyond the parameters set by Mother Nature.

Numbers.  They’re too much in our heads, with too little context.  WAR is apparently an attempt to supply context and to substitute a more legitimate number. How, though, do you factor in an allowance for a player who would have been among your elite few if you hadn’t distracted him with other magical numbers?

baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

How Old-School Hitting Would Invigorate Today’s Game: Bunting

Here’s another excerpt–just written–from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes:

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For my money, batting left-handed while being a natural right-hander presents the ideal situation for bunting. History appears to bear me out, as well. Deadball times do not offer us precise records of bunt hits, as distinguished from sacrifices; but in more recent days, Nellie Fox, Don Blasingame, and Pete Rose all achieved spectacular results by bunting from the first-base side box with their throwing hand on the bottom of the bat. That bottom hand holds the key: it needs to be clever enough to stabilize and steer the bat, so that the barrel quickly and minutely adjusts to the pitch’s action. You can actually dip the head and, as long as the ball’s top half is contacted, lay down a very nice bunt down the third-base line. You can also drag the pitch with you toward first with the bottom hand tucking itself close to the bottom and trailing the stick behind it. Of course, you can do nothing analogous to this from the right-hand batter’s box.

In both the “push” and the “drag” bunts, furthermore, the top hand should be no firmer near the beginning flare of the barrel than is needed to keep your tool relatively parallel. The top hand is a mere prop, and picture-hanger. I think most bunts that go wrong have suffered from an overly assertive top hand. If that hand doesn’t show enough “give” upon contact, the ball comes off too hard. If the hand goes after the ball aggressively rather than letting its mate on the bottom do such steering, the ball is poked at and tends to be popped up. Having your weaker hand riding on top reduces the chances of these unfortunate outcomes. If the “control” hand is your naturally stronger one and the “prop” hand your naturally weaker one, then bunting can come as easily as swimming to a fish. If your hands have to reverse their natural inclination, then… then we’d better hope that the coach doesn’t give you that sign very often.

Yes, yes… practice makes perfect. I’m not trying to disparage right-handed hitters here, but to encourage smaller righties to experiment with left-handed hitting. In any case, none of what I’ve written so far has to do directly with Deadball techniques—so let me spend the rest of this space pointing out how the styles of yesteryear particularly play into the bunting attack.

Obviously, if your feet are active in your load, bending the knees into a bunting posture and then launching yourself toward first base should be easier. I see a lot of hitters at the highest levels (on rare occasions when I witness a bunt attempt on TV) who bend at the waist more than in the knees, and who don’t even pivot to face the pitch. Your back should be relatively straight when you bunt, presenting your eyes with a clear and stable view of the delivery. It’s the knees that take your hands down. A batsman who is using his lower body to surge or shuffle or glide into the pitch is already on the balls of his feet and flexing his calves and thigh muscles. The emphasis of his swinging attack is also, ever and always, straight into the pitch rather than back-and-up or back-and-out with a hope that barrel and pitch will explosively intersect. There’s no essential change of mindset involved when the former—the Old School artist—shifts to bunting. You need to fix your barrel in the pitch’s path when you bunt and let the ball chase you along its route rather than aggressively rushing to meet it up the road—and, yes, I suppose that requires a mild change of mindset. But for the Deadball hitter, everything that happens still takes place along the same familiar path. He is always thinking “straight through”, not “collision at the intersection”.

One of the reasons that we lack reliable statistics of how often the oldtimers bunted for hits is probably the difficulty an observer would have encountered in distinguishing some of their swings from bunts. I’ve seen written claims that Ty Cobb did not often drop a bunt, but I’ve seen further claims (sometimes in the same sources) that he liked to poke a grounder to the left side past the pitcher and beat the throw to first base. Would the stroke Cobb executed in the latter instances be his full one? Doesn’t sound like it. I doubt that he would have squared around during the pitcher’s delivery, or even have slid his top hand farther up to the barrel area. I picture him as simply leading the bat with the bottom hand as he charged out of the box and letting a loose top hand drive just enough send the ball past the mound. And, again… I’d bet that a great many of Ty’s contemporaries (such as Eddie Collins and the older scrappers, Fred Clarke and Willie Keeler) did the same thing.

Would an Ichiro-like raking swing as the hitter sprints from the box be so ineffectual today, when an entire half of the infield is often left virtually unpoliced? Such a tactic wouldn’t count formally as a bunt attempt and thus wouldn’t send the hitter back to the bench if his bid went foul. It would be the simplest thing in the world to execute out of a Fall Step where the batsman sets up on top of the plate and then strides wide open. For that matter, it would be the perfect ingredient for concocting a successful hit-and-run play; for the left-side hitter wouldn’t have to pull the ball (which is hard to do in any circumstances, since you have to be early), and he would also get a running start out of the box. With the runner moving from first on the pitch, the shortstop or third-baseman might well be befuddled about where to make his throw on the slow roller just long enough that both runners would reach safely; and if the throw to first were made while the infield was shifted to the pull side, the lead runner could easily continue on to third. I could cite Al Smith’s fond reminiscence about how often they worked that stunt in the Negro Leagues.

What I’m trying to say is just that several varieties of bunt-like contact would flow naturally from the endeavor if the bunt itself were ever to return… but a much more active lower body will have to be enlisted into the swing, I think, before any of that happens. What we have now is a line-up of home-run-hitting prima donnas who draw fans, perhaps, but don’t win ballgames regularly. The eternal baseball question: do more fans show up to see the Babe take mighty cuts on a second-division team, or to see a squad of resourceful nobodies win a hundred games?