There is a science to watching spring training games and it’s not what you think.
This spring is especially difficult because they continue to make the game so hard to watch. From pitchers not having to get three outs in an inning anymore (and you thought you were spending big money on beers and tickets to see a baseball game), rollover innings, short games, limited fans in the stands, mask mandates, this is no longer your father’s fun in the sun spring training.
It’s not even your older brother’s spring training.
Roll with the rollover innings, just make sure you pay full price for the limited tickets for the shortened games and those fake outs that now bring an inning to a close with a simple wave of a manager’s hand.
Roll with it. Live with it. That should be the slogan for 2021.
And not just baseball. Everything is a little bit crazy these days.
Learn to deal with it so you don’t drive yourself crazy. In so many ways, common sense has left the building. This is not just about Covid.
Baseball has been losing its internal balance for decades and it has really gone wacky the last year or so. When you are one of the richest franchises in the game and you trade Mookie Betts – a generational player – for payroll flexibility, there is something drastically wrong.
But like I said, roll with it, live with it. Especially you Red Sox fans. More on that later.
George Springer of the Toronto Blue Jays
The biggest thing I look for in spring training is intelligent aggressiveness. Tells you a lot.
That goes for both hitters and pitchers. Let’s start with one of the most intriguing clubs in baseball this season, the Dunedin/Buffalo/Toronto Blue Jays, or as I like to call them the DBT Blue Jays.
Leadoff hitter is essentially the point guard of a baseball team and the Jays have one of the best now in free agent signee George Springer. The Mets not signing Springer gave the Blue Jays an opportunity for quick success and the chance to knock off the Yankees and the Rays in the AL East.
It’s not just that Springer brings it every day, it’s the way he plays, the all-out aggressiveness in a game that has slowed to sloth speed because of Overnerding.
The second pitch Springer saw as a Blue Jay off the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler, another aggressive player, he lined a single to center. That was the perfect opening statement for Springer, one of my favorite players to visit during his years with the Bang the Drum Slowly Astros.
I loved what I heard from Springer after his first game in a Blue Jays uniform. “I have to earn the respect of the clubhouse,’’ he said. “I like to be simple. I’m just trying to hit the ball hard. See the ball as well as I can.’’
Simple wins. Those three sentences are the essence of hitting. With all the hitting gobbledygook gurus out there, this is what you need to know about the art of hitting. You can always fine tune, but this is the mindset you must have to succeed: Be aggressive. See it, hit it. Springer brings that mentality and that will help all the blossoming Blue Jays stars rise above. I love everything about this signing.
Springer will be a huge asset to Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio, helping them to learn what it takes to succeed.
Another player I am pulling for this season is Steven Matz, who happens to be a new Blue Jay as well. I’ve known Matz his entire major league career. He is a decent young man who has a strong foundation called Tru32. He’s wearing No. 22 now by the way, but his foundation supports firefighters and police officers – a worthy cause – and many times I would see him with families from those departments. He was not just lending his name, he was hands on in action.
Matz has a golden left arm but gets himself in trouble when he tries too hard and lets little things get to him, like not fielding a bunt. This change of scenery trade could really work out well for Matz if he can keep his composure and be an aggressive strike throwing machine.
In his first spring training game, Matz went after hitters and put together two shutout innings against the Phillies. It’s the approach I look for, not necessarily results, and Matz had the right approach after working with Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. Two things Matz said after his outing struck me as being important: “Keep the adrenaline controlled’’ was the first and the second was a good thing for all pitchers to remember: “The intentionality of each pitch.’’
Baseball is about intentionality and anticipation. It’s a street-smart game. If you are a pitcher, you read swings and react. Blue Jays lefty Hyun-jin Ryu is one of the best in the game at reading swings and Matz can learn from him.
“He learned the old fashioned way, hitter reaction,’’ a scout said of Ryu. “Throw strikes, change speeds, change eye levels, he does that extremely well and mix. That’s all you need to do now to get people out is mix your pitches.’’
Many times when Matz got a little geeked up in his Mets days, he would just throw the baseball, no intentionality, no anticipation. There would be force, but no purpose. The intentionality of each pitch is an approach that can really help the left-hander.
Noted one trusted scout of the outing: “He was Good Matz, pounding the strike zone, all four pitches. I’ve been impressed with Toronto’s approach, there is an aggressive tempo with this team, pitching and hitting.’’
A lot of teams lose that tempo advantage because between players looking at the wrist band info or at the Magic Card on every pitch, either pulling it from their cap or back pocket, the game slows to a crawl. Fielders are on their heels and because not as much attention is paid to defense, not a lot of intentionality, errors both physical and mental, litter the game.
Not to mention switching infield positions on every pitch.
As for pitching, it’s getting scary out there when three outs is a spring training mountain that cannot be climbed.
“By the end of the week, people are going to be playing three-inning games,’’ the scout said in disgust.
The first two games of spring training, the Pirates could only find pitching for a six-inning, 2-2 tie and the next day, a home game, they only had enough pitching for five innings. The Pirates followed that up with a whole six innings on Wednesday in a 3-1 loss to the Rays.
C’mon, try harder. Let’s at least have a 7th-inning stretch.
In the 2-2 game, the teams combined for 13 strikeouts and only six hits. There were four runs. That’s how many errors there were, too.
“It’s a real disservice to the fans,’’ noted one baseball insider of the Rollover and overall bad baseball combo. “If people have to live through another year of this, it’s just hard to watch. In batting practice, the Pirate hitters were hitting the ball out of the ballpark because the wind was blowing out and all the right-handed hitters were dropping their backside, launch angle, launch angle, launch angle. The coach is throwing 50 mph from 25 feet away, then the game starts and they couldn’t hit a foul ball. Changeup, changeup, swing and miss, fastball up out of the zone, strike three.’’
On Tuesday, Phillies manager Joe Girardi had to shut down two different innings where young pitchers had bases loaded and couldn’t get the needed outs.
“By the end of the week, people are going to be playing three-inning games,’’ the scout said in disgust.
The other day the Yankees Jameson Taillon, who has already had two Tommy John surgeries, pitched a seven-pitch inning and that was it. Done for the day. “Three up and three down, that’s not work, seven pitches, you’re not protecting Jameson Taillon by not letting him pitch,’’ one scout noted.
The pitch count police have never had more power.
Which brings me to a story, and I know you come here for the stories.
Jack McKeon was managing in Missoula, Montana in the Senators organization way back when, 1958 to be exact. There was a left-hander – only 19 at the time – that McKeon, who was also the team’s catcher, thought had the major league goods. The Kid just needed experience. The Senators front office liked another young pitcher, their top prospect. Jack said his lefty would beat the top prospect to the majors and bet a steak dinner on the outcome. Those Senators needed help. They finished 61-93 that year.
McKeon was always a good scout. And one day his young lefty loaded the bases in the sixth inning so McKeon, all of 27, walked out to the mound, spit some tobacco juice on the rubber and said, “You got yourself into this mess, figure out how to get out of it.’’
No soothing hand on the shoulder for this Timberjack with words like: “Focus on the process. Your spin rate is excellent.’’
No. This was the Class C Pioneer League. Grow up, young man. This inning was not waved off by the manager.
You know what, the young pitcher did figure it out. And he made it to the majors the next season.
That young pitcher was Jim Kaat, who went on to pitch 25 years in the majors, compiling a 283-237 record with a 3.45 ERA. In 1965 he started 42 games, the next season he started 41, pitching a total of 569 innings those two years, facing 2,342 batters. For his major league career, Kaat, now 82, threw 4,530 innings, so yes… he figured it out. And was Mr. Gold Glove, too.
It didn’t start out great with Kaat going 10-24 over his first three seasons. A lot had to be learned. But it was learned on the mound. And that’s the point.
There is no better place to learn than in spring training, especially early in spring training. The pitch count police, though, won’t have any of it anymore so instead of figuring it out on the mound, it’s a visit to Hawk-Eye and spin rate class.
Roll with it. Live with it.
An agent friend of mine says these new rules are so ridiculous he wants to offer up two new rules for the start and the end of games.
New Rule No. 1: Start each game with a runner on second, both teams get a leg up in that first inning, but there is a twist. To make it really interesting, that fake runner must be the real bullpen catcher. That will add spice.
The nerds will be scouring the world for track star bullpen catchers.
His second suggestion is more conventional. After 11 innings if the game is tied, the 12th inning goes directly into Home Run Derby. Mark Scott would be proud. Who is Mark Scott? Look it up.
This could be baseball’s version of the NHL’s shootout.
Let the kids have fun.
On Monday, Red Sox manager Alex Cora raised the pitching white flag three times. He had to do it once in the second game, too. Mercy me. If that is any indication of where the Red Sox are on the mound this year, Red Sox fans are in for one long season with that pitching staff.
Trust the process.
Meanwhile, out in the desert in the Cactus League, a baseball dinosaur, who happens to be Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa of the White Sox, stood up for the fans after Jose Abreu’s at-bat was waved off against the Rangers, sparking the fans to boo. You want to see Jose Abreu hit in that situation. But Texas pitcher Kohei Arihara couldn’t get the outs.
Time for fake outs.
Noted La Russa of the new goofy rule, “There’s all kinds of professional reasons why it makes sense, but fans are paying to come in games,’’ he began. “I know they were disappointed, they voiced it several times, so from the White Sox side we’re going to do everything we can to avoid doing it. And the way you do it, we’re going to try to get enough protection in an inning where we can maybe bring somebody, maybe from minicamp, so we can finish the inning and the other team can score as much as they can. It’s purely the correct thing to do for the fans.’’
The season is going to come at you fast. It’s more than just getting your work in – the worst phrase in baseball. Get ready for the season.
If La Russa can have a backup system for pitching failures in spring training, why can’t every team? It’s not that hard. Managing innings has become another game played by front offices. How about managing the talent and getting pitchers to learn to fight through tough innings? That’s worth doing too. That’s part of the growing process. This is just the latest in a long line of development shortcomings by the new leaders in the game. And listen, I get it. I’ve been on plenty of spring training backfields where a pitcher runs into trouble and the inning is waved off, but those are the back fields. It might be an intrasquad game or a minor league game.
There are no paying customers watching those games. Those contests are free to the public. Spring training games are costly and the per out cost is rising – eight innings, seven innings, six innings, now even five innings.
La Russa is going to get into trouble with MLB for sticking up for the fans. That is not the way it’s done around here. If you want to see a nine-inning game come back tomorrow and maybe you will get one. Maybe.
MLB might as well sell naming rights for the Rollover Inning, make it part of the advertising package.
“This stop in action brought to you by Ex-Lax.’’
Roll with it.