BY KEVIN KERNAN
Here at BallNine, we hold these Baseball Truths to be self-evident.
And no matter how much they try to change the game, the game will be forever about truths and team.
I call it the three “Ts:’’ teamwork, timing, and talent.
That breaks baseball down in a nutshell. You have to have teamwork to be a success. Your timing has to be right, as a player and as a team, on the mound, in the field and at the plate to be a success. And there must be a certain amount of talent to be a success as well.
Put it all together and you have a winning team – and maybe a championship team.
A team must do the right things to win games. Good teams and good players don’t give away games with extra outs; they move runners up, they hustle, they do the little things – and then the big things take care of themselves.
So much of that is lost in today’s game simply because they don’t work on those things as much anymore with all the Nerd emphasis being on metrics, tabulations, launch angles, pitch framing, and spin rate. Actual hard work that promotes team success like base-running is forgotten (or should I say, not emphasized by most teams).
Both the Yankees and the Mets have improved their base-running this season and it shows in the team results.
Let’s start, though, with one of my favorite statistics: a number that is underplayed, sacrifice flies.
Heading into midweek any team with at least 20 sacrifice flies is having a good year. The Giants lead the pack with 29 – and some of that may be a product of their spacious home field, AT&T Park – followed by the Red Sox (28), Mets (28), Padres (26), Guardians (25) and Yankees (24).
Sacrifice flies mean a lot and are aptly named. You are sacrificing something as a hitter for the betterment of the team.
No other teams have broken the 20 sacrifice fly barrier. The Angels are dead last with nine while the A’s, who at this stage are not close to being a true major league team, sit at 13.
A sacrifice fly tells a lot about a team and a hitter’s approach at the plate. Most times these are not haphazard; an effort has to be made to produce a sac fly and it is not as simple as a sac bunt. There is more involved in hitting that sacrifice fly and getting the runner home from third base.
The team that best exemplifies that approach is the Mets under Buck Showalter. They are making it a team effort to score team runs, move the runner over and get him in, and not just live by the home run; and they have done that all season and have managed to stay in first place in the NL East, despite suffering significant pitching injuries to superstars Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.
You want to play for your teammates – and I think you see that with the winning teams.
Again, I have no issue with home runs. They can work magic – but it takes more than home runs, especially when you get into October and the pitching gets tougher.
Solid defense is another strength of a team. The Rays are well behind the Yankees this year, mostly because they can’t win the one-run games. The fact they have given up the most unearned runs is indicative of their poor defensive play; and after 65 games the Rays had allowed 44 unearned runs – this after allowing 58 in all of 2021.
Recently, I watched three straight Rays games in which an outfielder simply dropped a fly ball in each of the games.
In the majors.
“It’s bleeping pathetic,’’ one frustrated talent evaluator told BallNine of so many errors on a nightly basis throughout all of baseball, not just the Rays “It’s all over and it’s embarrassing. Greatest players in the world, my ass.’’
There are 21 teams above the Rays, however, who have committed fewer errors. The eight teams who have committed the most errors per game are the Diamondbacks, Orioles, A’s, Rangers, White Sox, Nationals, Pirates and at the bottom of the list are the Rockies with 0.85 errors per game.
A lot of bad teams on that list.
Adley Rutschman #35 of the Baltimore Orioles tags out Brett Phillips #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays at home on a Vidal Brujan #7 hit ball during a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 19, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, these were not difficult fly ball catches for the Rays; these drops came as a result of lack of focus and lack of attention to doing the small things well, and that is something we have not seen from the Rays in the past.
Check out the box scores and you will see many games where a team commits multiple errors in a game. That can’t happen. Most of the errors are due to lack of focus, or a ball skips under a glove in the outfield, or a poor throw is made because the player is trying to do too much or is out of position because of the way the shift is employed. That’s what I am seeing in games throughout this season.
To read the ball off the bat properly, players need to practice reading the ball off the bat, something that used to be done in batting practice. That is no longer done with the consistency it was done with in the past, not only at the major league level, but especially at the minor league level.
Pitchers don’t shag flies like they once did. Outfielders don’t work relentlessly on improving their defense. This is a video-centric generation of ballplayers. They spend extra time on the iPad but not on the outfield grass or in the infield working on fundamentals.
Pitchers’ fielding practice (PFP) is nothing like it was in the day of Jim Kaat and his 16 straight Gold Gloves or Greg Maddux’s 18 Gold Gloves. Improving defense is one of the best things a pitcher can do to help themselves – but then again, there is not that emphasis like there was in the past.
Incredibly, hitters don’t take advantage of that weakness like they should by dropping a bunt for a hit; but then again, how many hitters go the extra mile and work on their bunting like they did in the past? Hitters are too stubborn to shoot the ball to open areas created by the over-shifting, so why would you expect them to practice bunting like Juan Pierre practiced bunting?
Juan Pierre #9 of the Miami Marlins is silhouetted as he attempts to bunt against the Philadelphia Phillies in an MLB baseball game on May 3, 2013 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
I have talked to many scouts who are incredulous at the lack of work being done – not only at the major league level but at the minor league level, where your whole day should revolve around getting better so you can make it to The Show. Scouts tell me there is usually some form of casual batting practice, with players wearing t-shirts and shorts, and going through the motions during the day, but rarely is there fielding and throwing practice unless players do it on their own.
I was told that Yankees top infield prospect Anthony Volpe had to go to the coaches last year to request more pre-game infield work.
That kind of work can be so fulfilling and brings a team together and can set up lifelong friendships. I remember Yankee championship first baseman Chris Chambliss saying years ago, “If you’re not having fun in baseball, you miss the point of everything.’’
Chambliss wasn’t just talking about the fun of playing the game or winning, but the fun of practicing the game as well. Don’t allow the joyless Nerds in charge to take the fun out of the game.
You want to play for your teammates – and I think you see that with the winning teams.
“That’s exactly it,’’ one longtime baseball evaluator told me. “All those people who say chemistry doesn’t matter, that makeup doesn’t matter, they are so wrong that it is unbelievable.’’
These are the same people saying that runs batted in are a product of luck. No, certain players have a knack for RBIs.
I will go as far to say that RBIs are in some players’ DNA.
And let’s not mistake speed for good base-running. It is the ability to read the ball off the bat and to understand where the defenders are located on each and every pitch; and that has never been more important than in this Nerd Era in which shortstops can’t be found at shortstop and you may play a hitter to pull in the infield but to hit the ball the other way in the outfield.
Alex Rodriguez #3 of the Texas Rangers stretches prior to the start of an Major League Baseball spring training game circa 2001. Rodriguez played for the Rangers from 2001-03. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Alex Rodriguez was always so good about checking where the outfielders were positioned while he was on base, each and every pitch. Tony Gwynn as well. Derek Jeter, too. Today’s runners are more interested in gossiping with the middle infielders while on second base than checking out the defense and these are the runners who get bad jumps.
Here is something else scouts have noticed, not only at the major league level but something you never used to see that much in the minors: a lot of players are out of shape. The combination of the all-day clubhouse feedbag with the curtailment of pre-game running has led to some large players with some big thighs, hips, and bellies.
A scout mentioned one major league player who is not running his team out of innings anymore because he realizes now he is carrying some extra weight, and so he is not making as many bad decisions on the base paths.
“There is no doubt the players are out of shape, I was at a minor league game and a player I liked has to be 20 pounds heavier than he was last season,’’ the scout said.
The actual physical learning by doing, taking extra balls in the outfield or infield, running sprints, running the bases hard in batting practice, is not as strong as in the past. Time that used to be spent running is now time spent looking at an iPad or perhaps going to the weight room; but again, the running component is not like it was before and it shows.
“It’s a generation of kids who grew up playing video games,’’ a scout said, “that have lived on video, so they are very comfortable with iPads but they are not comfortable getting their asses out onto the field to do the work that it takes to be good. It’s a big kumbaya hug-off every night.’’
Hitting behind the runner is a lost art, too. “Just situational hitting in general,’’ the evaluator said. “I know we still track team plate appearances but I think we value certain things too much.’’
“There is this emphasis on ‘he had an eight-pitch at-bat’ – so what, he struck out,’’ the evaluator said.
And then the hitter will dash to the dugout to see it again on the iPad. Meanwhile, try watching the game fellas and seeing in real life what the pitcher is doing. After such a strikeout, the scout said, “the hitting coaches put it down as a team plate appearance.’’
It’s a strikeout, you did nothing for your team.
Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers circa 1988 bats at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Owen Shaw/Getty Images) (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
“A team plate appearance is one where you move the runner over. Did I drive the runner in? Did I foul off a bunch of two-strike pitches and get deep in the count and put the ball in play and do something for my team? Did I take a walk after being down 0-2? Did I sacrifice? Those are important.’’
Essentially, the metrics are off, what they are measuring is not telling the true story of success. The scoreboard helps tell that story, in case you forgot.
Teammates who insist you do the right thing – that’s important, too.
Kirk Gibson screaming to get the runner over from second to third, from the top step of the dugout in his first game as a Dodger, that’s a measurement of success I believe in; not this stuff, not from a league that has so many terrible teams.
The Pirates are being praised for calling up shortstop Oneil Cruz this week, and he put on a show his first game out, a five-tool player. That’s good.
My question to the Pirates is: Why wasn’t Mr. Cruz up here much earlier in the season before you became a team hovering around a .400 winning percentage? We know the answer, though. To manipulate service time, another disservice to the fans of the Pirates. Fifteen teams are under .500; that’s 15 lost franchises and some of those teams are so bad there is no hope.
I talked to someone who played against Kirk Gibson in instructional league way back when, and he remembers a game in which Gibson hit a monster home run and then the next at-bat hit a changeup off the end of the bat and by the time the pitcher got to the squib, Gibson was far past first base in right field.
“This guy is an animal,’’ was the immediate response to Gibson’s physical tools; but the opponent also soon realized what a leader Gibson was even then. “He was like another coach on the field.’’
That is the beauty of baseball, home runs and hustle are a great combination.
Can baseball get back to teaching the little things in a big way?
“I don’t know,’’ the evaluator said. “It’s going to take some courage to get that done. It’s going to take some courage for people to admit we are going down the wrong path and that’s really hard for people who think they are the smartest people in the room and who have big egos.’’
That’s not going to be easy and as Ron Washington’s great line was in the movie Moneyball, where all this started (and, by the way, here we are all these years later with the A’s posting a .333 winning percentage) about Scott Hatteberg having to learn to play first base, when Beane flatly said, “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell ‘em Wash,’’ Wash did not do Beane’s bidding. He told the truth. “It’s incredibly hard,’’ was Wash’s honest response.
Getting the game back on the right path and back to Baseball Truths with the Nerds running so far amok for all these years – well, that is going to be incredibly hard.