For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: May 25, 2024 6:46 am PDT

Men Over Machines


The answer is right in front of baseball, right under their nose.

If baseball could only see it.

I call it EA Sports. No, not that one. Not the division of Electronic Arts that develops and publishes sports video games.

This one: EA Sports stands for Exploit Analytics.

Some good teams, and I would put the Mets in that category, exploit opposing teams’ analytics to get the most out of their players. When they see a weakness, they attack. That weakness could be in the way the defense is set up and that happened on Friday night when the Rockies were clinging to a 6-4 lead at Citi Field. Mark Canha was up with two outs in the eighth inning and runners on first and second with a 2-0 count. Third baseman Ryan McMahon was positioned toward shortstop.

In previous generations of baseball, McMahon would have been much closer to the line, guarding the line late in the game especially with the tying run at first base. A single to his left would not score the runner at first, Jeff McNeil, but all bets are off if a ball is pulled down the line.

We love to see man over machine and essentially analytics have created a robotic mechanical way the game is played. Out-think the machine. Bring creative thought back to baseball. That is what we love about baseball.

Making the situation worse for the Rockies was that the left fielder was not playing Canha to pull, there was a lot of open green space and Canha lined a fastball past third and into the corner and McNeil scored to tie the game, a game the Mets would win in the ninth on Pete Alonso’s two-out single to left, his 105th RBI of the year.

Yes, Nerds, RBIs still matter.

Keith Hernandez said exactly what I was thinking: “I know the game has changed – you’ve got to guard the line. No doubles here.’’

Making matters worse for the Rockies was that the first runner reached in the eighth on an error by McMahon on a ball hit between the line – and McMahon tried to backhand but whiffed on with the ball hitting him in the ankle and squirting into the outfield.

The die was cast.

The Rockies, going off their analytical information – refused to guard the line that entire eighth inning and it cost them a ballgame when on an 0-2 pitch in the ninth, after fastballs for strikes, Daniel Bard tried to get Alonso out with a slider and left it hanging over the plate. I’m sure that pitch was scripted from much earlier in the day… and it cost the Rockies.

Another bad slider in a season of bad sliders.

Look around baseball, it’s certainly not just the Rockies, it’s nearly every team following a scripted plan from 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they stick to that plan come hell or high water. There is a lot of high water with these teams playing Analytical Baseball.

That’s why I say EA Sports. Exploit Analytics.

I'm Keith Hernandez. (Getty Images)

Analytics are here to stay and I have no problem with using analytics as a tool, but under the Elite Nerd leadership that runs nearly every team nowadays there is too much Nerdness and not enough adjusting to what the eye is seeing that game.

Buck Showalter adjusts. He uses analytics but is not a slave to analytics. It’s a tool, nothing else. I have been told that the Mets coaches and Buck, of course, have the final say on all decisions. So the analytics can be applied but it is the coaches and the manager who make the decision. And that is the way it should be and that is the way it once was in baseball. Now managers are middlemen.

A friend of mine put it this way and he used football as a reference point. His name is Sal Marinello and he is a top level performance coach. In football, the offense makes adjustments. If the defense is over-loaded for a pass play, a running play could be called. If the defense is overloaded to one side, attack the other side. If the defense is in a box at the line of scrimmage, go for a pass.

Now it is much easier to direct the football than directing the baseball because the pitcher has something to say about that. I get that. But I also go back to great hitters who would see an opening from the defense and try to take advantage of that opening.

After the McMahon error and how the pitcher was throwing fastballs middle in, Canha hit the perfect spot. Credit goes to him.

The Dodgers also do a pretty good job of attacking shifts and defenses. They are not always looking to hit the home run. McNeil, who scored the tying run, is one of the best in the modern game to play it like Wee Willie Keeler, who said a long time ago: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.’’

That needs to come back in vogue to some degree. And that is why I say the answer is right in front of baseball and they don’t see it. They are trying to legislate offense back into the game with bigger bases, banning shifts, limiting pickoff throws to first base instead of organically taking what the defense gives them and McNeil is a master at this.

Have you noticed too that McNeil because of a cut on his right thumb is using an old fashioned Ty Cobb like split grip and is having much success. Everything does not have to come out of the analytic world for success in baseball. Time honored practices can still work and I am starting to see some of the smarter players and teams taking advantage of analytics.

Case in point, a Reds-Phillies game from earlier in the week. J.T. Realmuto is at first base with Nick Castellanos at the plate. Castellanos rips a line drive to right field to the left of the right fielder Jake Fraley. Realmuto does not casually go into third base. He is running hard all the way and when the right-fielder makes a bad throw to second base that overshoots everyone, Realmuto easily steams home. He scores from first base on a ball hit to the right-fielder.

``A deep drive to left`` (Getty images)

That is taking advantage of the defense and a bad play but it happened because Realmuto knew where the right-fielder was positioned and never stopped running hard. He wasn’t gliding into third base to get a high-five from the coach, he was looking to score and Fraley never anticipated Realmuto scoring. Realmuto was looking for the advantage, any advantage he could get on the play and that is an old school approach.

That is beating the opponent at his own game. That is taking advantage of analytics because you just knew Fraley had no clue Realmuto might score on that hit because that just isn’t done. No teams take infield anymore and no teams really have their outfielders work on their throwing arms.

Have you seen the throws from outfielders this season?


Again, a smart team or a smart player can make that all work to his advantage. Players are so locked into their hitting they don’t work on fielding. When the Angels beat up the Blue Jays on Friday night, the big play was a bunt from the No. 9 hitter Andrew Velazquez that set up a huge inning. He bunted toward first and Vlad Guerrero got to the ball in plenty of time with runners on first and second but looked to third first, then second and was late to first with his throw. Because he did not anticipate Velazquez’ speed and they don’t work on bunt defense anymore.

All that is what I mean by EA Sports. Exploit Analytics.

You can do it every night in so many ways. I don’t want them to ban the shift, I want to see hitters take advantage of the shift. That is exciting baseball and that is something else baseball refuses to recognize.

We love to see man over machine and essentially analytics have created a robotic mechanical way the game is played. Out-think the machine. Bring creative thought back to baseball. That is what we love about baseball.

And here is a story that is really disheartening that a veteran scout told me this past week. It’s from a few years ago when the Nerds were running amok with the Phillies. It was spring training and Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa were talking to a hitter at the batting cage. In all my years of covering baseball there may not be a man who knows more about hitting than Charlie Manuel. His delivery is unique, to say the least, but man does he know hitting. Just ask Manny Ramirez.

Anyway, this was a good hitting conversation the three men were having: the hitter, Manuel and Bowa. Suddenly and intern appear with an iPad in tow. The intern immediately took the hitter away from Manuel and Bowa saying the hitter had to go work on his “swing path’’ with the help of the iPad.

Imagine that.

Butt.... baseball. (Getty Images)

Owners, that is what is happening to your teams. Institutional knowledge has been cast aside for analytics. Again, analytics aren’t all bad but there is a time and place and in that instance, picking the brain of one of the best hitting instructors in the game dwarfs the iPad hitting lesson that can be done at anytime.

And you wonder why the Phillies hitters were a confused mess until some of that analytical arrogance has been removed from the organization.

I repeat, owners, this is on you. All these teams with dreadful records, with right fielders who don’t know where to throw the ball, with third basemen who don’t guard the line late in games anymore, this is on you. You have created this mess.

I also believe rotten teams should not be rewarded with top draft picks. The solution to end tanking is simple. Draft in order that you finish, at least in the first round, that would stop all these teams through the years, starting with the Astros, who tanked their way to top draft picks.

Reward the winners, not the losers.

Which brings me to the final point of The Story this week. I happened to watch a Theo Epstein interview on MLB Network where he was at a AAA game between Syracuse and Charlotte and was ballyhooing the rule changes in the minor leagues and how they were coming to the majors and would increase offense, things like the bigger bases, automated ball/strike system, limiting throws to first, banning shifts and the pitch timer. Of those the pitch timer is okay, anything to get slow-moving players focused on playing but as he said all this I could not help but notice that as the interview started there were two men on base via singles.

Theo, who I have known since he was the assistant public relations director for the Padres, way back when, was saying these rules are being tried in the minors to basically get the bugs out and will go from there but they will help give fans what they want, more action.

Okay, I like action.

As he spoke, Syracuse’s No. 9 hitter catcher Juan Loyo stepped to the plate, and I was thinking that the .237 hitter might put down a punt in the 1-0 game to get some action going.

Loyo struck out on four pitches not coming close to the baseball. The next two batters made outs. No action.

Perhaps the action of a sacrifice bunt might have led to more action and runs and this is the essential problem. Those in charge of baseball want to legislate offense into existence. In the past when baseball was action filled, a sacrifice bunt and then a hit would have led to two runs, but now they are legislating offense, and no one is working with the .237 AAA hitters batting ninth to lay down a bunt so the top of the order can drive in runs.

They are teaching the .237 AAA No. 9 hitter to swing from his heels, probably teaching that on his iPad swing path app, as another rally died on the vine. And no one noticed, not the MLB worker who was interviewing Theo, no one. Theo talked for an inning and a half about all these great new rules, including one where the pitcher had to stop at the last second of his windup because he violated the pitch timer and a ball was called, and there was one measly single and a walk over the next 10 “hitters.’’

No action.

Teach these guys to hit a little bit or bunt and hit and run and maybe offenses will supply some action.

Remember these are men, not machines. Men over machines is the way to go. It’s right under your nose baseball, try watching a Mets game or a Jeff McNeil at-bat if you want action.

Try hitting them where they ain’t.

And they sure ain’t where they used to be, that’s for sure.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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