That was a nice article you forwarded to me the other day by Tyler Kepner, about how offense all along the game has plummeted. If you follow baseball long enough, this balance of power has shifted before. It’s a cliché, “Baseball is a game of adjustments,” but I have always believed it is rooted in reality. Overall talent is paramount to winning in baseball. But identifying where the game is, and how to be ahead of it, can really help.
Sure, that’s really the essence of Moneyball, identifying and exploiting the under-utilized competitive edge. So, okay, offensive numbers are down across baseball. My first thought is that if runs are scarcer, then “small ball” might make something of a comeback. More teams playing for one run rather than waiting for the three-run bomb (which is still an awesome play, let’s be clear). It makes me wonder if speed and athleticism — pitching, defense, baserunning — will become increasingly important. Is that how the pendulum is swinging?
Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay sure thinks so. Maddon has been at the forefront of one of the factors that I believe is curtailing offenses, extensive defensive shifting. The shifts are an interesting combination of eyes and statistics. Scouts always had the ability to track tendencies, but the computer age allows that information to be stored and analyzed as never before. Now smart men like Maddon are utilizing that information, and nothing about it benefits the offense. When he asked what offenses need to do he said the following:
“I believe it’s incumbent on the players to make adjustments to the shifts. I also think the shifts are leading to a more complete game, more hit-and-runs, more bunting. Speed will put an end to a lot of this.”
I think Joe is a smart guy, and tries to stay ahead of the curve. And I think he is right. I’m with you, I love the three home-run. But if there aren’t enough power hitters to go around you have to find another way.
And the power hitters are the most susceptible to the shifts, turning guys who might have hit .280 pre-shift into Dave Kingman.
I have a lot of respect for Maddon and I think he’s right. Offensively, bat control becomes a more prized asset. “Hitting it where they ain’t” isn’t just dumb luck, it was, upon a time, a real skill. And defensively with all the shifts, it’s interesting too, where now at several points during a game the traditional third-baseman has to perform duties more traditionally tasked to a shortstop. So maybe a flexible player like, say, Wilmer Flores, becomes a greater asset to a team that shifts defensively.
We’ve talked about this before. Power is the game’s most expensive commodity. There are a diminishing quantity of guys who can bang 30 bombs over the wall. It’s not good news for small-market teams. You develop your own sluggers or forget about it.
It also means pitchers’ values decrease. Everywhere you look there are hotshot young pitchers, they are not very rare anymore. So sure, you need some to keep up, but they don’t seem to be so hard to find these days. If nobody can hit and you have to make hard choices, you might need to use whatever you can spare on any hitters you can find.
Possibly true. It’s almost counter-intuitive. If pitching wins in high-scoring eras, does great hitting win in low-scoring eras? Obviously, it’s never (ever, ever) been so simple as that. Championship teams need both and teams succeed by talking all kinds of divergent paths. There’s no single formula. But relatively speaking, it makes sense that productive hitters would be rarer and therefore more valuable. I think of the 1968 World Champion Tigers, when Mayo Smith made that bold move of shifting the team’s CF, Stanley, to SS so he could get Al Kaline’s bat into the World Series.
Another thing about not chasing power that you might not be able to find, all of this swinging for the fences has led to a plethora of strikeouts. It’s very fashionable these days to say they don’t matter. I’m not buying that. Some of that analysis is not considering the players that teams are employing to strikeout. Sure, in a lineup of slow guys trying to jack it over the wall they are no big deal. Lucas Duda can’t beat anything out, or beat the shift. But if you put together a team of fast guys who can make contact, all over the field, that changes the equation. If you look at the data right now, who is employing such a team in 2014?
Not the Mets.
That’s for sure.
This goes back to the old days with the scouts and the stopwatch. In the old era of open tryouts, the first thing they’d do is get guys to run to first base. If the time wasn’t good, see ya later, kid. The tryout ended right there. Because speed plays. Speed translates to defense and baserunning. Sure, there are some slow guys who have been great players — but they’ve had to hit a ton in order to offset their liabilities on the base paths and with the glove. There are not many Manny Ramirez’s who come along. As an aside, it’s my chief worry about the Mets #1 Draft Pick, Michael Conforto. All reports say he can’t run, catch, or throw, but he’s a hitter. I sure hope so.
I’m heading to Brooklyn again on Wednesday, there is a chance Conforto will be there by then.
I’ll let you know what I think.
And yes, I agree, speed can change some of this, and also a different value system for hitters. More hitters and less sluggers. Things that people still scream against now, like the bunt and the hit and run, might also make a comeback.
When I talked to Bud Harrelson, he spoke about how he wasn’t a really good hitter, but that he felt he learned how to be effective to help his team. He used the words “pain in the neck” to describe himself. Harrelson’s plan included fouling off good pitches and wasting a pitcher’s energy until he could slap something somewhere. Among other things, that led to the now scoffed at productive out. Buddy could hit behind a runner and move him into scoring position. And of course he could field, take away outs from really good hitters. If more balls are in play, if there are less strikeouts and less home runs, the need for defense increases.
Harrelson also mentioned his ability to bunt well with great pride. Many of today’s players, if they could just bunt they could eliminate the shift. Chris Young gets shifted against a lot, it might be one reason he now can’t conquer .200. He’s not a lumbering guy, he should be able to learn how to bunt against the shift.
Tougher for a RH batter like Chris, but I’m with you in regard to overall bat control, going the other way.
Overall, I expect something to change. Although defensive shifting has been around for a very long time, it has only become a common practice in the last few years. Right now the defense has the upper hand, and run scoring totals are bearing that out.
It will be fun to see where this leads the game, and what type of baseball game becomes the norm in five or ten years.