Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

Why Major League Hitters Aren’t Beating the Shifts

July 11, 2018

Here’s a good article from Jerry Crasnick about why players who are routinely shifted against aren’t changing their approach to beat the shift.

What it comes down to, in my mind, is that today’s major league hitters are paid to hit the ball with power, and for left-handed hitters who are shifted against most, that means pulling the ball or driving the ball out to left center.  It’s easy to plug those holes with defensive shifts.

60 or 70 years ago, Ted Williams talked about hitting against the shifts played on him (there is truly nothing new under the sun.  Trivia question: which team invented the Williams Shift?)  Williams said that hitting against the shift never bothered him, because it meant that pitchers were trying to pitch him middle-in to get him to hit into the shift.  That meant pitchers were pitching into his power, with all-too-often predictable results: 521 career home runs despite missing nearly five years of his major league career to military service.

The shifts work better today because pitchers are better and defenders are better.  There will never again be another .344 career hitter unless umpires start calling a ten-inch tall, over the plate strike zone.  Still, an awful lot of home runs are being hit today because pitchers are pitching inside to power hitters to get them to hit into the shift.

I thought Daniel Murphy‘s comments were particularly telling because he rightly talks about the advantages to hitting for power in today’s game, but he’s dead wrong insofar as taking a free first base is not extremely valuable if the bases are empty or with a man on first with less then two outs.  Home run hitting works best when men have gotten on base first.  Earl Weaver, good pitching and defense and the three-run homer.

However, the guy the hits the home run makes a lot more money than the guy who gets on base first, all other factors being even.  That’s why Murphy overvalues power hitting over getting on base.

Ichiros will always beat the shift, but how much demand is there for the poor man’s Ichiro’s in today’s game.  (There will be future Ichiros, Tony Gwynns and Rod Carews, but they will need to play at that level.  How much demand is there in today’s game for the next Nori Aoki?

The very best players have the confidence and ability to try to take advantage of every opportunity the other team gives them.  Most major league players, however, want to maintain the swing and the approach that got them to the bigs in the first place.  Trying to hit the other way against the shift might screw up their power stroke, so why risk it?

Hitters are superstititious, and almost always associate slumps and hot streaks to what they are doing rather than to random probability over short stretches, which plays a much bigger role than most major league players realize at a conscious level.  That said, the players who have the most success don’t tend to get too high during hot stretches or too low during slumps.

Answer to trivia question:  the Chicago Cubs.  They started shifting Fred “Cy” Williams in the 1920’s when Williams played for the Phillies.  The Phillies played in the Baker Bowl, which was 280 feet down the right field line and only 300 feet to right center, only marginally counteracted by a very tall right field fence.

Phillies quickly learned the value of power hitting left-handed pull hitters, and the Cubs were the first team to respond accordingly.  Williams led the NL for the Cubs with 12 HRs in 1916 during the “Dead Ball” (dirty ball) Era, so the Cubs knew exactly what type of hitter Williams was.

 

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Aaron Judge Strikes Out Eight Times in Double-Header

June 5, 2018

Aaron Judge set a record today that may stand for a very long time, striking out eight times in a double-header.  That is the most since records have been kept (1910 in NL; 1913 in AL); and with as few double-headers as are played today, it could well last just as long.

Judge’s new record is the flip side of Stan Musial/Nate Colbert record of five homeruns in a double header.  Nate Colbert was from St. Louis and claimed to have attended as a kid the double-header in which Stan Musial set the record that Nate Colbert, the man, later equaled.

Don’t know if the claim is true, but it’s a great story.  Colbert would have been eight years old on the day that Musial did it, so it’s at least possible.

Takashi Toritani’s Consecutive Games Streak Ends at 1,939

June 2, 2018

Takashi Toritani, one of the best Japanese players of this generation who did not attempt an MLB career, had his consecutive games streak end a couple of days ago at 1,939.  It was the second longest in NPB history after only Sachio Kinugasa‘s 2,215 game streak.

By comparison, Cal Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games and Lou Gehrig in 2,130.  NPB seasons are shorter, at 143 games a season currently and 130 games a season in Kinugasa’s time, so Kinugasa and Toritani had to stay healthy at least as long as Ripken and Gehrig.

Kinugasa’s and Ripken’s career batting numbers are pretty similar, although Kinugasa played 3B, while Ripken was, of course, a shortstop.

Shohei Ohtani Gives the Angels Options

May 26, 2018

The Anaheim Angels have decided to skip Shohei Ohtani‘s next turn in the rotation in order to “manage his workload.”  Obviously, protecting your young pitcher is a much easier decision to make when it means the team will get his bat in the line-up three more games between now and his next start.

At 23, Ohtani isn’t especially young, and he pitched as many as 160.2 innings in a season in Japan, so one has to think that Ohtani’s .991 OPS entering today’s game has a lot to do with the decision to skip his next start.  Ohtani does not hit the day he pitches, or the next day or the day before, but you can bet he’ll be hitting on those days this week.

Everyone in MLB thought that Ohtani was a better pitching prospect than hitting prospect before the season started, so everyone’s understanding is that Ohtani would be allowed to hit in exchange for the bargain price he would be signed for by joining MLB now, rather than waiting until he turned 25.  Obviously, it turns out he can hit major league pitching, at least so far, so now the Angels have to engage in the difficult but highly enjoyable process of trying to decide how they both protect their investment for the long term and maximize the value of his two-way abilities now.

In days past, teams typically decided that an every-day hitter was worth more than a starting pitcher.  Today’s analytics may not bear the old calculations out.  In any event, it’s more or less irrelevant, since Ohtani wants to both hit and pitch, and at his bargain price, the Angels will go along with Ohtani’s wishes for the immediate future.

Would using Ohtani as a two or three inning starter, rather than skipping a turn, make sense?  The Rays recently started Sergio Romo for three-and four-out starts in consecutive games against the Angels to take advantage of the fact that the top of the Angels’ line-up is top-heavy with right-handed hitters.  The ChinaTrust Brothers of Taiwan’s CPBL have been starting their relief pitchers for a couple of innings before bringing in their foreign starters to pitch the next six or seven innings, with some success this season.

If nothing else, it’s kind of gratifying to see teams in the baseball world trying out some new ideas to get an advantage at the margins.  I can’t give Ohtani credit for teams trying their relievers as short-outing starters, but he has at least shaken up the baseball world enough to suggest that new ideas ought to be given a trial even if they conflict with the inherited wisdom about how today’s game should be played.

Is It Too Soon to Call Shohei Ohtani the Best Hitting Pitcher in Major League Baseball?

April 11, 2018

Every year just before or just after the regular season starts I write a post of the best hitting pitchers in MLB.  These articles are some of the most popular I’ve written, so I do it pretty religiously every year until now.

This year, I don’t know what to do about Shohei Ohtani.  He’s hit home runs in three consecutive games, including one that traveled nearly 450 feet, but he has had only 19 major league plate appearances.

I have generally tried to limit my list to pitchers with at least 100 major league at-bats in order to weed out great one-season fluke performances.  But no one has come along like Ohtani in several generations, a true two-way player who can’t really be compared with anyone I’ve seen play in MLB since I became a fan in 1978.

Ohtani also has an established track record in Japan’s major leagues.  How much credit do you give him for that?  On a scale from 1 to 10 with the MLB AAA a 1 and the MLB majors, I would rank NPB’s majors as a 4.  NPB is a good league, but it’s not the MLB majors.

There is no doubt even with a limited sample size that Ohtani is an elite MLB rookie prospect on both sides of the ball.  It still remains to be seen on the hitting side how quickly he will adjust once MLB pitchers, scouts and analytics guys find the holes in his swing.  (As a pitching prospect, Ohtani has a less of a problem — unfamiliarity is a pitcher’s friend, and as long as he can continue to command his pitches, it could well be 2019 before major league hitters figure out how to attack his exceptional stuff.)

As such, I’m going to hold off on my annual article until I feel more confident that Ohtani’s performance is for real.  With Ohtani DHing three times a week, that shouldn’t be too long.

The thing that excites me even more than Ohtani’s exceptional MLB performance so far, is that his breakthrough has the possibility of effecting a paradygm shift in MLB.

For the last generation at least, MLB teams have a made a decision when they draft or sign an amateur player that they will develop that player either as a hitter/position player or as a pitcher.  Most of the time MLB teams make the right decision, but once in a while you get a two-way player on whom the team makes the wrong decision.

For example, I think the odds are high in hindsight that Micah Owings would have had a more successful major league career if the DiamondBacks had elected to develop him as a hitter, rather than as a pitcher.  Owings was a real prospect on both sides of the ball out of college, but under the old regime, the D’Backs made a decision that he was going to be a pitcher and stuck with it until he hurt his arm and couldn’t be a pitcher any longer.

With early first round 2017 picks Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene, the Rays and Reds have made at least some effort to develop them as two-way players, at least while they are still in the low minors.  I strongly suspect that Shohei’s performance in Japan had something to do with decisions to try to so develop McKay and Greene at least a little bit as two-way players, because everyone in MLB knew well by the time of the 2017 amateur draft what Ohtani was doing in Japan at a level of play too high to be an aberration.

Obviously, there won’t be a whole lot of players so good on both sides of the ball that MLB teams will try to develop them as two-way players.  However, there was always be a few top amateur prospects who can do everything on a baseball field.

In today’s game, two-players could be extremely valuable, at least enough to give these prospects a chance to try both in the low minors and see how it goes.  The American League has the DH, which is ideal for taking advantage of a two-way player, but the NL still needs pinch-hitters and there are fewer roster spots for them now that all teams are carrying more relief pitchers.

In 2003-2004, Brooks Kieschnick had some value as a relief pitcher/pinch hitter/emergency left-fielder for the Brewers. (Kieschnick had been developed as a hitter, and only turned to pitching when his MLB career as a position player didn’t pan out — he’d been an effective college pitcher but it wasn’t a close call when he was drafted as a hitter.) Why not give at least a few two-way prospects two-way training in the minors leagues to try to develop a more valuable major league player down the line?

Lop-Sided Wins

April 8, 2018

As I write this the Phillies are beating up on the Marlins 20-1 in the late innings.  The game is being played in Philadelphia, and when I saw the box score, I was reminded of the quote attributed to famous Yankees’ owner and beer baron Col. Ruppert, who said that his favorite day at the ballpark was when the Yankees scored 10 runs in the first inning “and then slowly pulled away.”  Other internet sources state that Ruppert said either 8 runs or 5 runs in the first inning, but I first heard it as 10 runs and my own personal preference is for the 10 runs.

I’m sure any of you who are long-time baseball fans rooting for a specific team have attended at least a couple of total blow-outs by the home nine, and I, for one, always found these games extremely enjoyable.  There’s nothing like seeing all of your home-town heroes pound out one hit after another to the point of complete massacre. The high-drama games are great, but only if your team wins at the end.

It’s also fun when your pitcher is pitching well in these games.  He’s full of confidence, because, lord knows, he won’t give up ten runs, so the moundsman, if he’s worth his salt, pounds the zone and challenges the losers to hit it.  Even if they do, it’s always right at a fielder in these games.  That keeps the game moving along, even while the home team is busy running around the bases in their half of each inning.

As a Giants fan entering his 41st season of active fandom (I attended a game or two in 1977 and rooted for the Giants, because at that age I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t root for the home team, but I didn’t really become a serious fan until 1978, when a Jack ClarkVida BlueBob Knepper team held first place into August), I have come to learn that 16-3 victories are typically followed by 3-2 losses.

For what it’s worth, two teams have scored ten runs in the first inning and gone on to lose the game.  On June 8, 1989, the Pirates put up ten runs in the first inning, but the Phillies put up crooked numbers in the bottom half of the first and four subsequent innings and won 15-11.  On August 23, 2006, the Royals scored 10 runs in the bottom of the first to go up 10-1, but the Indians scored in six of the following nine innings to pull out a 15-13 win.  I don’t think it’s happened again since 2006, but I didn’t look very hard.

Shohei Otani So Far

April 4, 2018

Here is an espn.com article on Shohei Otani that I really enjoyed reading (probably because it confirmed my existing prejudices).  The point is basically that Otani has to keep playing in the majors until he proves he isn’t ready.

He won his first start, he has his first major league hit, why wouldn’t you keep him? Otani has hit 100 mph in the games that count, and, Oh, he runs really well.

Learn those lessons at the major league level, baby!