Triples and inside-the-park homers

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

So in case you missed it, here was Christian Yelich’s first homer in a couple of weeks … and it was a doozy …

This is a good reminder that inside-the-park home runs, almost without exceptions, are absurdities. They are almost never natural events, meaning that they almost always feature some sort of defensive blunder, somebody falling down, some ridiculous superball bounce, etc. I mean they’re not often THIS zany, with Eloy Jimenez entirely misplaying a fly ball and then hilariously crashing into a net, like a clumsy hoodlum trying to get at Spiderman.

Two things seem clear. One is that Eloy Jimenez can really hit. Two is that Eloy Jimenez is a danger to himself and society out there in left field.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: Inside-the-park home runs are fun. But they’re fun in the same way that The Wolf scene in Pulp Fiction is fun — something had to go very wrong for The Wolf to get called in.

Triples on the other hand … triples are wonderful because they are not often flukes and silly accidents. They are often daring and thrilling, a ball hit into the gap … the diamond is in motion … outfielders try to run it down … the runner decides to risk it all for third base … the throw comes … the play is close … this is why so many people believe that the triple is the most exciting play in all of baseball.

And the triple, friends, is dying.

We’ve been talking about this for a while —- there have been 21 seasons when teams have averaged less than .2 triples per game (that’s one triple every five games). All 21 of those seasons have come since 1996. The fewest triples hit per game (.16 per game or one triple every 6.25 games) happened in 2013 and was matched in 2017 and was matched again last year.

This year, there have been only 47 triples hit all season and, yes, the season is absurdly young but that’s still .14 triples per game, which would be the lowest rate ever. It’s clear there are a lot of things happening. To name just three:

  1. We all know fewer balls are being put in play than ever before.

  2. New ballpark configurations are not geared toward quirky angles and big alleys, the realm of the triple.

  3. Outs on the basepaths are valued in a whole different way in 2020 than in, say, 1977, and, as such, teams discourage unnecessary risks or particularly aggressive baserunning.

Yesterday, I talked about how not changing the game — which is to say not updating rules or creating new ones — is the most certain way to change the game. In other words, baseball in basically legislating the triple out of baseball by not doing anything to preserve it. I often go back to a conversation I had a couple of years ago with Theo Epstein where we talked at great length about how the people running baseball have a responsibility — to the game and their own futures — to make sure that the game keeps those traits and characteristics that make it so wonderful.

The triple has been thrilling fans for years.

Baseball fans shouldn’t lose the triple just because players have been told to stop trying for them. The game shouldn’t evolve that way. The fans’ interests should be taken into account when figuring out where baseball is going. I very much appreciated John Thorn’s take on my piece yesterday.

That’s 100 percent it: The game is supposed to be fun FOR FANS. And you know what’s fun for fans? Triples!*

*You could argue it’s also fun for fans to see starting pitchers have to go longer in games, many more balls in play, fewer delays, hitting streaks, players chasing .400 and so on. Each of these have faded over the last couple of decades.

What can be done? The answer is: A lot of things can be done. Subtle things. Not so subtle things. But, again, we come back to it, we have to be willing to accept rules that rebalance the game … and it’s hard for us as baseball fans to accept any change at all. Changes are happening whether we like it or not. Just about every pitcher these days those 95; that wasn’t true when batters put so many more balls in play. Batters are so much stronger and hit the ball harder these days; that wasn’t true when starters could go eight or nine innings and only face three or four truly dangerous batters in every lineup. Baseball is DIFFERENT.

Now, we should ask: How do we protect the baseball stuff we all love?

As the world turns

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

On the PosCast this week, I am joined by dear friends Alexa Datt and Dani Wexelman of the podcast “Datt’s What She Said with Dani,” and it was a blast, and at some point there we started talking about the rules changes in baseball — the zombie runner in extra innings, the DH in the National League, the seven-inning doubleheaders, the three batter minimum.

And something occurred to me: I have not talked AT ALL about the rule changes in baseball. I don’t mean I haven’t written about it — I have not. But I haven’t even TALKED about it. It hasn’t come up in a conversation or text thread I’ve had with friends, and I have had a lot of those. Maybe someone texted me about the extra-inning thing the first time it happened, I can’t really remember. Life in the pandemic is a blur, as you know.

But the point is: I just don’t spend any time at all thinking about the rule changes.

And I think there’s a lesson baseball can take from that.

A few years ago, when baseball first started talking about adding a pitcher’s clock, I wrote a pretty highfalutin column about how bad that was, how the whole point of baseball is that it is the game without a clock, how a clock without spoil the rhythms that have made the game magical for so many of us for so many years.

Then I went to see a minor-league game in Toledo where they were using the clock and … by the end of the first inning, I already realized how wrong I had been. The clock was totally fine. It was better than fine. It made the pace feel crisper. Nobody really paid much attention to it. The pitchers had come to accept it — much in the same way that in tennis, the server accepts that clock — and it was no big deal.

And that was a good lesson: My first reaction to change as a baseball fan is always negative. Always. That is just hard-wired into my baseball fanhood. I have written many times that I believe everybody’s perfect version of baseball is the version of the game that was being played when they were 10 years old. For me, that’s 1977, when Rod Carew hit .388, and George Foster blew our minds by hitting 52 home runs, and starters would complete 20 games a season, and Nolan Ryan struck out 341 batters, and there were two divisions in each league and four teams made the playoffs and nine-inning games averaged two hours and 32 minutes.

There’s a part of me I can’t shut off that wants baseball to be like that again.

And that part of me seems to believe that every change the game makes takes us a little bit further away from 1977. So, right, a rule change suggestion triggers an instant and involuntary barricade. I can’t help it.

And I have to remind myself of four things.

  1. We’re not going back to 1977.

  2. We shouldn’t want to go back to 1977.

  3. The only way we can get back any of the things I loved about 1977 baseball is to MAKE RULE CHANGES. This is so important. By not making rule changes, the people who run the game are letting it evolve in countless unpredictable ways. It’s a rudderless ship. Games are 35 minutes longer now not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes. Fewer balls than ever are put in play not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes. The triple is dead not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes.

  4. People like me might complain about rule changes before they happen … but once they do, we adjust. For all the complaining about the designated hitter, the single biggest and most controversial rule change of the last 100 years, nobody stopped watching baseball because of it. As fans, we adapt pretty quickly.

Which brings us to this year. Do I like the extra-inning zombie runner? Yeah, I think I do. My rule change defenses went up when I first heard about it, but now that it’s happening, yeah, it’s kind of cool, it makes me root for extra innings in a way that I certainly didn’t before. I know that we’re all supposed to miss those 18-inning games where the teams had to send out utility infielders to pitch and all that and those were fun, but I mean, they were also kind of dumb.

The DH in the National League? I was against that too, of course, because I liked each league having its own character. And while I’m a DH guy myself I always got a kick out of listening to traditionalists scream about the beauty of the double switch. But now that the DH is in the NL, yeah, it’s kind of cool, it’s a lot more fun watching A.J. Pollock hit than Ross Stripling.*

*One thing I would recommend, though, is that teams at least be allowed to use pitchers as designated hitters, if they want. As you know, the rule now is that if a pitcher is put in the lineup, the team loses the DH for the rest of the game — this was done because wise guys like Billy Martin tried to game the system. But I think that for the really good hitting pitchers like Madison Bumgarner or Zack Greinke, they should be allowed to be the DH and when they get pulled, the manager should be allowed to simply replace them with another DH. I don’t know how often this would come up, but it would be a nice feature.

The three-batter minimum? Seems fine to me. I have no particular love for the lefty specialist.

The point for baseball is: Be bolder. Make changes. Yes, the traditionalists will recoil, at least at first, and maybe even threaten to turn off baseball forever. But you know what? They won’t. We won’t. This has been a difficult year for baseball, just like it has been a difficult year for everything, but I think it has been a nice reminder that the character of the game isn’t locked in all the musty traditions.

The Good Stuff

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

Staying positive is exhausting. I believe that it is my nature to stay positive, to bank on hope, to believe in the good stuff. That’s what I called my first book, by the way, my collection of newspaper columns: “The Good Stuff.” I picked that title because those three words are what drew me to sportswriting in the first place — as a sportswriter, I could spend much of my time writing about the good stuff in life. I figured, maybe, that’s where I could make a contribution.

It’s hard these days to find the good stuff. And even when you can find the good stuff, it’s hard to build the energy to write about it.

This from a (former) reader: “I’m sad to unsubscribe because I enjoy your writing but all things sports are too depressing right now. I don’t want to live in this world.”

I am haunted by those words. To that reader, in case you are still listening, I want to tell you that I understand. Depression rolls all around us too. We are the lucky ones here, I know that. I have a job. My family is healthy, so far. We are together, which is a great gift. When I’m asked, “How are you doing?” I have nothing to say except that we are thankful and, yes, lucky.

But that isn’t the whole story because our oldest daughter lost her senior year in high school. She officially graduated last week in a social distance ceremony that we had to watch online. She will start her college life at home learning (?) online, and it breaks my heart. Our younger daughter will start her sophomore year learning (??) online — she has spent the last year working every day on her tennis game in an effort to make a high school team that, likely, will not exist. A year of her life goes by too quietly.

Such small things — too small to even bring up.

But real things.

These small things pile up. I have seen my parents only from a distance and haven’t seen friends except through the prism of Facetime. My grandmother’s funeral was on Zoom. Several friends have had COVID. Some of them are still recovering even though it has been weeks and weeks. Other friends have lost their jobs and are trying to figure out what comes next. One friend of a friend just died young.

The sports that I have dedicated my life to writing about are simply funhouse mirror versions of themselves.

And, as I say, we are lucky ones. So many people are dealing with so much more … I shudder to mention any of this.

I mention it only to say: Dear Reader, it’s hard not despair. I share the pain you are feeling. I am listening. I don’t know if it does anyone any good to write about Shane Bieber pitching brilliantly among cardboard cutouts and pumped-in cheers. I don’t know if it does any good to write about Albert Pujols approaching Willie Mays’ home run mark or Mike Trout hitting his first home run as a new father. A large part of me can’t help but believe it doesn’t do much good. America feels broken. Nobody has any answers, and yet everybody screams. There seems no end to any of it.

So why write this little baseball thing each morning? I don’t know. It’s the thing I know how to do, I suppose. Does it do any good? I don’t know that either. All I know is that I look at the clock and realize that I have been writing this for 32 minutes, which means I have gone past my deadline. I am out of time. I will try again tomorrow.

You dropped deGrom on me

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

Jacob deGrom finally won a game on Monday, which is pretty big news. Over the last two-plus seasons, deGrom’s record is 22-17, which doesn’t exactly inspire epic poems. At the same time, he has won two Cy Young Awards and is pretty widely regarded as the best pitcher in baseball.

Such a thing would not have been possible only a few years ago.

I think a little bit here about the baseball I grew up with. I would say I became aware of the Cy Young Award right around 1974 when I was 7 years old and Catfish Hunter won the American League award. He won 25 games that year, leading the league.

Over the nine seasons that I would consider my baseball background — 1974 to 1983 (forgetting that stupid 1981 strike season) — 15 starting pitchers won the Cy Young Award. All 15 led the league in wins. ALL FIFTEEN. That’s just how it was. If Lamarr Hoyt led the league in wins, he got the Cy Young. If Steve Stone led the league in wins, he got the Cy Young. If Pete Vuckovich led the league in wins — even if that total was just 18 victories — he got the Cy Young.

The idea was simple: The job of a starting pitcher was to win games. There was some acknowledgment that a pitcher could get unlucky because his team didn’t score any runs — the phrase “hard-luck loser” was often used in baseball stories back then — but the overwhelming consensus was that luck evened out over a season. The final judgment was your win-loss record.

Sometimes circumstances would arise, and the Cy Young voters would make occasional exceptions to the “Most Wins = Cy Young” formula. In 1984, for instance, nobody quite knew what to do with Rick Sutcliffe. He won four games with Cleveland and then was traded to Chicago where he went 16-1 and led the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since the Mesozoic Era. If you only counted his Cubs wins, he was behind Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela in wins. But how could you not count his other wins? The voters decided to just give him the award.

In 1985, Bret Saberhagen had two fewer wins than Ron Guidry, but he had a markedly better ERA and the voters decided to give him the award instead. Same in 1986 when Mike Scott’s 18 wins were three fewer than Fernando Valenzuela, but his 2.22 ERA was almost a full run better than Fernando’s 3.14 ERA.

Those, you might know, were controversial picks.

Wins were everything — everything! — through 1990 when Bob Welch won 27 games and beat out Roger Clemens for the award, even though Clemens had one of the greatest seasons in recent baseball history. In 1993, Jack McDowell’s 22 wins got him a Cy Young award that surely should have gone to Kevin Appier.

I would say the first time that wins played little-to-no-role in the Cy Young voting was 1999 when Randy Johnson won the thing with just 17 wins. He struck out 364 batters that season, which obviously impressed, and he led the league in ERA but still — Mike Hampton went 22-4 that year and won the Players Choice Award.

“I’d like to think this award isn’t based solely on wins and losses,” Johnson told reporters after a small controversy raged. “There’s a lot more to the season.”

“No pitcher was more proficient at winning in 1999 than Mike Hampton,” John Romano wrote. “That is, until it came time for the Cy Young Award.”

After 1999, Cy Young voters suddenly felt the freedom to break away from the chains of always giving the award to the wins leader. In 2000, the awards went to Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson again and neither led the league in wins. Still the wins thing played a role in the award for a little while long — Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young in 2005 due largely to his 21 victories.

And in 2009, finally, the whole win-loss thing was shattered when Zack Greinke (16 wins) and Tim Lincecum (15 wins) swept the awards. And then came deGrom, winning back-to-back Cy Youngs with 10 and 11 victories the last two years.

Because I grew up with wins and losses being the most important thing in the world, there will always be an annoying small voice within me asking: “Why can’t deGrom win a few more games?” Yes, it’s true, the Mets have not had a particularly good offense, but it certainly hasn’t been historically bad either — last year, they were seventh in the NL in runs scored, it’s not like they get shut out every time he takes the mound.

What is different is the time we’re in — deGrom has averaged about 6.5 innings pitched per start during his extraordinary run. This is typical of the great pitchers in today’s era — that’s about what Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander average, it’s higher than Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Aaron Nola, etc. — but it would have been unheard of in the 1970s and 1980s for a great pitcher. Jim Palmer average 8-plus innings in his Cy Young years, Tom Seaver was about the same.

The complete game is all but dead, and indeed deGrom hasn’t pitched one since August 2018.

In other words, you could make the argument that the win-loss record WAS important back when starting pitchers were expected to pitch eight or nine (or more) innings every time out. It was never a perfect stat or anything close, but you could connect it pretty directly to a pitcher’s performance.

Now? When the league’s best starter is pitching on two-thirds of the game, there’s really no way to say that a starting pitchers wins or loses games. That just isn’t the job anymore. The job is to put your team in the best position to win going into the final innings. What they do after that is out of your control.

Judge and Jury

Baseball in the time of COVID …
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

OK, there are a couple of things I want to say about this video, only one of them having to do with the particular brilliance of Aaron Judge.

Let’s start with the Judge stuff: The guy is an absurdity. He’s simply the biggest man to ever play professional baseball — I’m talking a combination of height (6-foot-7) and weight (listed at 282 pounds) and muscle mass — and yet he has that explosive athleticism that can fool you into thinking he’s much smaller than he really is. When you watched Adam Dunn or Ryan Howard or Frank Howard or David Ortiz play, you never forgot just how large they were.

With Judge, it’s when you see him standing next to, say, Jose Altuve that you are reminded: The man is Gulliver.

Because Judge is so gigantic and such a preposterous athlete, there was a sense three years ago that he had a chance to break baseball. That was his rookie season when he hit 52 home runs, many of them geometric absurdities. He also struck out 208 times that year — well, what do you expect, his strike zone is Wyoming. The possibility of a man striking out 250 times while also hitting 70 or 80 home runs seemed real.

The last two years, though, he has been hurt and so while he still struck out once every 3.2 plate appearances — that strikeout rate has been the one constant of his career — he stopped hitting home runs at the same zany pace. When he hit one, sure, it stayed hit but the injuries definitely stole away some of his cartoon superpowers.

And now, in this season that doesn’t feel like a season, the cartoon Aaron Judge has reemerged. He’s healthy and swinging free and if he hits a ball in the air, it’s gone. Baseball, as we know, is a game that revolves around season numbers and, as such, there’s a little bit missing from Judge’s home runs. No matter how many he hits — six in eight games is pretty good — he has no chance of hitting 60, no chance of challenging the Babe or Sosa or McGwire or Bonds.

Still, the home runs are pretty thrilling in their own way.

OK, now let’s talk about the announcing.

I have noticed myself getting much more annoyed by certain baseball announcers in 2020. Maybe it’s because there’s no crowd to distract us, and fake crowd noise serves as a constant reminder that what we’re seeing isn’t exactly real, and the Commissioner of Baseball seems to run the game into an iceberg every single day …

… but I have just noticed announcers more this year than before.

And, with a handful of exceptions, I find myself stupefied at how announcers are calling games. Where is the storytelling? Where is the humor? Where is the perspective? I know that announcers have been calling games more or less the same way for decades now, but in this strange and haunting environment, it feels entirely out of touch. I don’t mean to pick on Matt Vasgersian, who I like very much, and Alex Rodriguez, who … well, I like Matt very much.

But I mean the exchange through this at-bat is just a perfect example of the stuff that’s driving me nuts. It’s the second inning of Boston-New York, and a red-hot Aaron Judge is coming to the plate with two on against an overmatched lefty named Matt Hall, and the place is eerily quiet for all the reasons we know, and I mean there’s just so much to talk about here, so much to draw us in. How can you not build up the excitement and tension of that moment?

As a salesperson friend of mine likes to say, “If I can’t sell that, I shouldn’t be selling at all.”

And Matt and A-Rod talk about how the home plate umpire has been consistent with the low strike but Aaron Judge is taller than other players. Ooh. Then they begin a conversation about whether Aaron Judge should be batting second rather than third as if that matters at all (A-Rod is opposed). Then A-Rod talks about his own experience coming up hitting third with guys like Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter hitting in front of him, and it is going absolutely nowhere — I mean, I’m not even sure now what the point is since Judge is up in the EXACT SITUATION that A-Rod is calling for — when suddenly, right in the middle, Hall grooves the pitch and Judge hammers it ….

And then Matt, with no warning at all, goes ABSOLUTELY CRAZY ("OH MY GOODNESS! AARON JUDGE HAS DONE IT AGAIN! HOMERS IN FIVE STRAIGHT!). Because there is no lead-up to this, it feels a bit hysterical.

And then he goes quiet and doesn’t say anything as we watched Judge round the bases in almost complete silence.

It is just … so … weird.

Look, there’s nothing Matt or anyone else can do about that part: Baseball is weird now. Sports are weird now. But I do think that the game needs to rethink how it is presented on television. The old play-by-play man with former baseball star format has felt outdated for a while … but it feels even more outdated with the way the game is going now. Give me some stuff that makes me smile, that makes me sigh, that makes me FEEL.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Vin Scully calls lately as part of my “60 Moments” series (No. 9 is Hank Aaron’s 715th) and it occurs to me that part of what made him so great is that he realized, all along, that a game is a story, and that a great story must be told from beginning to end, with character development and plot and conflict and an arch and foreshadowing. That’s what gets us to to the big ending. And I think in many ways the people telling baseball’s story have forgotten that. Baseball needs great storytelling now more than ever.

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