Our great game is trying to resist, but it is being pulled into an era run by information overload and an all-or-nothing attitude.
Baseball has survived significant changes over the years. The Dead Ball era led to a more lively ball and more hitting. Following Bob Gibson’s historic season of 1968, the mound was lowered. In 1973, the American League adopted the designated hitter.
More hitting help around that time, too, as the AstroTurf period emerged – I tried to catch those rockets at the Vet, Three Rivers and Busch. A subtle change to reduce pitching inside helped batters, when umpires were given the ability to warn and eject pitchers for retaliation. Finally, the strike zone has shrunk to half of what the rule book says it should be.
All of these changes supposedly led to more offense. I hate to mention it, but from 1994 through 2004, offense got a shot in the arm – or the butt. Enough on that.
The game survived these, what at the time seemed, drastic changes. Good pitching has always trumped good hitting, especially in the postseason. Koufax, Seaver, Hershiser and others, they dominated in October.
What we are faced with now in baseball is not unlike what our society is seeing, the need for quick answers, constant entertainment and information available at the push of a key. Who can attend a baseball game and not pick up their cellphone for more? Stadium scoreboards have more stats than can be processed.
Analytics, sabermetrics, spray charts, player information coaches, on and on, the staff to support performance of a baseball team is enormous. We used to have a pitching coach, hitting coach, first and third base coach, and a bullpen catcher, the whole staff fit into one small dressing room. Now every one of them has an assistant.
If there is a benefit to having computers and a TrackMan in the batting cage, why not use it? More information, better players, more victories. The opposition has this same information on you, so it would be a disadvantage not to use it. Every team has bought into this ”must have more information” because it’s available and we can.
A basic question: With this information available, why is hitting performance continuing on the decline?
First, understand I’m an old school guy whose perspective comes from 20 years of experience on this very subject. I get it, today an out is an out, who cares if it’s a strikeout or groundball?
Who cares that strikeouts are at an all-time high, that hitters don’t or can’t or won’t adjust to defensive shifts, and refuse to give in and make contact with two strikes? Is .280 the new .300? What if it is – those are just numbers to take up scoreboard space.
In golf, who cares what par is, it’s just a number. It’s the final number that matters. In baseball, it’s wins and losses that matter, not player individual stats. Hmmm, maybe I’m talking myself into becoming a believer.
Back in the `80s, the benchmark for being a great hitter was .300. Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Tim Raines, they did it.
If you hit .280 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, you were also elite – Gary Carter, Dave Winfield, Dale Murphy, among others.
These were our measuring sticks, we all wanted our names in the stats list every day, not just on Sunday when they all appeared. Your contract was based on individual past performance, not your team’s won-lost record.
Seems there is a quandary here. I want to help the team win every day, but is the all-or-nothing offensive mindset geared for that?
Remember the old hit-and-run, where the batter tries to hit the ball on the ground. Take that play out of the playbook. Not happening with the uppercut!
Today, hitters are concerned about launch angle, swing speed and exit velocity. Why? Because it’s the world they live in. I’ve heard it said by a GM of a hitter who is 0-for-15 that he’s OK because his launch angle is perfect. The old school hitting coach would say, ”Son, you’re pulling off the ball” or ”you’re not keeping your hands back.”
Real and simple answers from experience. Hitters had feel and the good ones could stop slumps before they got out of hand with simple corrections. They were never cajoled, they were accountable.
So here we are beginning a new era, the Information Age. Hitters go for the home run, pitchers go for the strikeout.
My money is on pitchers. Those 6-foot-5 pitchers with 95 mph fastballs, cutters, splitters and sliders against hitters swinging for the fences, who do you think has the advantage? Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer are striking out four of every 10 hitters they face. Two hundred strikeouts a year is not a big deal today.
As for me, about 130 times a year and 1,883 for my career, and I hated every one. Maybe I shouldn’t have – after all, a strikeout is just an out.
Editor’s Note: Mike Schmidt also hit 548 home runs and drew 1,507 walks in his Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Phillies.