October 2011

Reflections and musings from the first few Postseason games

Wow! What great baseball we’re getting a chance to see and enjoy. Not perfect, but exciting and enjoyable. As I watch the games and read the articles before and after the games filled with quotes from managers and players it triggers many thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I wish that I could relent and give in to the present day philosophies. Science over Art. But, I can’t.

I don’t care for the word “purist,” I can accept traditionalist and I’m all for progress if it benefits the game and makes it better. But, as I see it, it doesn’t always make it better. I guess I’d call myself a fan that enjoys the simlplicity of the game. throw it, field it, hit it and see who wins. I like the KISS theory. Printed those 4 letters in my glove in the 60’s. [KeepItSimpleStupid]. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy seeing the things that affect winning or losing a baseball game whether it is in May, July, or on the national stage in October

Whether it’s 1945 or 2011, lttle things mean a lot. I have followed this great game since 1945. Tigers beat the Cubs in 7. Last time the Cubs were in the Fall classic. I was 7 years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. Tigers had a big first inning and won game 7 and the series. Greenberg, Newhouser, Caverretta were some of the player’s names. Eventually I had their baseball cards in the spokes of my bicycle wheels.

I give you that background because not a lot has changed in terms of what determines who wins or loses. Throw strikes, catch it when they hit it to you, make accurate throws, try to make solid contact and put the ball in play. As some of my minor league managers and big league pitching coaches told me,” Do the ordinary things in an extraordinary fashion” and you’ll be fine. In simple terms, do the basic fundamental things consistently well. The game was more of a player’s game until the late 80’s. it was art. Pitchers and hitters had distinctive motions and stances and  the game was played by feel and instinct and what was in your heart and stomach meant more than a printout of what happened in the past and influenced manager’s decisions on who to play and pitch and where to position players in the field.

Why did it change? computers? detailed scouting reports? Better educated executives, managers and players? I don’t know. Like the crafty lefthander of the 50’s and 60’s, Curt Simmons,  said. ‘ play’em a step to pull or a step the other way’. Abner Doubleday put’em where they are for a reason. Or, as Branch Rickey, the innovator of the farm system, said to pitchers, “Throw strikes for 5 innings and lower strikes for 4 more” You’ll win a lot of games.

Now…..I know it’s not that simple but when  I look at the results of the 1st few games of this post season I see examples of science taking over for art and feel and not always for the better. Example, Rick Porcello pitched a terrific game game for the Tigers Wednesday in game 4. He deserved a win but repeatedly throwing to 1st base with Elvis Andrus posing a threat to steal 2nd may have cost him and his team the win. Was he throwing to 1st base a gazillion times because the bench signaled for him to do it? I hope not.

That seems to be what pitchers deal with in today’s game of science over art. all kinds of signs from the bench, countless trips to the mound to scramble a pitcher’s brain that’s already moving at warp speed because of the pressure of the situation. Who knows better than the guy with the ball that’s closer to the action than the bench whether the runner on 1st has taken too big of a lead?  As Woody Hayes, the late football coach at The Ohio State University said about the forward pass. 3 things can happen and 2 of them are bad. same thing with throwing to 1st for a pitcher. a balk or a wild throw happen more often than a pickoff. Vary your time that you pause in the set position, step off the rubber if you’re not comfortable , don’t give the runner the satifaction of thinking he’s important. If he steals what are the percentages that he’ll score??. There’s a number I never see on the tv screen. only what % a catcher has of throwing out runners which are most of the time because the pitcher didn’t get him the ball in time to make a decent throw.

Whew! I’m venting a little more than I thought but I just wish they would let the players play and put the fielders in normal positions, [maybe Mark Kotsay and Corey Hart would have caught those 2 fly balls in the 1st inning of the Cards/Brewers game 3].   I am so thankful I played in an era where you looked in the box score the day after a game and saw that you were a winning pitcher or a losing pitcher because of what you did not because people who weren’t on the field of play made decisions that determined your success or failure. If you wanted your right fielder to play a little shallow, you looked out and waved him in a little. It was your game on the day you pitched. you pitched with your gut and your heart and your instincts. Pitching and playing was an art not a science.

And when it was over you and your teammates had the satisfaction of  saying, ‘we laid it all on the line for better or worse’, “We’re not going to blame it on the manager, the coaches or any computer printout that gave us a notebook full of information about what happened in the past but couldn’t predict the future”. Like Ozzie’s homerun in 1985 from the left side of the plate….look up those percentages. First time in how many thousand lefthand AB’s? Or when Nolan had a lead in the 7th against the Phillies in 1980 and the Phillies won the game. he had never given up the lead when he led in the 7th up to that game. It’s about what’s going to happen today not what happened in the past and I sure wish today’s players could have more to say about the outcome.

Oh, and one more thing. Commissioner Bud, I call him Bud because we have known each other for a long time going back to when I was privileged to be a rather insignificant member of the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals that defeated his Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series; could you demand that clubs put a moratorium on announcements of hirings and firings until the World Series is over so we don’t have to hear during or between innings or read about who is going where and why and we can watch and read about the players who make it possible for us to enjoy fall baseball..

Pitching at its highest level

October is an exciting time of year for baseball fans and I am a fan as well as a former player and now, a member of the MLB Network announcing team. So I thought I would revive Kaat’s Korner and blog some of my thoughts. I started Kaat’s Korner in the late ’80s as a pregame segment on the Minnesota Twins Cable Network when I was announcing their games. I also did some blogging for YES while a member of the Yankees’ announcing team. Of course, the original K-Korner will and always should be credited to my friend Ralph Kiner, who had his show called “Kiner’s Korner” since the early 1960s on Mets telecasts. That title itself was based on his old “Kiner’s Korner” section of home run seats in left field at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in the 1940s, replacing Hank Greenberg’s “Greenberg’s Gardens” there.

Those slugging roots notwithstanding, I am going to start with my favorite topic: pitching. The real “money” ball players, as I have often good-naturedly chided “Moneyball” central figure Billy Beane, are pitchers. No disrepect to the likes of Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols, but it is still about which team pitches best usually wins. Oakland had Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as their starters when “Moneyball” became a term that some experts glommed onto as the reason for a team’s success. They were hard to find in the movie. I guess Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett could not have played for a team that operated on the “Moneyball” theory. They seldom walked or struck out or took a lot of pitches!

Chris CarpenterOK, back to pitching. I think the classic duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the National League Division Series should be required watching for every pitcher — amateur, Minor or Major Leaguer. Watch the videos on MLB.com and study how Carpenter and Halladay went about their business. Pay attention to the pace with which they worked, the methodical, rhythmic, consistent time between pitches. There was not much hesitation. They never seemed to have any doubt about what they wanted to do with the next pitch. They pitched like the hitter was just someone standing in their way. They seemed to say: “I challenge you to hit this pitch, I’m not afraid you’re going to hit it.” They had no apparent fear of contact and pitched their pitches with conviction. I refuse to say “threw their pitches” because these two are not “brain-dead heavers.” That’s a term pitchers in the past 10 to 15 years have coined for those who are infatuated with how fast their fastballs are clocked. They are throwers, not pitchers. Justin Verlander was a thrower as were most of us in our early days in the Majors, but he has become a “pitcher.” Look at the results this year.

Listen carefully to what Carpenter said after the game when asked how he produced so many groundball outs in a ballpark that rewards flyballs. He made it sound so simple and other pitchers should take note: “Yeah, keeping the ball down in the strike zone, sinking the ball down with my fastball, keeping my breaking ball down, staying ahead in the count. And when you do that, you get those guys who obviously are a fabulous hitting ballclub, you get them in swing mode. If you’re aggressive and they know that, if they don’t swing, you’re going to be 1-2, 0-2, whatever it is early in the count or behind in the count, they’re going to start swinging and that’s when you can start expanding the strike zone and getting the ball down and getting them to swing at stuff you want them to swing at and producing good results.”

Where's my limo?Those Game 5 results took me back to the World Series games between the Yankees and Braves in the 1950s when Lew Burdette, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford and Bob Turley were hooking up in similar pitching duels. I didn’t miss a pitch. That was pitching at its highest level, like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. I smiled as I read comments about how some players on other teams do not like Carpenter. He seems to be mean or brusque or unfriendly. Good on ya’, Chris. That’s the way it should be! Not many liked Gibson, either. I wish more hitters would have hated me. My problem was the opposite. They sent a limo for me on the day I pitched so I’d get to the park safely and they could run up to the plate and swing. I wish I’d have known Chris Carpenter back then.

For me, other pitchers this postseason who are enjoyable to watch, whether they won or not, have been Cliff Lee, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, most of the Texas staff. They give you the impression Yovani Gallardothey are in control of the game and are going to dictate the pace. I wish there were more of them. I announced some Red Sox games in September and, living in Vermont in the summer, I watched a lot of them as well. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are high-quality pitchers, but — and I mentioned this to my friend Terry Francona on more than one occasion — they began to pitch like they were stuck in quicksand in September. No energy, no pace. They appeared to have scouting-reportitis. That’s a disease pitchers suffer when they have studied hitters’ weaknesses to the point where they do not “trust their stuff” and worry about the hitter making contact.

I look forward to seeing more performances like I saw from Chris and Roy. There are too few of them these days.