October 2014

World Series reflections

First, thank you:
– Madison Bumgarner, for doing what you did
– Bruce Bochy for making the decision to use you
– Dave Righetti for supporting it as well

My hope is that this will be the norm and not the exception. Everyone in the media — including some who played the game — were aghast that Madison was able to do what he did. Are they too young to remember what Lew Burdette did for the Braves in the 50s, what Sandy Koufax did against me and the Twins in 1965, and Mickey Lolich (who gets left out of too many conversations) for what he did in 1968 with the Tigers?

All pitched and won games in the World Series on two days rest. And all were complete games. (Lolich also homered in one of his wins.) That was the norm in that era. We were not any stronger, better, or bigger than any of today’s pitchers, but we were trained differently.

Madison Bumgarner proved it can be done today. Unfortunately, organizations have continued to drink the Kool-Aid that says pitch counts, innings restrictions, and extra rest will help prevent injury and possibly improve performance. Most of those who preach that probably never have pitched in the big leagues.

I “only” can speak from the experience of 25 seasons, over 4,500 innings, a couple seasons of over 40 starts and 300 innings that IT WILL RUST OUT BEFORE IT WILL WEAR OUT!

I will concede that occasionally an extra day between starts could be beneficial if you start 40 games a year but I guarantee you that your control and rhythm and ability to repeat your delivery will be better. I really believe there would be fewer walks, more strikes thrown and fewer injuries. Check out MadBum’s strike/ball ratio in Game 7 with two days rest: 68 pitches, 50 strikes.

I know doctors personally who tell me the rash of elbow injuries in baseball does not come from overuse in the big leagues but with overuse as pitchers in Little League and travel team competitions. Too much stress on the arm at a young age, trying to throw too hard before their bodies are developed completely.

I understand that my words here will fall on deaf ears, as they did when I spoke out about shutting down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, when I think the Nationals could have ridden him to a world championship like the Giants did with you-know-who. But I am and will continue to be unwavering in my stance on this subject.

I take it as a compliment when the modern numbers nerds and stat geeks ignore my opinions, because I don’t accept the modern logic. I hope in my lifetime some combination of GM, agent, manager and pitching coach will start in the lowest minors to train pitchers to do what Madison did that thrilled us all who believe in what pitchers can achieve if given the opportunity.

Like Jack McKeon trained me when he was my catcher/manager in 1958 in Class C ball in Missoula, Montana. In the sixth inning, a few men on, nobody out, Jack would trot out to the mound, spit a little tobacco juice on my shoe and say’ Figure out a way to get out of this, Kid.” Sometimes I would, sometimes I wouldn’t; but I eventually learned how to pitch out of late-inning jams.

As the late, great Warren Spahn told me in the early 60s when he was kind enough to give a curious 23-year old lefty a pitching lesson, “Kid, when the game is tied in the seventh inning, the game’s just starting. Wouldn’t we all love to see Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw go toe to toe for nine innings? I’ll buy a ticket to see that one!

Salvador Perez is some catcher, Brandon Crawford is some shortstop and Lorenzo Cain is going to sign a big contract one day like Torii Hunter did. “Boch” is going to the Hall of Fame. My earlier memory of him? I was Pete Rose’s pitching coach in 1985. On September 11 at 8:11 pm, Pete singled to left center off the late Eric Show to break Ty Cobb’s all-time career hits record. The Padres catcher was Bruce Bochy.

The Giants announcing team of Kruk and Kuip is as good a listen as any announcing combo on the planet.

Thanks Ned Yost for the classy way you handled losing a tough Game 7.

I loved George Brett’s comment on the pregame show: “Hitters have become too robotic instead of ‘look for the ball and react'” That’s why strikeouts are at an all-time high. Read all the advance scouting reports that say, “With two strikes, this pitcher throws a slider 81 percent of the time,” and then he slips a fastball by you. Good luck with that kind of approach.

I respect Eric Hosmer’s ability and postseason performance, but if he swung that hard on every pitch I threw and lunged over the plate like he does, he would have to get a pitch under his armpits to make him back away. Hitters tend to swing like the ball is on a tee with no fear of being made to move their feet back. I’d loosen up on the brushback rule before I’d make catchers give runs away because they can’t protect the plate.

Along those lines, I guess all winter long people will be questioning Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele’s decision to hold Alex Gordon at third. How about this scene: Jirschele sends him, there’s a close play at the plate, and Gordon is called out. But… it appears Buster Posey may have had the toe of his shoe too close to the plate. We wait out a five-minute replay and Commissioner Selig, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa are called in to have a vote. TWo of the three overturn the call and we head to the 10th tied at 3!

Or… Gordon is called safe at home, but it is reviewed and Gordon just touched Posey’s left foot when he was in front of the plate to knock him off balance and the safe call is overturned! Could happen. Let’s hope it never does.

Joe Panik should have been given some kind of award for the DP he started in Game 7. Pretty good chance the Royals win if he doesn’t make that play. The Royals would have taken the lead and may never have had to face MadBum! I love it when plays like that happen, because you can’t do a graphic on TV like a pie chart or a shift alignment to explain what happened. It’s the art and skill of the game and the reaction of world-class baseball players. You really have to be at field level to see how fast things happen in a slow-moving 3.5-hour game.

Hope you enjoyed the postseason games as much as I did. Now what do we do? The Breeders Cup is on this weekend. That helps. You couldn’t pay me enough to watch an NBA or NFL game. I’m glad the PGA now is almost a year-round season.

Let’s see… I guess it’s only 14 weeks until pitchers and catchers report. I can’t wait. I look forward to having the opportunity to enjoy my 59th season following the most intriguing game on the planet.

Happy Holidays!

World Series thoughts

I would have been happy for any of the 10 teams that qualified for postseason play to have made it to the World Series. I have friends, former teammates and former opponents who are now coaches on all 10 teams. But now that the Royals and Giants are there, it is refreshing as a former player and lifelong fan of the game that teams with something inside of their minds and bodies trump the continuing litany of mostly meaningless stats identified by acronyms (that a lot of us still don’t understand) spewed out almost defiantly to try to have us believe that’s what determines the final score.

The final score is the only real meaningful number out there. Because anyone who has ever played knows what my friend Buddy Biancalana wrote in his guest post to this blog is true. I won’t bore you with my stats but in September of 1967 I enjoyed a similar period of time that Buddy had in the 1985 World Series.

How I wish I knew then what I know now about “getting in your own way,” “trying too hard” and many other things that keep us from performing our best at the right time. I never knew how right I was when I would holler in the dugout prior to taking the field before heading out to the mound, ” Okay guys, let’s cut our heads off and let our bodies go to work.”

My hope is that each of these teams can keep playing the game with the same unbridled enthusiasm and fluidity that they have done so far. It has been a real pleasure to watch the game played as art and not science.

Both teams come into the Fall Classic with monentum. I really feel it will be more difficult for the Royals to keep theirs than it will be for the Giants. Kansas City will have had a longer layoff. San Francisco is in a more fluid mode.

MadBum (my favorite pitcher in the big leagues) will be on regular rest. He is the best I’ve seen at a young age of “letting his body do the work” — not overthinking. He also seems to be able to repeat a fluid motion better than most we have seen in the past few weeks.

I am not a prognosticator, so I would never say the Royals can’t do it, I just think they have a more difficult challenge ahead of them than the Giants, who seem to able to treat these World Series games as everyday Spring Training games. Selfishly, I hope that these two teams continue to play the game this week with the same “intensity without tension” (credit to Joe Torre for that saying) displayed by Lorenzo Cain and many of his teammates, and Hunter Pence, The Panda and their teammates.

It may open the door for those of us who recognize the game is played by real people, not robots, They have different feelings every day like all of you. It would be nice to get equal airtime to educate and inform fans about the art of the game. If the “numbers nerds” and “stat geeks” predict the Giants in five or the Royals in six, ask them if they can tell which games they will lose.

Statistics and records in baseball are great to use for historical purposes. The numerous graphics and metrics tell you what happened in the past, but the outcomes of the games you watch today and tomorrow will be decided by the things that Buddy refers to in his article. How do I know? I’ve been there and done that. And sometimes didn’t do that!

Why the Royals Will Win or Lose the Series, From a Neuroscience Perspective

The following is a guest post by my friend, Buddy Biancalana:

With the success of this Royals club, it is kicking up many questions and memories about our 1985 World Series win against the Cardinals. Many are asking my opinion about how the two teams compare and if the club can stay hot. I am really enjoying watching the city come alive and the exhilaration so many are enjoying. What a wonderful time!

As you may know, my notoriety was achieved from one week of my career when I had a zone experience in that ’85 Series, in which I played the best baseball I ever played. After hitting just .188 during the regular season, I hit .278 with a .435 on base percentage and played errorless at shortstop. It was as if the game was in slow motion. I felt like I had more time, I wasn’t thinking and my swing and my defense were more fluid and effortless than ever before. I was told I received the highest number of MVP votes for a position player. (Bret Saberhagen deservedly won the award.)

Royals vs Cardinals World Series 1985

A big question surrounding the club going into Spring Training the following season whether I could sustain my level of play and keep the shortstop job. The question loomed even larger in my own mind, because I had no idea what took place that allowed me to play so well the previous October, so I really had no idea how to repeat it. I was hoping I could, however I felt quite a bit of anxiety wondering if I really could.

It turned out that I did not keep the job, and was out of the Major Leagues just 18 months later after suffering a career-ending back injury. Regardless, my level of play diminished greatly.
As I look at this current Royals club, I see a team that has a great bullpen, good speed and excellent defense. The biggest thing they have going for them may be the huge wave of momentum they are riding. They and their hundreds of thousands of followers are hoping the wave doesn’t crash over the next week or so, like mine did after the ’85 Series.

Over the years, there have been many great players who have not played well in the postseason. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Prince Fielder are three, who for the most part have not produced in October.
In the first two games of the Royals’ Division Series win against the Angels, the trio of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were a collective 1-25. I’m sure that is not what Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto had in mind when signing the three to contracts in excess of $500 million. The fact that they struggled does not indicate they are not still great players, however it very clearly indicates they do not understand on the most fundamental level what makes them great.

There is a process quantified by Dr. Fred Travis, director at the Center for Brain Consciousness and Cognition, as to what takes place in the brain when any athlete is playing at their best. It is called “The Fluid Motion Factor.” When an athlete is “in the zone,” the information they are processing is moving to a part of the brain called the cerebellum uninterrupted by the prefrontal cortex. It is what I experienced when playing in the ‘85 Series. It is the only way that fluid motion is produced in the body and what many of the current Royals have been experiencing over the first eight postseason games.

Salvador Perez, their All-Star catcher, may be one of the few who is not experiencing the Fluid Motion Factor. Thus far in the postseason, he is hitting just .118 with a .143 on-base percentage, despite a career average of .280 with a .315 OBP. As great as A-Rod, Bonds, Fielder, Trout, Pujols and Hamilton are/were, often in the postseason the Fluid Motion Factor has shut down, which caused their performances to suffer.

The concern for the red-hot Royals is that the Fluid Motion Factor can leave them just as quickly as it came, and like me in the spring of 1986, they may not know where to look to regain it. The good news is that Dayton Moore has not tied up over $500 million in three players.

Buddy Biancalana is a former first-round MLB draft pick and played six seasons as a Major League infielder with the Royals and Astros, winning the 1985 World Series with the Royals. He is the co-founder of PMPM Sports-Zone Training and the co-author of The 7 Secrets of World Class Athletes.

Division Series musings

What a great time to be a baseball fan and then having the advantage of being a former player as well. I wish these Division Series games could go on forever. Compelling games that really expose what determines a win or loss, these are much more entertaining to me as a fan, because you see so many different teams in a short period of time. The LCS and World series drag on too long.

These games are pleasing to me because they expose how the endless metrics and stats that inundate us with have very little to do with who wins or loses. It’s not pitch count, it’s pitch selection and execution. More on that later.

Buck ShowalterIt’s been a real pleasure for me to see the maturation of Buck Showalter as a manager. I was announcing Yankee games in 1995 when Buck was managing them. He was not as free to be himself then because, well, because they were the Yankees and George Steinbrenner and his ‘baseball people’ were still a little heavy-handed during that time and looking over his shoulder.

Now he’s become the most delightful, insightful, secure, unguarded manager I talk to for pregame preparation. How about him leaving a lefty, Andrew Miller, in to face Miggy? How many managers today would have the guts to do that? And walk the winning run intentionally? Great move. Brad Ausmus had no power hitters left on his bench.

Speaking of Ausmus, did you know three of the four managers in this season’s LCS are former catchers? Six of the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason were managed by former catchers.

As a former player and coach and current announcer for MLB Network, over the past 58 years I have had the advantage and privilege of being in uniform for over 4,000 Major League games, and in the broadcast booth for another 2,000. What I have learned from those games is that it is not the pitch counts, innings restrictions, OPS, WAR, WHIP, or any other acronym that determines who is going to win or lose.

As our friend Joe Torre said many years ago, the key is to be “intense without being tense” — a fluid motion and less grip pressure on the ball and bat. The four teams that did that the best are the four teams still standing. None of the four were favored to win by most people. They all certainly surprised and impressed me.

When are we going to quit “drinking the Kool-Aid” served by those who have never worn a Major League uniform or experienced what it is like to be in the game? There are hard-working managers and coaches who could have much more influence on their teams and players if they didn’t have to be subjected to the metrics handed down from above. My longtime friend and teammate, Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver, and I delight in being accused of not embracing a lot of the metrics. We take it as a compliment!

Let’s go back to pitch counts. I’m sure there is a lot of discussion today about Clayton Kershaw’s pitch count coming back on “just” three days rest. Let me go back to Game 7 of the 1965 World Series when our Minnesota Twins were playing the Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was pitching with two days of rest, coming off a complete game shutout in Game 5. He had an average curveball by his standards the first five innings, and then it lost its bite and he threw nothing but well-located fastballs the final four innings. The result was a 2-0 shutout.

Last night’s Cardinals-Dodgers game solidified my thinking that there are more late-inning, game-winning hits off poorly thrown breaking balls than fastballs. Former coaches Eddie Lopat and Johnny Sain, both curveball specialists, taught me that early in my career.

If you watched Kershaw’s curve in the early innings, it was crisp and sharp. Then it began to lose its bite. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright predicted Matt Adams would hit a curveball out if he got one. He probably could see from the bench what I saw on TV. I would never second guess the call of A.J. Ellis or Kershaw in throwing the curve. The pitcher and catcher know better than anyone in the park which pitch they think is best. It’s the execution.

As Eddie Lopat taught me, if you throw a curveball late in the game when it isn’t as sharp, you try to throw it “lower than low.” Try to bounce it on the plate and it will come in at the knees. It always seems to come in a little higher than you intended.

That’s all that happened on that pitch. It wasn’t because his count was at 100-plus pitches. It was the execution. As the late, great Warren Spahn told me 50 years ago, “Kid, when the game is tied in the seventh inning, the game is just starting. You can’t get by the last three innings with mistakes that you may have in the first six.”

Taking starting pitchers out when they are rolling along is another area where gut and art are better than metrics. Jordan Zimmermann was rolling along like a freight train. Why stop the train? It’s like taking the starting catcher out for a pinch hitter when he and the pitcher have a shutout going. There was more pressure on Drew Storen in that situation than on Zimmermann. He had the feel of the ball, fluid motion, could smell the finish line. Why stop him?

Probably because the organization’s protocol is that this is what we do in the ninth inning when the pitch count hits 100. What a shame that our game has come to be science rather than art and feel. I’m sure Matt Williams was influenced by how things are done day after day, regardless of the situation.

I like Kansas City’s “Moneyball” — not walks and home runs and taking pitches, but stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, great fielders and an outstanding bullpen. That’s moneyball for me.

Another item that those of us that have been in the game for a while have long recognized: the three men who affect the outcome of a game the most are the two starting pitchers and the home plate umpire. The last couple of Cardinals-Dodgers games were good indicators. Umpires are people not robots. They all interpret the strike zone differently.

As Buck Showalter told me earlier this year, “Some umpires hunt strikes; some hunt balls.” I know Dale Scott, Eric Cooper and several of the umpires. “Scotty” has always had a pitcher-friendly zone. In my era, Ed Runge was that way, too. His motto was, “They didn’t come to see you walk.” Eddie Hurley was just the opposite. I called him “Cracker Box,” because that was the size of his strike zone. There is no doubt that if a different umpire had been behind the plate in some of these Division Series games, the outcome may have been different. But they’re human and they’re the best in the business.

Now, I do embrace some numbers. My favorite set of numbers is the final score. Score one more than the opposition, you win 100 percent of the time. Nice percentage.

The number three is scored most of the time according to the 25-year database my friend Merrianna McCully has in her book, Three Up – Three Down. Two runs is second most common. It’s interesting that three runs were scored by one team on eight occasions in the 26 Division Series games this year. The team scoring three runs won six of those. Impressive starting pitching, great fielding plays and lockdown bullpens enabled that. Two runs were scored seven times, with just two wins out of those seven games. Four or more runs were scored eight times, and those teams’ record in those games was 6-2.

That’s the norm during the season. If you score four or more every game, you should win the series. Not eight one day and none the next. Averages are meaningless. A consistent four runs is what you shoot for every game. You can see how that “swing run” is a little lower with these four teams left. Three runs might be enough.

Enjoy the rest of the postseason. I hope these LCS and World Series games are as good as the Division Series games!