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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!

If I could have a conversation with Stephen Strasburg

Video: Reading the letter on MLB Network

Stephen, I’ve never met you but I’ve seen you pitch and you are special. I announced your debut on our MLB Network with Bob Costas and John Smoltz. I was very impressed. I imagined being you. I made my debut in 1959 at age 20 and lasted 2 1/3. Never struck out a batter. Took the loss. What you did that night amazed me. I don’t know if I could have found the strike zone with all the advance hype and the high expectations heaped on you. It was quite a treat to witness what you did.

Now I get to visit with the managers and sometimes the coaches when I come in to announce a game on MLB, but I seldom get time with the players. Organizations protect their young stars from media and I don’t blame them. I have heard comments from people from a lot of different stations in life on what should be done about limiting your innings that you pitch this season. Executives, sportswriters, former players and pitchers, TV analysts from not only baseball but also football and other sports! Even some national news correspondents have weighed in on the subject.

Your manager, Davey Johnson, is a former teammate and friend, a man for whom I have great respect. He’s in a tough position. He wants to do the right thing. But Davey, like many of the people who have commented on this, has never pitched.

I can only talk to you as a former pitcher who wanted to be a Major League pitcher since he was 8. My motivation was to pitch in the big leagues, pitch in an All-Star game, pitch in a World Series. You have done two of those three. I can only tell you as one who pitched in two World Series that doing that is the ultimate prize in Major League Baseball. I was fortunate to do it at age 26. Hooked up with the great Sandy Koufax three times in 1965. Had a chance to be a World Series MVP. Sandy denied me that with his great performance. It was 17 years later when I finally got a chance to participate in a World Series again. That’s still a record for the most years between World Series appearances. We won that one. The Cardinals beat the Brewers. I had very little to do with it but it remains my top moment in baseball.

The money is nice but the ring is the thing for an athlete. It ranks high above pitching for 25 seasons in the Majors, 283 wins, 16 Gold Gloves, an All-Star Game where I faced Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Being on a World Series winner is the ultimate prize. We just had our 30-year reunion in St. Louis, celebrating our World Series win in 1982. Those are memories you’ll always have no matter how long you pitch.

If you can imagine what it would feel like to ride down Pennsylvania Avenue in a victory parade with your teammates and wave to the White house and hundreds of thousands of Nationals fans and feel that feeling . . . . you would give a lot of thought to whether it was right or wrong not to pitch anymore this season. It’s easy for me to say as it was for many pitchers before me who pitched in the Fall Classic. Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Koufax, Jim Palmer, Jack Morris, many more. We gave no thought to what the condition of our arm might be next year. This was the World Series — the ultimate stage. Who knows if we’d ever get back there again?

Give this some thought. It’s not Mike Rizzo’s career or Scott Boras’s or Davey Johnson’s or even your that of your parents. It’s yours. Do what you want to do, not what others think you should do. Selfishly, I would love to see you pitch in a World Series for the city where I made my debut. The Washington Senators were known for “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” You have a chance to do what the great Walter Johnson did for Washington. No one since.

Let me ask you this: “Did you have any symptoms before you injured your arm? Anything that led you to believe you were going to injure it on your next pitch?” I didn’t. I was having the best month of pitching I ever had in September of 1967 when — “pop” — there went my elbow. We pitchers really don’t know when it’s going to happen or if it ever will happen, do we? It’s a fragile profession. I’m just happy I never had to make the decision you should be able to make. If my GM told me in September of 1965 that he was going to shut me down and not allow me a chance to pitch in the World Series, knowing my stubborn Dutch nature, he would have had quite an argument on his hands. My Dad’s biggest thrill was watching me pitch in the World Series. It would have haunted me the rest of my life if I had deprived him of that. Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro were Hall of Fame pitchers but never got to experience the ultimate prize.

Good luck with your decision, Stephen. But please remember — it’s your career, your arm, your decision. Nobody’s else’s.

Spring Training thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and I owe several of you for your kind comments reacting to my posts. It’s a fun way to connect with you, and I’m sorry I can’t take the time to answer all of your questions.

Spring Training is winding down and the season openers will be here this week. I still think we are losing that special feeling baseball has had over the years of having the first opener in the daytime in Cincinnati and the others a day later. In Japan? And at night? Stop it! Forgive me for being so traditionally minded. I’m all for progress that is in the best interest in the game, but this is not it for me. I know, TV swings the hammer and I have made a nice living from talking baseball on TV but I still think there could be some compromise instead of always deciding in favor of the financial benefits and not common sense. My grandchildren will never know how special Opening Day of baseball season should be because of the current approach. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

How about the ridiculous injuries suffered by players this spring! I wouldn’t even mow my own lawn with a power mower because of the injury former lefty, Curt Simmons, suffered in the 50s. Nipped off some toes mowing his lawn. I remember Bobby Grich, All-Star second baseman, who signed a lucrative contract with the Angels and injured his back carrying an air conditioner up the stairs. Please guys, think about your career and your team and the investment the organization has in you before you do things that could ruin your life and your career — or your career and your life. Either way.

I enjoyed playing a little raquetball and basketball in the offseason, but it was for conditioning and recreation and I felt like I was in pretty good control of my actions.

Too much emphasis on stats, scores, and radar gun readings. Who cares? My point of reference would be the spring of 1975. One of my last spring starts befoe the season started was against the Red Sox in Winter Haven, Florida. Chuck Tanner had to take me out in the 2nd inning. I was hoping to go six or seven. Gave up nine runs, three or four home runs. Deron Johnson hit two, I think maybe Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn had one also. All the infielders played a few steps deeper than normal. Outfielders were out of breath chasing down the extra base hits.We all had a good laugh about it. I was 36 years old.

Today some would be up in arms saying things like “Is his velocity way down?” “Is his career coming to an end?” I started that season 5-0, went to 9-1 and then 13-5 at the All Star break and made the 1975 All star team.Do any of you Cardinal fans remember what David Freese‘s spring stats were in 2011?

My point is, the wind blows out in a lot of ballparks in Florida in the spring. Fly balls become home runs. Pitchers are just getting their arms conditioned. There is no incentive to win a game. It’s just practice, for crying out loud. Don’t worry about stats and wins and radar gun readings.

Let’s start paying attention when the bell rings, which for me is the first game in Cincinnati, no matter what the schedule says. I’m prepping for my season opener, which will be April 12 on MLB Network with Bob Costas. Marlins at Phillies. Hope it’s Halladay vs. Johnson.
PLAY BALL!!

REFLECTIONS ON 2011

First, thank you to those of you who read my blog and to the nice comments I have received. It’s fulfilling for me to be a part of MLB Network both on television and on the internet. Keeps me in touch with the game and those of you who love it like I do.

Some former players can walk away from it and not miss it. Some leave it and later wish they could get back in in some capacity. I have been fortunate to stay involved in some form as a player, coach, TV analyst and blogger, as well as making appearances for establishments like the Bob Feller Museum and other firms that ask me to appear at baseball functions for the past 55 years.

I am looking forward to my fourth season — hard to believe it’s MLB Network’s fourth year already — working with my partner and friend, Bob Costas, on several games, as well as appearing in the studio from time to time.

2011 was an exciting year for baseball, climaxed by that memorable final day of the season and then the surprises and drama of Postseason heroics by the Cardinals and David Freese.

It was interesting to anticipate and guess who some of the award winners would be. All very deserving and not totally unexpected. I wish with all my heart that Ryan Braun will be cleared of any wrongdoing. He is some player and had been a model of good behavior. I wish Prince Fielder could stay in Milwaukee. Those fans deserve another shot at having a championship team. Probably fantasy on my part.

The season, as all seasons do, had its sad moments. My friend and former teammate , Harmon Killebrew, passed away in May. It was an honor to speak at his memorial service in Minneapolis. Harm is probably the most admired and respected athlete in Midwest sports history, and the comments I got from friends and colleagues about him being the most humble and polite Hall of Famer are true. A gentle giant as a slugger, yet relatively small in physical stature. Just 5’10″, but powerful. Thanks to MLB.com for remembering all of those in the baseball family who passed away in 2011.

I wish all of you a safe New Year’s weekend and a healthy, happy 2012. I hope your team has a good year and keeps and holds your interest right to the end.

With the wild card (and eventually wild cards, plural) it giving more teams hope, my wish is that the decision-makers reward the division winners with home games, more rest for the pitchers, or whatever it takes to give them a decided advantage in Postseason play. It’s nice for fans to see what teams like the Cardinals did last year, but the most difficult thing to do in sports is to excel over an entire season. You have to overcome injuries, slumps by hitters and pitchers and grueling travel at times to win when you’re not at full strength. A lot of teams could win a World Series these days if they qualified by just having a streak like the Cardinals but you have to perform over six months — not just two weeks — to win a division.

It won’t be long until we hear or read those magic words: “Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow!” I hope I can hear it for many more years.

Happy New Year!

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