New age baseball is changing the face of the game, and not for the better.
For starters, there is the matter of lineups, batting orders designed to create the greatest offense. In the old days, this was not exactly rocket science, but rather just common sense. Now … well now it’s different. Not necessarily better, just different.
Back in the day, you started with a fast player, someone who could get on base, then maybe steal a base. Behind him, you used a contact hitter, someone who could advance the runner with a hit-and-run, a strategy that is barely visible today.
Now, if that works, we have runners on first and third, table setters for our best hitter, who bats third and then our slugger, who is in the cleanup spot, coming up we hope, with the bases loaded.
This is old school. Now, teams pack their best hitters at the top of the lineup. In New York, the Mets have been using Michael Conforto to lead off. He stole two bases in 2016 and two more in 2017. Somewhere, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who once played for the Mets, and finished his career with a record 1,406 steals, must be chuckling.
Then there is the “Let’s bat the pitcher eighth instead of ninth’’ theory. Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa introduced this idea, believing it created an opportunity for the batter who would otherwise bat eighth to see better pitches to hit if the pitcher was not slotted behind him. This, however, leaves the poor soul batting seventh with the pitcher behind him, getting less desirable pitches. Sorry, pal. This is baseball’s brave new world.
Then there are defensive shifts. The theory, created by manager Joe Maddon, is to pack one side of the infield with three defensive players, since everybody pulls the ball. That leaves one defender on the other side of the field and if a hitter is interested in getting on base instead of swinging for the seats, he can poke hits through the huge gaps that defense creates.
It was Wee Willie Keeler, another Hall of Famer, who lived by the adage to “Hit ‘em where they ain’t,’’ and when there is only one defender patrolling a whole side of the infield, that’s where “they ain’t.’’
This defensive strategy has another hole in it. When there’s a man on first and the batter bounces a grounder into the shift, it’s a perfect double play ball — unless there is nobody available to cover second base because the only infielder on the other side of the diamond can’t get there in time.
All of this, of course, is a function of baseball’s love affair with the home run. They call it “Launch Angle’’ since good old fashioned “uppercut’’ is too simple. And then there is “exit velocity,’’ which once was simply “hard hit.’’
Yankee fans were ecstatic when the team traded for Giancarlo Stanton, who brought his 59 home runs last season into a lineup that already had Aaron Judge, who hit 52 a year ago. They chose to ignore the fact that those two sluggers totaled 371 strikeouts that season, two more than Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio, another Hall of Famer, had in 13 seasons. Stanton, in fact, had two five-strikeout games in a week. This is not the golden sombrero. This is the platinum sombrero.
Everybody is swinging for the seats, often resulting in inflated strikeout totals, and employing defensive shifts, often resulting in missed double plays. There is no free lunch, even for the analytics crowd, who still seem to have some work to do redesigning the grand old game.