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Can Baseball's Obsession With "Analytics" Be Controlled? + Potpourri From The Baseball Scene

On the first Saturday in June I happened to flip the channel in time to see the top of the ninth inning of a close game between the Chicago Cubs and the SF Giants. With the Giants holding a two-run lead but the Cubs threatening, veteran third baseman Evan Longoria instinctively dove to his left on a hard smash towards the shortstop hole. 

 

Because of one of these new-fangled shifts, shortstop Brandon Crawford was positioned very close to Longoria who must have not been aware of it.  Crawford also went for the ball and the two veterans collided head-on.  Longoria got the worst of the deal, and he has shoulder damage that could keep him out for over two months.  

 

As far as I know, none of the Giants made a public comment questioning why Longoria and Crawford were aligned so close together.  Manager Gabe Kapler, one of more analytic-obsessed managers, did say afterwards that it was a "very emotional" clubhouse when they learned that team leader Longoria, the former Tampa Bay Ray with World Series and regular playoff experience, would be out for such a long time. 

 

Ballplayers are tough guys especially a gamer like Longoria so I hope he returns sooner than expected. But it raises the question of why so many players are abandoning traditional defensive positions in the supposed search for more statistical certainty.  

 

The basic double play is rarely seen now because infielders are shifting way out of their normal positions. There is now the frequent bizarre occurrence of a third baseman positioned near second base before a pitch. So to catch a routine foul ball, he must run like a 60-yard dasher to have a chance at corraling it. 

 

Analytics and shifting are getting out of hand and I don't know what it will take to bring that rarity known as common sense back to the game.

 

One thing I would do is to ban all players from carrying crib sheets of "tendencies" in their pockets and caps.   Baseball shouldn't be an "open book" exam!

 

The lord high commissioner Manfred just announced on June 15 a ban on foreign substances pitchers have been using on the baseball to increase movement and spin rates. Such a prohibition has been in the official rules for decades.  We'll see, of course, how it is enforced by the umpires.  

 

Let me repeat my call for another reform:  BAN THOSE CLIFF NOTES!  

 

Back to the Giants and how they may deal without Longoria for a good chunk of the summer. One of his replacements will likely be the former Met Wilmer Flores who is a versatile guy to have on your team. 

 

For me, Wilmer is the poster boy for "Yes, There Is Crying in Baseball!"  No one in the NYC area, Mets fan or not, can ever forget Flores weeping on third base when he thought he was being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the July 2015 trading deadline. 

 

It turned out to be a false alarm. He wasn't traded after all, and the valuable utility player, who had signed with the Mets as a teenager out of Valencia Venezuela, helped the team move on to the 2015 World Series.

 

Here's one last gripe against analytics.  Do we really need to know the percentage of swings and misses on different pitches from a pitcher?  Baseball is a very hard game and there is such a thing as TMI Too Much Information. 

 

TMI is a plague that is affecting writers, broadcasters, fans, and worst of all, players who forget about the "feel" of a game and how sight and sound are more important than those damned crib sheets they carry in their pockets and caps.

 

The fun element in baseball should never be forgotten. So let's hear it for one of the better new nicknames in the sport: the Jamestown (NY) Tarp Skunks in the Perfect Game Wooden Bat Collegiate League.

 

A tarp skunk is a regular denizen of that southwestern New York town near the Pennsylvania border and the Double-A Erie Sea Wolves.  The animal is an underdog that only sprays when faced with danger so it is an apt name for a scrappy team of collegians. They will be playing until the end of July, and early August if they make the playoffs.

 

THIS 'N' THAT FROM VARIED LEVELS OF BASEBALL:

**Update on Masahiro Tanaka still pitching well in Japan for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In the last blog I did not give the full correct name of his team so here is the correction.  

 

Although his record is only 2-4 and he hasn't won since early May, he has been an innings-eater. He has averaged seven innings in his last five starts and his ERA is 2.90.  Most important, the Golden Eagles are in first place.

I leave it to Yankee fans to decide if he would have fared better than Jameson Taillon or the now-injured Corey Kluber. 

 

**Remember Mo'Ne Davis from the Little League World Series seven years ago?  She is now a softball infielder for the historical black college Hampton University in Virginia. In the off-season, she is broadcasting games of the DC Grays in a summer college league and aspires to go into the media business.

 

I learned about this story in Barry Svrluga's fine piece in the June 9 Washington Post..

Speaking of the WaPo, the brilliant columnist Thomas Boswell will retire on June 30 but hopefully not stay away from sports permanently.  He certainly has left an enviable legacy of game stories under deadline pressure and thoughtful commentaries.  Some appeared in such books as "Why Time Begins On Opening Day". 

 

**Here's hoping for a memorable College World Series starting on June 19-20 in Omaha.  I still find the sound of  aluminum bats jarring, but the pairings look very enticing.  All games to be aired on the "family" of ESPN networks.

 

The double-elimination tourney starts with red-hot Stanford vs. North Carolina State who knocked off #1 national seed Arkansas despite losing the first game 21-2.  Shades of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates against the Yankees! 

The second game will feature perennial contender/former champion Vanderbilt vs. Arizona. 

 

Sunday's pairings are Mississippi State, which came from an 0-1 deficit to knock out Notre Dame, vs. Texas

Followed by Tennessee vs. perennial contender/former champion Virginia.

 

**And here's a salute to Bryant (Rhode Island) catcher Liam McGill who led all of Division I with a .471 batting average.  The former Columbia star certainly put to good use his last year of eligibility.

 

Here's hoping that all Ivy League sports return starting in the fall.  The loss of two full Ivy League baseball seasons has been one of the most hurtful consequences of the pandemic.

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!     

 

 

 

 

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"The Ball Always Finds The Weakest Defender": Reflections on the Mets' World Series Loss

I attended Game 4 of the World Series on Halloween night. It was the second of three must-win home games in a row, and in all of them the Mets held the lead for much of the action. However, this year's surprise entry in the World Series could win only the Friday matchup.

I only get emotionally involved with the Orioles, my passion for over 40 years, but I feel for those who lived and breathed and died with the Mets. The old saying in baseball, "The ball always finds the weakest defender," proved true in the final games of the Mets season.

The Mets seemed in control of the Halloween game once standout rookie left fielder Michael Conforto hit the second of his two solo homers to give the Mets a 3-1 lead after 5 innings. Rookie southpaw Steven Matz, from nearby Stony Brook, showed great poise in
his first Series start (incidentally the only one by a left-hander).

However, the Royals narrowed the deficit to 3-2 entering the 8th inning. Inconsistent Tyler Clippard walked two Royals with one out. Jeurys Familia was called upon for a five-out save. In moments a defining moment of the Series arose.

The ball found the weakest defender as Eric Hosmer hit a spinning grounder towards second baseman Daniel Murphy. It went under his glove for an error that tied the game.

It felt almost inevitable when singles by Mike Moustaka and Salvador Perez gave the Royals a 5-3 lead that shutdown closer Wade Davis cemented with a two-inning save.

Yet there was more pain ahead for the Mets. It seemed unnecessarily cruel when the baseball gods determined that the game would end with Yoenis Cespedes doubled off first base on a weak liner by Lucas Duda to third baseman Moustakas.

A cardinal rule of baseball is: Never be doubled off first base on a ball hit in front of you. Of course, Cuban defector Cespedes listens to the sound of his own drummer. And that gaffe was yet another sharp blow to the Mets' chances.

In Game 5, the Mets held the lead even longer than in Game 4. Curtis Granderson, the Mets' most consistent player all season including the playoffs, gave Matt Harvey a 1-0 lead with a leadoff-home run in the bottom of the first inning.

You can never overestimate the importance of grabbing the lead in any game, especially a season-saving game.

Harvey protected the lead for eight shutout innings and the Mets' disappearing offense did scratch out a second run in the 6th on a sacrifice fly by Lucas Duda.

Yet as we look back in hindsight, the Royals had the Mets where they wanted them. This year's deserving Kansas City champions broke all kinds of records for scoring runs in the late innings.

And sure enough after Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him pitch the 9th inning, Lorenzo Cain led off with a full count walk. Collins left Harvey in and Eric Hosmer followed with a run-scoring opposite field double.

It was now 2-1 with the tying run on second with no one out. Hosmer was pumped because his error had contributed to the Mets' second run.

Collins brought in closer Jeurys Familia. He did get ground balls from the three batters he faced. But with Hosmer on third and one out, the final defining moment of this Series came.

Catcher Salvador Perez, the unanimous MVP for his solid hitting and handling of the pitching staff, hit a grounder between third and short. Either David Wright or shortstop Wilmer Flores could have handled the tricky hop.

Wright fielded it cleanly but turned his back on Hosmer, no speed merchant but a clever baserunner. Wright threw out Perez at first base, but Hosmer broke for home and Lucas Duda's throw was way off the mark. The game was now tied 2-2.

After leading since the first inning, it was a tremendous blow to the Mets. You could almost see the body language sag, maybe most in team captain Wright.

To quote Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again. The memory of Halloween night's loss had to be fresh.

They were two outs from victory in Game 1 in Kansas City when Alex Gordon homered off Familia. The pattern was becoming very apparent. Great teams have great mental toughness as well as great talent and the Mets were exposed as having neither.

Once the Royals tied Sunday night's game it seemed inevitable that they would win. And sure enough, they pushed 5 runs across in the 12th. The lead-gaining single was a pinch-hit by reserve infielder Christian Colon who hadn't swung a bat in a game for over 40 days.

Redemption came to the Royals and it was richly earned. They left the tying run on third base in Game 7 last year against Madison Bumgarner and the SF Giants. They dedicated this year to changing the Series outcome and they sure fulfilled their dream.

Now winter has come for those of us who dearly baseball. The Mets provided many great thrills for their fans. Their great young starting pitchers all performed well under the brightest lights. That should augur very well for their future.

But the Mets obviously need better defense and more consistent offense. Murphy and Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes were thoroughly held in check by the Royals. Both may leave as free agents.

Much too early to handicap next season. Every year is always different.

For 2015 let us hail the Kansas City Royals who richly deserved their title.

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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