Q: What are the last two words of the Star-Spangled Banner?
A: Play ball!
I love that old joke, because it reminds me that baseball has a world of its own, not contaminated by politics. It inhabits a bubble where patriotism, children, the discount bleacher seat, and seasonal optimism can play through the distractions of life, even Presidential campaigns.
Yes, baseball has its issues with exorbitant contracts, PED’s, Pete Rose, and Hall of Fame balloting, but on the field it retains its innocence and its youthful hope at the start of spring.
It’s ten degrees outside my door, but in destinations in Florida and Arizona they are taking to the fields of spring training, and every team is trying to be the Kansas City Royals or the New York Mets, the phoenix rising from the ashes of the lower division. And for three months every team will sustain that hope, as we watch for the next pitching phenom to reverse the destiny of the perennially struggling franchise that has begun to change its culture.
Yes, there is a culture of winning teams in every sport, but in baseball you are often surprised by the team that suddenly tastes the success of winning and assembles a community of believers in time for April. Or the team that sinks to the depths in June only to rise to the playoffs in October. Or the team that foresees its fate and begins to sell-off its high-priced talent in July. These moves all result from a changing culture, often fed by winning or losing, but also by new talent blooming too late for this year or tiring arms not equipped for the September run-up to the playoffs. It’s a long season, and it has its rhythms and hiccups, just like life.
A new bend in the life cycle is that planned retirement of beloved players, like Mariano Riviera, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. The dignity of these final acts raises the sentimental joy of every fan, as players are celebrated in the ball parks of their adversaries. Not any player can take these final bows gracefully, but the ones who can, bring out the non-partisanship of true baseball fans, who can even boo with respect. So one story that will keep us focused throughout the season will be the last season of David Ortiz, a slugger who may finally give status to the role of designated hitter. Will he be the first to make it to the Hall of Fame?
So let us now “Play ball!” and let baseball lift us from sordid political campaigns and bitter racial struggles in the cities. Let us open to the Spring Training news to see what hope our local entry brings to the season. Let us plan our visits to the ball park, not too late in the season, when hope may have evaporated prematurely. And let us honor the pure souls of baseball like David Ortiz and David Wright who are devoted icons of their cities, their “nations.”
Baseball, the only game that reminds us that spring is a state of mind.
Looking over ESPN’s top ten prospects for the Red Sox, I fail to see a power hitter. After David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes, there’s not much power in the current line-up either. Whatever else happens in the Winter, the Red Sox will need to trade for a power hitter with some credibility.
Not Mike Napoli or Will Middlebrooks. Both have extended their medical benefits to their limits this year, and they are not consistent enough to make pitchers consider walking them. They both like to swing hard late in the count. Middlebrooks is not even a proven Major Leaguer. He is the lad of eternal promise, but now of broken promises. Napoli has been plagued with injuries, but he never gives you a full season of hitting. He goes on a bender for two months when he can’t hit anything. Since he can’t get out of his slump without playing, he has to take quite a few big swings before starting to connect again.
The Sox now have incredibly agile outfielders, who will fill the gaps and keep base runners honest. But Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino and Mookie Betts will not be clearing the bases with regularity. On base they will terrify, but someone has to drive them in. Daniel Nava? He is a steady performer, but not the power threat they need.
Comparisons are odious, but the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels have power up and down their line-ups. They don’t always need a rally to score runs– just a sold connection. If a pitcher puts two men on in the late innings, it is too easy to bring in flame-throwing relief before the third hitter gets to drive them in. Teams with power can get the rally started before that happens. The Yankees did not have healthy power hitters this year. The result speaks for itself.
If the pendulum in baseball has again swung toward pitching, then the selective power hitter is one answer to that. A pitcher has only to make one mistake to lose to a power hitter. With the short game, two or three bad pitches may not hurt you. How many double plays did the Red Sox hit into this year?
For Christmas this year, I would like a power-hitting first baseman.
It’s a no-brainer that you need hitters who can drive in runs, but that is exactly what the Red Sox lacked this year. Forget the low team batting average and the spotty pitching out of the bullpen. It all turns on driving runs in after the table is set.
Yoenis Cespedes is batting .421 (16-for-38) with runners in scoring position. That’s changed the offense significantly in the last month, even given David Ortiz pitches to hit. There is hope that if one of those guys get to bat with runners in scoring position, something good will happen. Dustin Pedroia can be that kind of hitter when he is well. So is Shane Victorino. After that, no one.
But the Red Sox are now a young, developing team, and we may be able to say that about Xander Bogarts and Mookie Betts and Brock Holt in the future. They are talented young hitters who need some coaching and practice in situational hitting, but they all have the eye for it.
But batting average and power are not enough to score runs and win games. You have to hit when it counts. I question whether Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava and Will Middlebrooks have that skill. They’ll swing at bad pitches even with runners in scoring position. They may hit for average or power, but they are not reliable with RISP. They get desperate and look bad on the low outside or the high inside pitch. Not sure what their future is with the Red Sox, even though I like their desire and intensity.
How do you get that RISP hitting efficiency? I have no idea, but I wish Greg Colbrunn could bring these young players along. I don’t hear anyone giving him credit, so I question whether he is helping in this regard. It seems to me this is a skill that can be taught, even if some players like Cespedes seem to have it innately.
Everything else except starting pitching can be mediocre if you can hit RISP. The Red Sox have been great when they could and awful when they couldn’t. It was probably obvious, but it had to be said.
David Price claims that throwing at hitters is part of the game. That’s arrogance for a guy who never has to face a pitcher with a 95-hour fastball. With the advent of the designated hitter, the “purpose pitch” should be disallowed in the American League, and perhaps in all of baseball as well.
It takes no skill or guts to plunk a hitter with a fastball. Given that the batter has no defense except to hit the ball back at the pitcher, it takes cowardice. It is the equivalent of a sucker punch. For David Price to assert that he has the right to throw at a hitter to send a message it takes a smug sense of privilege that some, but not all, pitchers assume. They hold the ball, no one else. They control the game. Let the batter beware.
When Brandon Workman threw behind a Tampa Bay hitter in retaliation, that was the only defense David Ortiz had, other than rushing to the mound to clobber David Price. Workman was ejected for retaliation, but what else could he do to defend his hitters? Hitters are expected to stand up there as living targets, while pitchers throw with impunity?
When pitchers are struck by a batted ball, we feel compassion and hope they are not hurt. Even hitters may approach the mound to express their well wishes. No one wants a pitcher’s career or season shortened by a batted ball. No one would say he deserved to be hit or that he would be more careful how he pitched next time.
For some reason hitters are not extended this care or concern. They are expected to step into the batter’s box and accept whatever is thrown at them. Of course, some pitches are mistakes. You can see that right away, because the pitcher shows immediate remorse. But some pitches can only be interpreted one way: I don’t like you, and I want you to fear me.
Anyone with the control of a David Price, should never hit a batter. He has the power to maim or kill another person with the speed and accuracy of his fastball. He has a responsibility to use it for good. To use it to keep the hitter thinking about what pitch is coming, not whether it is coming at him. Throw it inside or outside, but not where the batter is standing. He has a right to stand there without expecting to be intentionally hurt.
David Price is a Hall of Fame pitcher approaching the level of Bob Gibson, another headhunter. Gibson was the incarnation of the arrogant pitcher, who thought he owned the entire space from one batter’s box to the other. He scared the piss out of a generation of hitters. But Gibson had to hit, and he expected to take his lumps along with every hitter. David Price will never have to do that unless he reaches the World Series.
Price should not be allowed the privilege of hitting another batter. The next time should be an ejection, no questions asked. He is the one who thinks himself above baseball, because he exploits the unreasonable advantage given to pitchers. Baseball needs to put him in his place.
The Red Sox pitching staff generally looks deep and ready, but the hitting looks sick, especially in the outfield. A lot of undercutting and lazy fly balls, with the exception of Jackie Bradley who is not even making contact. Probably an issue of timing, because the hitters with the long swings are struggling, like David Ortiz, Johnny Gomes and Mike Napoli. Daniel Nava is not having the spring he did last year, either.
From a fans’ view it seems like Dave Middlebrooks has learned something that all the big swingers could study–hit where it’s pitched and let the ball travel to the opposite field when necessary. You see the same measured swings from Grady Sizemore and A J Pierczinski, just trying to put the ball in play. If you can get two-thirds of your line-up swinging this way, you have an offense. Even David Ortiz has shown he can take the ball to right, befuddling the over-shift. So why can’t the whole line-up take this approach, as they work on their timing?
I’ve always thought the Yankees were better at moving base-runners a base or two at a time. Since the big boppers like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira have been sidelined, their offense has produced by consistency, more than power. But they had big run-scoring innings even with this incremental offense. They show patience at the plate with their swings, as well as their takes. This year they have stocked up with Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and with Texiera returning, but I doubt you will see the over-swinging that some teams depend on to score runs.
Mike Napoli is the only Red Sox player who relies on the big swing to create offense. He is going to strike out a lot and hit his share of homers. He may try to strike out less this year, but he will undoubtedly lead the team in K’s and homers at the same time. What you see is what you get with Napoli.
But the rest of the line-up, especially David Ortiz, are adaptable to what they are thrown. They are professional hitters, and it’s what made them World Champions. Maybe we will see more of that when the season begins. But it will be sad if they continue to flail and pop out or strike out, when they could be producing like a team. It would be exciting to see Sizemore and Pedroia on base and Ortiz driving them in with an opposite field hit. The home runs can come later.
The Red Sox pitching is poised to have a spring of quality outings. It would great if the hitting would support them, even with three or four hard-earned runs.
Pedroia Gives the Royal Wave
Lord Pedroia, you define loyalty and determination. You are a model to the young, who hope to emulate your intensity. You offer every moment on the diamond to the service of almighty baseball. You make me your proud servant.
As your loyal subject, Duke of Fenway, I have a timely message to deliver. Resist the temptation to yank the ball to left and go with it to right field, as you do so well. (While you’re at it, mention this to Mayor Napoli, the Regent of Saltalamachia, and Squire Drew, all of whom will whiff at David Price fastballs, while trying to out-muscle him.)
No doubt I will receive your contemptuous stare for thinking I can give you batting advice. It’s not as if I invented the art of going with the pitch. It’s just that I can see you struggling with pitches, you have smoothly delivered into right field in the past, and I think, “His majesty is striving overly hard. He needs to relax and go with the pitch.”
Notice the stout Lord Ortiz who gently guides the ball into left, when they pitch him away. He knows he can jack it and often he does. He takes what is served and serves it right back. Notice the Earl of Ellsbury who slashes the pitch to left, spinning toward the foul line. He gave up on his long-ball aspirations and raised his average fifty points. The Baron Nava patiently watches the world go by until he takes the two-strike pitch to the opposite field. O.k., maybe the Baron could be less patient.
When I see these pretenders negotiating with the fierce Price or the relentless Moore, I think, “His majesty can negotiate with the best of them. Indeed look at the fine contract he has negotiated with Count Cherrington. He acquitted himself with such dignity to complete a prosperous contract in the midst of the tourney. Surely he can out-fox the sinister Sir Price!”
My lord Pedroia, I implore you. Hold back a modicum as the pitch slips over the outside corner. Swat the delivery into right field and take your modest station at first base. You will vanquish the fearless Price and his minions of the bullpen. You will humiliate them with the might of small ball and win the war of attrition.
I beg your forgiveness for my impudence and wish you Godspeed on Monday.
Your loyal servant,
The Red Sox beat the Rays at their own game Tuesday night, hitting doubles, stealing bases, and hustling the defense into making errors. But they were lucky, too. Gomes hit a grounder just beyond the reach of Longoria, and Iglesias’s chopper bounced barely over the third baseman’s head in the ninth. So let’s not get too cocky.
What the Red Sox could learn from Tuesday night is how Wil Myers and Evan Longoria scored the only two runs the Rays managed in a 6-2 loss. They launched the first pitch from John Lester. He was making first-pitch strikes, and they weren’t about to waste a swing at them. Meanwhile every Sox hitter was giving away the first strike, because the Sox are patient. They have the highest number of pitches per plate appearance in Major League baseball, as Jerry Remy was at pains to point out.
Now patience is considered a prime virtue in Red Sox hitters, and they have produced a lot of runs with patience. But Joe Madden, the Tampa Rays manager, also knows that a pitcher who is trying to get ahead of batters will tend to center his first pitch, so his hitters often go up looking for that first one. This way they get a cut at the most hittable pitch in the sequence. Wil Myers took this approach every time he came to the plate, and he whacked the ball hard on three consecutive pitches, the first for a homer, the second for a double, and the third for a solid line out.
What’s good for the Rays is good for the Sox. The Rays’ pitchers will try to get ahead of every Sox hitter, and that first pitch may be the best one to hit in the sequence. At some point, you should not let them get away with a first strike. In the seventh and eighth innings Tuesday night Napoli and Saltalamachia and Drew went up whaling, and they hit the ball solidly. Really they could have done the same earlier in the game, and there might have been more base runners.
And the same for Pedroia and Ortiz, who are the souls of patience. Often their opponents will pitch around them, and there is nothing to do but take the walk. But if they dare to throw a first-pitch strike, Pedey and Papi should make them pay. This will be most important against the best teams, like Tampa Bay and Baltimore and Oakland and Texas. They will assume the Red Sox will take the first pitch and use that to their advantage.
So a good way to get on top of these teams is to get aggressive. Look for the first pitch strike, but don’t watch it. Take a rip. Not enough to be predictable, to allow the pitcher to take advantage of your aggressiveness, but to surprise them and make them shy about getting ahead on the first pitch. It’s the art of aggressiveness, the art of keeping them off balance. It’s what Madden does so well with his team, and it’s how to beat them.