Baseball’s strategic non-command

Warren Spahn

That was then: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. This is now: “Pitching is timing. Timing is supposed to make Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops!”

When Steve Dalkowski died a little over a year ago, the legends and myths about the nine-season minor league lefthander arose from the dead one more time. Howitzer arm? Dalkowski threw fastballs like cruise missiles.

Fans with seats behind the plate said no thanks when he was going to pitch—they didn’t want to come away with holes in their heads. He was that fast. And that wild.

Dalkowski finished his professional pitching career with 37 hit batsmen. That’s an average of four drills a year. The wildest pitching oat of his and many eras was kale compared to what’s going wild today, when as of this morning the Cubs pitching staff has hit a Show-leading thirty batters. (One batter drilled by a Cub every 44 plate appearances against them.)

At that rate, the Cubs staff is liable to do in less than two full months what Dalkowski took nine years to accomplish. The last I looked, there isn’t a Cub on staff whose fastballs inspire the kind of thing Red Sox utility infielder/pinch hitter Dalton Jones said of Dalkowski’s gas: “Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off.”

Yet.

The outlier Dalkowski was in his time has become the norm in our time, and with about 200 percent more batters taking it on the chin . . . and anyplace else today’s uncontrollable fastballs can reach. As of this morning 476 major league batters have been hit by pitches—one drill every 80 plate apperances.

They’re not just free-floating knuckleballs or curve balls that break inside unexpectedly, either. These days, for whatever perverse reasons that only begin with the misuse of analytics, baseball organisations hunt and capture human howitzers who can throw lamb chops past entire packs of wolves—and practically nothing much else.

The trouble is that the newest generation of speedballers has about as much control as a politician’s mouth. The further trouble is that someone has the potential to become the next Tony Conigliaro—if not the next Ray Chapman. And the poor soul doesn’t even know it.

“Starting at the amateur level,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “the baseball industry has come to value stuff over command, velocity over artistry. According to baseballsavant.com, the average velocity of a four-seam fastball in 2008 was 91.9 mph; this season, it’s 93.6. The trend is not just a threat to the health of hitters, but to that of pitchers as well.”

Threat to their health? How about the night Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera opened an assignment by hitting Bryce Harper in the face-then-wrist—knocking his helmet right off his head between face and wrist, too—and Didi Grigorius in the back . . . back-to-back. Harper and Grigorius may have been lucky they weren’t beheaded back-to-back.

Cabrera wasn’t trying to relieve either man of a head or another part of their assorted anatomy. He looked and acted positively pained when Harper went down and Grigorius spun on the back drill.

Both players knew it, Harper going so far as to send Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to leave his head on the ground separately. Cabrera apologised after the game, too.

But you couldn’t ignore what Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman told the Sports Junkies podcast, either. “A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year trying to learn how to pitch, but these teams just call them up to see if they can kinda hit lightning in a bottle,” Zimmerman said.

“If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team. What does it matter to them? The [general manager] of the other team is not in the box, so he doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of game but it is what it is and that’s where we’re at.”

This past Saturday night, Ronald Acuna, Jr. got hit in the hand by Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod, on a pitch that would have been ticketed for reckless driving and traveling 32.8 mph above the highway speed limit. After gripping his limb in obvious pain, Acuna managed somehow to return to the Braves lineup the following day and score their first run. Coonrod and everyone else in baseball were lucky Acuna’s X-rays showed nothing but a contusion on his left pinkie.

One particularly interested observer was a Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, working the Fox Sports One broadcast of the game. Not only does pitching inside have elevation now that it didn’t always have in his day or past generations, Smoltz told his viewers, matching velocity with elevation equals playing with fire if your control panel goes AWOL.

“To pitch inside waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a (batter),” said Smoltz, who hit 57 batters himself in a 21-season career for an average three a year. “And there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer. Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”

Nobody’s blaming Coonrod, either, not the Braves or anyone else. Not even knowing Acuna tied an early April game against Coonrod by reaching for a slider going away and hitting it out. All Coonrod wanted to do was pitch Acuna to the inside of the zone, which pitchers must do to stay in command. The problem was Coonrod’s lack of command.

When Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton threw the pitch that blasted Tony Conigliaro in the face, the horror of Conigliaro going down caused too many people to believe Hamilton was nothing more than a reckless headhunter. And Hamilton didn’t pitch in a time when organisations and scouts lived by velocity uber alles without a thought of anything else.

To the day Conigliaro died there remained a considerable crowd remembering Hamilton as a hard thrower who was borderline careless. To anyone who’d give him a reasonably fair shake, Hamilton would say he couldn’t have been a headhunter if he tried—he didn’t have the kind of control to make it possible.

Indeed. He pitched eight major league seasons and actually hit only thirteen batters—short of two a year lifetime. (Charlie Morton hit thirteen in 2017 alone and he’s averaged sixteen a year in his career—including leading his league three times with sixteen, thirteen, and sixteen, and the entire Show once with nineteen.) If that’s a headhunter, watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachydoimis percussion pitch.

Carl Mays took it on the chin for just about the rest of his life after one of his submarine spitters coned Ray Chapman in 1920. Not only did it provoke baseball to make the spitter an illegal pitch, it left Mays with a slightly unfair reputation as a headhunter—he retired with 89 hit batsmen in a fifteen-season career (average: seven a year) . . . and he’s not even among the top one hundred drillers of all time.

With the relief pitchers there’s an issue a few more have started thinking about. Normally, a manager who sees his pitcher wild would have gotten him the hell out of there before he got an opposing batter clobbered or his own team facing retaliation. Then came the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the sole exception being if they come in during a jam and get out of it facing less than three men.

It was a foolish rule to begin with even before Cabrera’s fateful drills of Harper and Grigorius. (Harper’s wrist injury kept him from playing in seven of the Phillies’ following eight games.) That relief minimum kept Schildt from taking Cabrera out of the game until after he faced a third Phillie, on a night he had absolutely no control. How long will Commissioner Nero and his head-up-their-you-know-what bosses let this stupid rule continue before someone does get killed?

And who has to have a career compromised or destroyed a la Conigliaro before the analytics mavens in today’s front offices quit chasing speed elevation uber alles and start chasing or developing pitchers who can learn how to control what they throw and think as well as thrust on the mound?

I don’t ask that question lightly. I’m an analytics maven myself. I believe more deeply than the deepest pennant contender that statistics are what Allen Barra has called them, the life blood of baseball. I can’t and never could watch every single baseball game ever played in my lifetime, so I look at the deepest of the deep stats when I want to know who really made the difference in those games and who really was (or is) as great as his Hall of Fame plaque suggests (or will suggest).

Those deepest-of-the-deep stats can also tell me whom among non-Hall of Famers actually belongs in the Hall of Fame (Dick Allen and Tony Oliva, anyone?) and whom among the Hall of Famers had no business being there except as a visitor. (Harold Baines, anyone?) One of the things those deeper stats can also tell me within all reason is which pitcher had Dalkowski-like heat or voluptuous breaking balls but had the kind of lack of control that might have made Dalkowski resemble the mature Sandy Koufax.

If I’m running a baseball organisation, and I see a young pitcher who can throw a ball through a cement wall but has no idea where it’s going, I should be crucified if I let that kid get anywhere near a major league mound before he gets the idea. Not before someone teaches him all the speed on earth means nothing if you don’t know where the ball’s going—or the one you get within the zone in spite of yourself gets hit into the Delta Quadrant.

Because one thing will remain true no matter the era: Show me a kid who’s got a sound barrier-breaking fastball, I’ll show you a major league hitter who’ll catch up to that fastball soon enough if the kid hasn’t got much of anything else to show that batter. Assuming he lives long enough after he gets coned by one of those speedballs.

Some of the old-school should still prevail. “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn, whose fastest fastball would resemble a Lockheed Constellation compared to today’s Dreamliners. Today, hitting is still timing but pitching seems bent on making Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops.

Spahn also had solid breaking stuff, a screwball he developed later in his career, and the kind of control an android would envy. Want to know how many batters Spahn hit in a 21-season career? Try 42—an average two a year. He also averaged only four wild pitches a year. Today’s impatient front office would deem him unsuitable for major league competition.

His fellow Hall of Famer Koufax once tied a single-season record for wild pitches—before the flaw in his delivery got spotted at last and corrected in spring 1961. Koufax had a fastball that exploded upward as it arrived at the plate and a curve ball voluptuous enough to make Jane Russell resemble Olive Oyl.

In twelve Show seasons Koufax hit only eighteen batters—an average two per year. But he didn’t just fix the hitch in his delivery in ’61. (He’d previously reared back far and hard enough that he cut half his strike zone sight off as he threw.) He learned at last how to think while he pitched. He knew what he was doing on the mound. Today’s front office would probably write him off for thinking too much and destroying radar guns too little.

It’s taken baseball’s best pitcher today eight seasons to hit twenty batters, an average of four per year. The last time he hit one was two years ago. This season he’s been shown throwing three figure speed—at almost any time of the game while he’s on the mound.

But he has something the rest of the pack with a couple of exceptions lacks: He knows what he’s doing on the mound and he also knows there’s an awful lot of real estate to cover within the perimeter of the strike zone. He also has more than just cruise missiles to throw—he’s got a wipeout slider and a changeup that could be accused plausibly of embezzlement.

You won’t see Jacob deGrom on the mound again until 20 May or later, thanks to an issue in his side that started with a lat muscle strain. Did he get it throwing one or two pitches a little harder than even he can throw them without great physical effort? Did he get it swinging the bat and/or running the bases? (DeGrom the Outlier is 7-for-15 as a batter this year.)

If the former, rest assured deGrom knows better. If the latter, it’s yet another argument for the defense on behalf of the universal designated hitter.

It might be fun watching deGrom bop hits but there’s no fun watching him get hurt swinging the bat or running the bases. Especially when you’re not paying deGrom (a converted shortstop) to get up there and slap his mound counterpart silly with his bat. But that’s an argument for another hour.

“[W]hy are pitchers such as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer at the top of the sport?” Rosenthal asks, then answers. “It’s not simply because they throw hard. It’s also because they know how to locate. More of that, please, before more players get hurt.” Letting the kids play isn’t supposed to mean letting them blow someone’s brains out.

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