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.

Harper’s class can’t fix a true pitching dilemna

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper took the highest road before Thursday’s Phillies-Cardinals game. Phillies reliever Hector Neris took the lowest in the ninth Thursday night.

When the Phillies and the Cardinals tangled the night after Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius took back-to-back drills, from Cardinal reliever Genesis Cabrera’s first two pitches of the top of the sixth, you’d have understood almost completely if the Phillies came out bent on making the Cardinals pay.

You’d have understood because a) Harper’s was the truly frightening one, taking a runaway 97mph fastball on the left side of his nose that knocked his helmet clean off and him to the ground; and, b) the umpires saw fit to issue nothing but warnings to both side, without doing what one of today’s most foolish new rules bars a manager from doing.

But therefore you wouldn’t have known that Harper himself put a stop to any possibility of all-out war before the Phillies and the Cardinals met again Thursday. Until Phillies reliever Hector Neris said not so fast in the bottom of the ninth at Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado’s expense.

I couldn’t find the exact words in question, but Harper sent Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying, essentially, Your guy wasn’t trying to decapitate me, he had an off night, you know it and I know it, and I didn’t get my brains blown out or my head torn off, so don’t let it blow you or him apart, my dudes, we’re good.

Whatever the actual words Harper sent Schildt the day after he nearly went from Genesis to Revelation, Schildt was nothing but appreciative. It’s not every day that an almost-headless man shows a little empathy for the unintended executioner.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.”

If anyone knows the difference between lack of intent and deadly intent, it should be Harper. Four years ago, almost, then-Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland opened the top of the eighth facing then-National Harper by hitting Harper in the hip—in payback for a three-year-old pair of postseason home runs—with a pitch so obvious that Stevie Wonder would have seen intent without blinking twice.

Before the rule mandating relief pitchers face three batters at minimum unless he came in mid-inning and ended the inning before a third batter faced, Schildt by his own Wednesday night post-game admission would have gotten Cabrera the hell out of there after following Harper’s near-beheading with a drill through Grigorius’s ribs.

Why the umpires didn’t remains a mystery at this writing. The umps have been asleep at the switches an awful lot this season thus far, on the field and even in the replay review rooms in New York. If they’re not calling strikes on pitches far enough from the zone that you could fly a plane through the space, they’re calling walkoff hit by pitches on near-flagrant bids to take one for the team with the pillows stuffed.

On Wednesday night, they warned both the Phillies and the Cardinals against any further funny business. Then, they ejected Phillies manager Joe Girardi when he sailed out of his dugout demanding accountability for Cabrera’s obvious wildness following the Grigorius drill.

“I understand they don’t want things to escalate. They don’t want people to get hit. But if a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go, right?” Schildt himself told the press post-game. “If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”

The official rules don’t specify when an umpire can order a wild pitcher out of a game on behalf of keeping peace. But The Baseball Codes author Jason Turnbow, writing on his Website of the same name, says the arbiters have the option by default: “[U]mpires have one more wrinkle to consider in the same spirit as bench warnings: Those times when ejecting a pitcher for his own good might actually serve to cool tensions from both sides of the field.”

Sometimes it seems as though almost nobody wants to address a concurrent issue that Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman does: baseball organisations seeking and finding pitchers who can throw supersonic pitches but haven’t learned to control them properly.

“You see these teams just call up these guys that throw 95 or 100 mph and the team doesn’t really care. They’re just trying to see if they have anything in them,” Zimmerman told the 106.7 radio station’s Sports Junkies podcast after his old mate and friend nearly lost his head Wednesday night.

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. 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.

You almost predict what those clubs want: floods of strikeouts. But Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven got floods of strikeouts (3,701 lifetime) and his money pitch was maybe the third most monstrously voluptuous curve ball yours truly has ever seen. (Numeros two-o and uno: Dwight Gooden, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.)

It’s bad enough that the three-batter relief minimum throttles managers from getting wild pitchers out of there before they do worse damage than turned out done to Harper and Grigorius Wednesday night. It’s worse when baseball organisations seem to believe pitching is purely a matter of who can throw the lamb chops faster and farther past the wolves.

“Hitting is timing,” Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn once said. “Pitching is destroying timing.” That was then, this is now, and for once the Old School has it right. Today hitting may still be timing, for all the overstated obsession with launch angles and exit velocities, but pitching today often seems oriented on destroying batters instead of their timing.

In case you were curious, the prankish Spahn—whose money pitch was a screwball and who happened to be one, himself, especially allied to longtime Braves buddy Lew Burdette—averaged two hit batsmen a year.

That was also then: minor league legend Steve Dalkowski could throw a cruise missile past a fighter jet on Mach-plus cruising speed. But he couldn’t find the strike zone with a search party and bloodhounds half of the time. (The ill-fated Dalkowski never saw one inning’s major league action: he’d barely made the ’63 Orioles roster in spring training when he blew his elbow out during an exhibition game.)

This is today: If Zimmerman is right, today’s organisation wouldn’t care half as much for Dalkowski’s inability to find and keep the strike zone as for his ability to scare the opposition to death and back.

NBC Sports writer Matt Weyrich says there are some hard numbers supporting Zimmerman’s theory: In 2018, the Show set a new record with 1,922 pitches hitting batters. Then, in 2019, the Show broke that record by 62. The wild pitches also climbed, with the Show’s seven highest wild pitch totals “all recorded in the seven seasons from 2013-2019.” This year’s 291 wild pitches and 354 pitches hitting batters, Weyrich adds, threaten to set new league records yet again.

Remember the postgame exchange between fictitious Durham Bulls manager Skip Riggins and coach Larry Hockett about Dalkowski-inspired pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham?

Riggins: He walked eighteen.
Hockett: New. league. record.
Riggins: He struck out 18.
Hockett: Another new. league. record. In addition, he hit the sportswriters, the public-address announcer, the bull mascot— twice—also new. league. records. But, Joe—this guy’s got some serious shit.

In theaters and on DVD, that’s about ten laughs. In the real game, it’s as funny as a shave with a Mixmaster. “You’re in the big leagues,” Zimmerman told that podcast. “There’s kind of a thought that if you’re at this level, you should be able to control — especially if you’re throwing 97 mph.”

Did any rough stuff happen between the Phillies and the Cardinals on Thursday night, then? Well, yes, there was—briefly. And that was with neither Harper nor Grigorius playing, Girardi having added that both players would be re-examined when the team returned to Philadelphia today to open a weekend set with the Mets.

With the game tied three-all, and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Neris decided Harper didn’t speak for him when sending Schildt that pregame, give-peace-a-chance text.

Neris gave his own piece a chance at the expense of Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado—hitting him up and in and on the back of the shoulder on the only pitch of the plate appearance.

Would Girardi or any other Phillie care to expose just who whacked Neris with the stupid stick? The righthander resembled a bullying coward willing to endanger his own team for the sake of who the hell knew exactly what. He was lucky the benches didn’t clear after betraying the letter and intent behind Harper’s olive branch.

It wasn’t as though the next Cardinal batter was liable to blast a two-run homer to win it on the spot. Tyler O’Neill plays major league baseball in the first place because he’s a very plus outfielder. At the plate, calling him a spaghetti bat might be putting things politely. Don’t think Neris wasn’t aware of it when he did what four Phillies pitchers preceding him didn’t even think about doing.

He hit one of the Cardinals’ big sticks to take the easy out, striking O’Neill out on three pitches. Neris is lucky Schildt took the higher road likewise, applauding the Arenado hit as “old school baseball.”

Then another Phillie reliever, David Hale, threw a wild pitch past Cardinals shortstop Edmundo Sosa, a pitch catcher J.T. Realmuto might or might not have been able to block successfully considering its movement. It allowed O’Neill—who began the inning as the free cookie on second to open it, and took third when Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner grounded out leading off—to score the winner in the bottom of the tenth.

Neris should count his blessings that it looks as though he won’t get a week’s detention.

From Genesis to Revelation

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper, a split second before his nose met Genesis Cabrera’s fastball leading off the sixth Wednesday night.

Eons ago, it seems now, Yogi Berra had a handy response to those who thought he looked like one of the title supporting players in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket,” the Hall of Famer said, “All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.”

Berra got a few laughs while he drove home one point. But the flip side is that you can see one hitter too many take one with his face, which is every hitter who ever had to do it.

Thank God and His servant Stengel that it’s still the exception. It still doesn’t erase the fear of longtime watchers and fans that the latest such victim will be the game’s next Tony Conigliaro. Such fears even among his critics struck when Bryce Harper’s face was in the top of the sixth Wednesday night.

Hit one with his face? Harper led off the inning seeing one pitch from Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera. The pitch sailed up and into Harper’s nose on the left side while knocking his batting helmet clean off his head and the Phillies’ right fielder crumpling to the ground in the batter’s box.

The man who nearly went from Genesis to Revelation merely picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked away from the plate under his own power. Rather gutsy for a man who was lucky he wasn’t decapitated by a fastball that veered so far off course it would have inspired “Mayday! Mayday!” calls from the crew if it was an airplane.

What we ought to be hearing now is louder demands that the ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers unless they ended an inning facing fewer needs to go the way of the Oldsmobile. Faster than the Oldsmobile went away, too.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi anguished for his man but maintained in the moment, sending Matt Joyce out to pinch run. Then Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius checked in at the plate. He saw one pitch from Cabrera, too. This time, the errant fastball didn’t sail up toward his sight lines but, rather, did a magnificent job of trying to bore a hole in his ribs.

The umpiring crew issued warnings to both sides. Nothing more. Since a manager can’t remove an out-of-control relief pitcher until he’s seen three batters minimum under the current and extremely dubious rule, it should be on their heads as to why Cabrera was allowed to remain in the game despite two pitches dropping two batters dangerously enough.

That was enough to send Girardi sailing out of his dugout in raw fury. As might you if you’d seen the first two of your men scheduled to bat in the inning coned and drilled back-to-back, on two pitches, courtesy of a pitcher who’d just entered the game but shown as much control as a runaway truck.

Raw fury and naked fear. Girardi knows only too well the terror of fastballs reaching your face. He took one in his own pan from then-Padres pitcher Woody Williams in 2000. As happened to Harper Wednesday night, that Williams pitch drew blood from Girardi’s own schnozzola. “It’s extremely scary,” he said of Harper’s drop, “and I can tell you from experience.”

Under normal circumstances, Girardi is one of the more mild-mannered men in baseball, even given his well-known competitiveness. But he was enraged almost as much by the umps not even thinking of sending Cabrera to the rest of the night off as he was by his first two sixth-inning swingers getting hit by those out-of-control fastballs.

“I understand why they give the warnings, right?” he told reporters. “I understand they don’t want things to escalate. They don’t want people to get hit. But if a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go, right? If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”

So Girardi fumed to the umpires and, rather theatrically, turned to Cabrera and made the gesture umpires usually use when they’re giving someone the ho-heave. If you can think of any precedent for a manager throwing an opposing player out of the game, Girardi might like to know it. The gesture proved only that, lawfully.

But it also proved Girardi’s own departure, when plate umpire Chris Segal promptly did to him what he believed appropriately should have been done to Cabrera. As he walked off the field following the thumb, Girardi barked at Cabrera, “Throw the [fornicating] ball over the plate!” Not an unreasonable demand.

He also exchanged a bark or three from a distance with Cardinals manager Mike Schildt, who spoke after the game like a man who didn’t exactly have in mind trying to beat the other guys by assassination instead of playing baseball.

Schildt also admitted something that flies in the face of the pan-damn-ic inspired three-batter relief minimum rule. If not for that rule, Schildt told reporters, he would have gotten Cabrera out of the game the moment Harper hit the deck.

“That’s a failure of the three-batter minimum,” he told the press. “It absolutely is that. Completely, absolutely, no doubt. But that’s an outlier of it.” He’s right about the hit batsmen issue with one pitcher whose control went AWOL for the evening. But as The Athletic’s Matt Gelb observes rightly enough, “The rule was designed to quicken games (it has not) and has generated unintended consequences (too many to count).”

Schildt won’t hear Girardi complain. This very circumstance—a pitcher brought in with his control missing stuck for three batters even if he hits one, never mind two—has been one of Girardi’s primary exhibits when fuming, as he’s done from the moment it poked its nose out of its hole, against the three-batter minimum.

After Grigorius took his base to set up first and second, Andrew McCutchen singled Joyce home to break the three-all tie and chase Cabrera out of the game. One inning later, Grigorius himself sent Alec Bohm home on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly with what proved to be the final score, 5-3 Phillies.

Then things got a little testy in the bottom of the eighth, after Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod shook off Nolan Arenado’s leadoff single to strike Paul DeJong out and lure Tyler O’Neill—who’d hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second—into a broken-bat grounder to short that Grigorius might have caught but took on the hop for a step-and-throw, inning-ending double play.

Viewers at home then saw a commercial followed by Coonrod walking off the field, but not without pointing and hollering at the Cardinals dugout. Small wonder. During the commercial break, Coonrod looked as though he wanted nothing more than to bake five and twenty Redbirds in a pie.

Phillies third baseman Brad Miller—whose own two-run bomb tied the game at three in the first place an inning before Harper and Grigorius got coned and drilled—tried to stop Coonrod before inadvertently letting go of the reliever’s hand. But Coonrod, himself a St. Louis product, put all thoughts of one-man demolition out of his mind and settled for a few hollerings, though he knew in his heart of gut Cabrera wasn’t exactly trying to vapourise his two teammates.

“As a teammate, you appreciate the intensity,” Miller told reporters after the game. “The dude came in and got some big outs for us. It’s a close game. And, yeah, he was a little fired up, obviously. Three getting hit like that was pretty scary.” “Three,” of course, refers to Harper’s uniform number.

Cabrera himself was genuinely contrite after the game—wasn’t he? “I want to apologise for all of the action that happened, especially to Harper,” he said through his translator. “I really wish him the best. I hope he has a speedy recovery, in whatever it is that happened, and that he’ll be able to return to baseball activities. The game got away from me at that point. I’m really sorry for everything that happened today. None of it was intentional. And again, I’m sorry for everything.”

Is it just me, or did a lot of Cabrera’s remark sound like prepared boilerplate?

Struggling teams are known to feel more than a little fired back up after confronting near-disaster. Until Wednesday night, the Phillies were a back-and-forth .500 team with inconsistency at the plate and arson out of the bullpen. What they showed after Harper and Grigorius got drilled reminds you that it’s a somewhat sad thing if and when a team rehorses and irons up after coming face to face with near manslaughter.

Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.

Take your pick: a .400 hitter, or a .700 batter

Much talk now hooks around Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon hitting (as of Friday morning) .424, and whether the short season means he’ll finish the season hitting .400 or over. I have a better piece of conversation for you.

Suppose I tell you Blackmon was really batting .648 when he woke up Friday morning?

While you reel your tongues back into your mouths from the floor and retrieve the eyes that blasted out of their sockets, I’ll begin the splainin’ I have to do by saying you might notice where I said “hitting” and where I said “batting.” Because when you say Charlie Blackmon’s hitting .424, it’s not the true, full picture of him at the plate.

The traditional batting average still has isolated value, but it’s also an incomplete statistic. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s something intrinsically wrong with a stat that makes two grave mistakes. Mistake number one—it treats every hit equally. Mistake number two—it addresses official at-bats alone.

I’ve said this before, too: Should you really trust a statistic that treats all hits equally when all hits are not equal? Do you really think a single is as valuable as a double, a triple, or a home run? If you answer “yes” to both questions, you’re really cheating yourself—or you might really be Frank Lane returned to earth and living in someone else’s body.* If you answer “no,” pull up a chair and a cold drink.

Let me present to you once again, with one modification to my original concept, the formula I believe gives the most complete possible look at what a batter does at the plate:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP
PA

In plain English, that’s total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances. What the formula determines is a player’s real batting average (RBA), everything he does at the plate.

And when you add Charlie Blackmon’s 2020 total bases (60 entering today), walks (8), intentional walks (1), sacrifice flies (0), and times he was hit by a pitch (1), then divide the sum (61) by his plate appearances (108), you have his real batting average. Tell me now that a .648 batter isn’t as impressive as a .424 hitter. Still have questions? OK, here goes.

Total Bases—It counts a player’s hits the way they ought to be counted—unequally. A single is worth one base. A double, two; a triple, three; a home run, four. If all you see is a player with 42 hits (Blackmon led the entire Show entering Friday morning) you think that’s a lot of hits in 25 games—and it is, of course—but you’re not seeing the real value of those hits or everything he’s doing to help his team create runs.

The last I looked, the name of the game in baseball is putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other guys. A man who’s batting .648 is doing a magnificent job of creating and/or producing runs above and beyond scoring them or driving them in. To do both of the latter, it depends entirely on his teammates knocking him home or reaching base in the first place.

(Why discount runs scored and runs batted in to any degree? Easy: Find me the rule that says you can drive yourself in. Find me the player who steals three bases in one unmolested turn on the bases every time he reaches base. Find me the player who can steal home at will every time he reaches third base. Not even Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal himself, could do that.)

Charlie Blackmon’s hits as of Friday morning were: 31 singles, seven doubles, one triple, and three home runs. That’s 31 + 14 + 3 + 12 bases each. That’s 60 total bases. We’re not talking about a fellow who’s coming up very big in the extra-base hit department (26 percent of his hits are extra-base hits so far), but we are talking about a productive fellow regardless.

Walks—You’d think the walks would be covered within the total bases, but they’re actually not. But I think a player who’s sharp enough at the plate to read the zone and the pitches in flight and take them appropriately should get particular credit for that. The walk doesn’t count as an official at-bat, of course, but unless I have been very deceived by my own eyes all these years, the last I looked the man was at bat, in the batter’s box, when he worked out the walk, and he wasn’t there without his bat.

Intentional Walks—It may seem superfluous since they’re also counted in the total walks, but there’s a damn good reason a player should get additional credit for intentional walks. Why would you not credit him for a batting situation in which the other guys would rather he take his base than their heads off? Whether it’s him taking their heads off or the guy batting behind him posing the better shot at a defensive out, that batter should get credit for being presence enough that they don’t want him swinging the bat.

Sacrifice Flies—The one change I made to my original RBA concept is removing sacrifice bunts from the equation. Not just because the bunt in general is in disfavour now but because of the basic reason it fell that way in the first place—you don’t give the other guys a free out to use against you.

So you moved the runner over? Good for you. But you also gave your team one less out to work with trying to get that man home, and your chances of getting him home just fell by 33.33 percent. Don’t get me started on the fools who think bunting a runner over with two outs is sound baseball. (And, as the invaluable Keith Law has put it, show me any crowd at the ballpark under normal circumstances who paid their way in to see all those sac bunts dropped, or flipped on the TV set to watch them.)

So why keep sacrifice flies but not sacrifice bunts in the RBA formula? Easy: sacrifice flies aren’t intentional outs and, by their very design and the rule book, they put runs on the scoreboard.

There isn’t a batter on the planet who goes up to the plate thinking, “Let me take one for the team. I’ll just hit this fly ball right to Bernie Boxorocks in left field so I can get Frankie Feetsies home from third on the cheap.” That batter kinda sorta wants to reach base himself, unless he gets to step on each base en route home plate after hitting one into the nearest cardboard cutout or stuffed animal in the seats.

Hit By Pitches—As Groucho Marx once said, this is so simple a child of five knows it, now let’s find a child of five.

It doesn’t matter whether he was just trying to push you back off the plate. It doesn’t matter if he drilled you because you took him over the International Date Line your last time up. It doesn’t matter if he did it because he’s P.O.ed that the guy just ahead of you took him there. It doesn’t even matter if he drilled you for wearing a cheating team’s uniform even though you weren’t on the team to join in the cheating.

If that pitcher wants to hand you first base on the house the hard way, let it be on his head and the plus side of your ledger.

As of this morning the Show had one other .400 hitter—D.J. LeMahieu, about whom the bad news is that he’s another hapless New York Yankee on the injured list. (Yes, children, if The New England Journal of Medicine could have been last year’s Yankee yearbook, this year’s may yet become The Journal of the American Medical Association.) RBA says LeMahieu’s really batting .556.

How about Bryce Harper, about whom everyone harped on his modest traditional batting averages in recent seasons without looking his true depth at the plate? This year, he’s hitting a traditional .338. RBA says Harper’s batting .744. Mike Trout, who plays for a team that’s still not a team its best player can be proud of? He’s hitting a traditional .338 so far. RBA says he’s batting .707.

How about Fernando Tatis, Jr., who inspired this week’s major kerfuffle when he swung on 3-0 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a San Diego Padres blowout-in-the-making, ground salami, and infuriated the boring old unwritten rule farts including his own momentarily brain-vapourised manager? Let’s see. Tatis woke up this morning leading the Show in total bases. (77.) RBA says he’s batting .738.

Forget the race to see whether Blackmon can finish hitting .400+ in this season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please! Lawrence Fechtenberger Escapes the Intergalactic Nemesis Beyond Tomorrow’s Stroke of Fate. Wouldn’t it be more fun seeing whether Blackmon, Harper, Tatis, or Trout can finish batting .700+?

If you answered “no,” tune in tonight to Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle Presents The Wilderness Family Theater.

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* When Frank Lane made the notorious Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade as spring training finished in 1960, among his explanations for the deal Cleveland still can’t forget was, “We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles. We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.”

(Harvey Kuenn was better at avoiding the strikeout, but Rocky Colavito was better at it than you might remember: he never struck out more than 89 times in any season and he only ever reached that number once, in 1958.)

In 1959, Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs and 301 total bases. Kuenn in 1959 led the American League with a .353 traditional batting average and by hitting as many doubles as Colavito hit home runs. But he wasn’t even close to Colavito with 281 total bases. Colavito also produced 201 runs (scored/driven in) to Kuenn’s 170. And, 44  percent of Colavito’s hits were for extra bases against 29 percent of Kuenn’s.

RBA says Colavito batted .580 in 1959 and Kuenn, .543. I’d submit that those singles and doubles didn’t necessarily win as many games as the home runs. So did the 1959 American League standings, with the Indians finishing five games out of first place and the Detroit Tigers—who dealt Kuenn for Colavito—finishing eighteen games out.

It wasn’t Rocky Colavito’s fault the ’59 Indians finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, of course, and neither was it Harvey Kuenn’s fault the Tigers finished thirteen behind the Tribe. But Lane also described the trade as “hamburger for steak.” He was too thick—and, in fairness, baseball men of the time not named Branch Rickey wouldn’t have dug deep enough—to know he’d acquired hamburger for steak.