The free cookie on second and the bunt

2020-06-26 KetelMarte

This is not what a Diamondbacks fan should want to see if run-productive Ketel Marte leads off the tenth with the free cookie on second base to start the inning.

Depending upon where you spend time on social media, you can say that no sooner did the free man on second to open extra innings this year arise than at least two lines of discourse opened. 1) It makes major league baseball resemble the Nursery League. 2) To quote one such denizen directly, “[E]very player will have to learn to bunt.”

To the second came the reply, “I hope they teach them not to bunt foul on the third strike.” So I couldn’t resist with what I’m about to write, especially since it might put a finish to such nonsense as the free cookie on second to start.

I can count on one hand the bunts I’ve absolutely loved but I’d need more than two hands to count the theoretical bunt situations that weren’t, or didn’t stay that way. And, as Keith Law once wrote (in Smart Baseball), “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.”

The two greatest bunts that weren’t happened in the mid-1980s.

When Pete Rose was pressured to figure out a way to save the Tying Knock—the hit where he’d meet Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list—for the home folks, he went up to hit late in a game at Wrigley Field, one swat away, with men on first and second in the top of the ninth in a tie game, the last of the set before Rose’s Reds returned to Cincinnati.

Everyone in the game including then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth thought Rose the manager would send Rose the player up only to pinch hit in that Chicago series. Or, in a situation such as he now faced, you could hear every other Reds fan and their nebulous owner (Marge Schott) at the time screaming “BUNT!” Rarely at a loss, Rose would remember, “I had thirty thousand people yelling here and one lady back in Cincinnati, every time I got a hit, kicking her dog.”

Rose the manager had his Reds eight games out of first place and Dave Parker on deck. With his owner, so many Reds fans, and Joe and Jane Fan elsewhere demanding otherwise, Rose the manager didn’t have to remind Rose the player what 23 seasons of major league experience told him: A sacrifice means the Cubs then putting Parker aboard intentionally to load the pads and leaving the bigger hitting to smaller bats.

So Rose the manager, knowing the Reds had that much better chance to win, told Rose the player to swing. (It would have been mad fun if Rose the manager could have told Rose the player, “I’ll fine your ass ten large if you even think about a bunt.”) That was probably the single most most honourable plate appearance and swinging strikeout of the baseball life Rose ultimately dishonoured.

He still got the Big Knock, passing Cobb, when the Reds went home. He got there in the first place by playing the game right, refusing to bunt because it would have taken the bat out of his best clutch hitter’s hands anyway. If you’re going to lose (the Reds did that night), you don’t just roll over and play dead for the other guys.

A year later, New York Mets relief pitcher Jesse Orosco batted in the bottom of the eighth of Game Seven in the 1986 World Series. Darryl Strawberry opened the inning with a parabolic home run to give the Mets a badly needed insurance run, but a two-run lead against those star-crossed but still-tenacious Boston Red Sox wasn’t quite enough.

“I’ll bet the house,” crooned NBC colour commentator Joe Garagiola as Orosco checked in at the plate. “He’s got to bunt.”

With one out and Mets Ray Knight on second and Rafael Santana on first, the Red Sox played Orosco to bunt and put on the rotation or “wheel” play: corner infielders charging down the base lines, middle infielders charging to cover the corner bases. What happened next made you wonder why nobody else thought of it too often, if at all.

On 1-1 Orosco squared to bunt as Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper kicked to deliver. The wheel play was on. And Orosco pulled his bat back, swung gently, and . . . “Swinging!” hollered play-by-play virtuoso Vin Scully. “And a ground ball into center field! In comes Knight, it is 8-5 Mets, and Joe, you just lost your house!”

Rose and Orosco in different ways testified to the wisdom of refusing to hand the other guys outs on trays and gift-wrapped. (With the DH universal this year, a pitcher bunting is moot for now.) Now, a lot of those otherwise dismayed at the free cookie on second to open an extra inning can’t wait to see some leadoff bunts dropped.

Except that you might be, say, the Milwaukee Brewers going to extra innings, and you might have Christian Yelich due to lead off your half of the tenth. Or, you might be the Houston Astros, and you might have Jose Altuve or Alex Bregman due to lead off the tenth. Or, you might be the Los Angeles Angels, with all-universe Mike Trout due to lead off the tenth. Or, you might be the Arizona Diamondbacks, with Ketel Marte to open. Or, you might be the Atlanta Braves, and either Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuna, Jr. is your scheduled leadoff man.

You’re not going to take the bat out of the hands of those guys and order one of them to take a good loving look at the free cookie on second base and bunt him to third. (Not unless you’ve got someone behind them whom you can trust to deliver the clutch hit—and even then.) If you are, you’d better not be surprised when your bosses want to hang you in effigy, chase you clear across the state line, and then get really mad.

If you’re in the top of the tenth, you want to get ahead as swiftly as possible and with one of those guys leading off you’ve got a better than 50-50 chance of getting the free cookie across the plate and putting another man on base at minimum. At maximum, of course, you’ve got an excellent chance that Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, or Acuna is going to hit for extra bases, maybe even a two-run homer. Either way, you’ve put the burden on the other guys to tie and win.

If you’re in the bottom of the tenth, you want to win just as swiftly if not more so. Do you still want to take the bats out of the hands of a Yelich, an Altuve, a Bregman, a Trout, a Marte, a Freeman, or an Acuna, and order them to drop a measly bunt when your odds of a game-winning base hit are that much more in your favour with bats like that opening your inning?

OK, you’re foolish enough to want to bunt the cookie to third leading off. Swell. In the bottom of the tenth, you’ve given yourself one less out to work with and your best bat is out of the picture. You might get lucky from there; you might not. In the top of the tenth, maybe a sacrifice fly brings the cookie home but you’ve got only a one-run lead that’s easier to overcome—and, with only one out left to play with, the bases empty and your best bat’s still out of the picture.

Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, and Acuna might be sitting on the bench scratching their heads if not thirsting for a stiff one over that.

What about the other guys? I’ll guarantee it. If you think about bunting to open with the free cookie on second, be prepared for the other guys’ pitcher being prepared to let you bunt. Be prepared for him making you bunt. Maybe with a big grin on his face. The other guys like gift-wrapped presents, too, you know.

Because that smart a pitcher will throw your opening hitter nothing but something he can only bunt to the third base side, enabling that pitcher to pounce on the ball and throw the cookie out. If your opening hitter doesn’t exactly have enough speed to out-race a cement mixer with a flat tire, be prepared further for Area Code 1-5-3 or, if the third baseman was coming down the line and the shortstop’s moving to cover third, an Area Code 1-6-3.

Brilliant. You just outsmarted yourself into two outs and nobody on.

You think I just brewed that idea alchemically in the dungeon? It’s right out of the book of Casey Stengel, courtesy of his Mets pitcher Al Jackson:

There were men on first and second and you knew the other team wanted to bunt them over. Casey would say, “Here’s what I would do. I would let him bunt. I would throw him a little slider, and I would break toward the third base side, and I would throw his ass out at third.” Casey had the guts to tell you what he’d do in a certain situation when it came up on the ball field.

By the way, Jackson never once allowed men on second to be sacrificed to third.

If they don’t think about letting you bunt, they may think about putting Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, or Acuna aboard on the house to lead off and giving themselves a shot at an instant double play. Leaving you a man on third, two outs in the hole, and a lesser bat to do your run production.

Giving outs away is unsound baseball as it is. The free cookie on second base to open the extra innings is foolish enough without bringing the bunt back. Under normal circumstances, the only time you ever ought to want to bunt is if your man leads off with nobody on and a) he has speed to burn, it’s one out or less, and he can bunt for a base hit; b) he has a lame infielder (say, Miguel Cabrera) to exploit; or, c) he has a wide-open half infield to play with thanks to a defensive shift.

You give me that extra free space? I’m accepting that gift, with no intention whatsoever of seeking a refund—even when you’re a couple of outs from finishing a no-hitter but I’m only down two or three runs. In that position, I still have a chance to get runs across the plate and win. Why the hell are you giving me a free hit? (If I’m down more than three runs, maybe I don’t even think about it. And maybe you don’t, either.)

If you’re that foolish, you’re paying the penalty. Sure, I respect what your guy’s trying to accomplish, but I also respect that he didn’t pitch his kishkes off just for you to play with fire on his dollar. If my batter sees that yummy wide-open space, and he doesn’t take advantage of it and drop himself a bunt for a free base hit, he’d better have his flight out of the country booked, reserved, and boarding-passed. Because, silly me, I have a job to do too—win.

And I’ve got a future Hall of Famer on my side there. Once upon a time in his life as a Detroit Tiger, Justin Verlander took a perfect game bid into the sixth with one out and a 4-0 lead. Seattle’s Jarrod Dyson dropped a bunt and beat it out for a hit. Tiger Territory screamed blue murder—about Dyson’s bunt more than the three-run rally it launched to help send the Mariners to a 7-5 win. Verlander was more troubled by the three-run rally and eventual loss than he could ever have been about Dyson’s bunt:

It was a perfect bunt. That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.

The book of unwritten rules is at least half foolish and maybe more. Just wait until you see someone deciding the unwritten rules include not even thinking about bunting with the free cookie on second base. But you don’t have to play that card to know that that, like too many bunting orders, is the fool’s errand of gifting the other guys precious outs.

Some 2020 rules that must die

2020-06-24 DavidPriceMookieBetts

Seriously? You want the man on the left (David Price, pitcher) taking his lifetime .080/.132/.080 slash line to the plate with a rally on the line? You want the man on the right (Mookie Betts, right fielder) brought in to pitch if the game is close enough for the other guys to break open?

Oops. We’re going to have the universal designated hitter after all when the Show returns next month. Some said yes with reasonable knowledge; some said no, also with reasonable knowledge, and I did kind of jump the gun on the latter the other day. But now we’ll have it. For awhile, anyway.

Everybody repeat after me, with or without apologies to R.E.M.: It’s not the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine. Or, we ought to feel fine. I don’t know which has been more absurd: that the DH was originally a National League brainchild that the American League once rejected (yes, you can look it up); or, that people to whom “tradition” is a fetish forget how often traditions prove untenable at last.

Forgive me. I’m not a man who dismisses tradition lightly unless incontrovertible evidence tells me otherwise. Once it was tradition that non-white players alone could play major league and other “organised” baseball. Surely that was one tradition whose time should never have been so in the first place. Of course the tradition of pitchers batting isn’t even close to the disgrace of black, Latino, Oriental, and other races and ethnicities barred from “organised” baseball.

But pitchers in the 2010s hit for a .131/.161/.165 slash line. They hit about likewise in the decade preceding. You want the thrill of pitchers hitting home runs? Tell me what you’d call one bomb per 239 plate appearances if that was the production of the rest of the lineup. Now tell me you wouldn’t call that the Second Dead Ball Era.

Remember: Thomas Boswell had it right when he argued he’d surrender thrills like that “to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

There are far worse protocols coming forth for whatever the 2020 season is going to be.

The three-batter minimum for pitchers. This is something kicked around well before the coronavirus’s world tour as it was. It was likely to be implemented for 2020 even if the coronavirus never got past a Chinese province. I admit that at first I couldn’t make up my own mind about it, but now I’m convinced: it’s a terrible idea.

Maybe I don’t like the crowd of commercials accompanying every pitching change even two or three in an inning, either. But I’m going to hate watching some poor sap who doesn’t have his best that particular turn get beheaded before his skipper can lift him for a fresher arm because one stupid rule says he must face three batters before Skip can even think about getting him away from the guillotine.

The extra innings in which each team begins its turns at the plate with a runner on second base. What the hell is this, the Nursery League? Now, forget the image of everyone getting the cookie and tell me whether you think it’s going to be all that much fun to see a gift man on second brought home in two quick shakes with a sacrifice bunt and then a sacrifice fly at minimum.

Ponder this: J.J. Cooper of Baseball America discovered what happened when the minor leagues adopted the cookie on second to open the extras: extra-inning games decided in the first of the extras went from 45 percent in year one to 73 percent in the last two years.

Come on. This is one fight in which the trads have the better argument. The second two loveliest words in the English language (the first two, of course, are “Play ball!”) are “extra innings.” You’d think an America starved for baseball over the pandemic postponement would stand athwart the cookie on second opening the extras, yelling, “Foul!”

Well, as radio legend Gabriel Heatter once crooned, “Ahhh, there’s good news tonight”: The cookie on second gets eliminated for the postseason. Goody.

Position players pitching. That was then: it was allowed for teams being blown out only. This is now, for 2020 at least: A manager can send a position player to the mound any old time he wants. Brilliant. Didn’t we always want to see Mookie Betts or Pete Alonso or George Springer or Nelson Cruz or D.J. LeMahieu on the mound as openers or coming in to bail the team out of a critical mid-innings jam? Seriously?

Newly-installed Chicago Cubs manager David Ross once hit his first major league home run off a position player. (His first home run and he hits it off Mark Grace. I feel sorry for that kid.—Mark Grace, said position player.) Fourteen years later, Ross pitched two perfect innings (one apiece in two games), and after the second one he led off the inning by hitting one out.

Did I mention Ross was a catcher and he pitched while his team was being blown out? (Did I also mention Ross opened his career with a homer off a non-pitcher but ended it by hitting one over the center field fence off a bona-fide pitcher leading off an inning in Game Seven of a World Series?)

If you think Ross’s Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have even thought of sending Grandpa Rossy to the mound in a tight game with the other guys an out or two away from tying or going ahead, I have a North Pole beach club to sell you at a bargain price.

I get that this is going to be an extremely unusual season, falling considerably under the desperate times/desperate measures umbrella, especially with fans not being able to go to the ballpark for a good while. But the Show’s governors have a troublesome history of calling the repair man for what isn’t broken and dragging their feet on what is.

Even an unusual season doesn’t need the cookie on second to start the extra innings or position players on the mound for any reason other than to keep the rest of the bullpen from further late blowout humiliation. The DH needs to stay universal. But why do I think that won’t be so while at least one of the others will?

Ads on uniforms. Assume the owners get what they’re said to want like five minutes ago. If we must have them, at least let them be sensible per player. Some examples:

Every Boston Red Sox—Samsung television.
Matt Carpenter—Black & Decker.
Bartolo Colon (if a team is convinced to let him have a comeback shot)—Pillsbury.
Mike Ford—If you have to ask . . .
Every Houston Astro—Nikon cameras
Aaron Judge—Legal Aid Society.
Every Miami Marlin—Mrs. Pauls.
Charlie Morton—Morton’s Salt, of course.
Every Pittsburgh Pirate—Long John Silver.
Except Bryan Reynolds—Reynolds Wrap.
Every Seattle Mariner—Red Lobster.
Mike Trout—Bass Pro Shops.

Let’s not leave the managers out, either:

Rocco Baldelli (the youngest current MLB manager)—Mattel.
Joe Maddon (the oldest current MLB manager)—Viagra.

Just keep them to one ad per jersey, preferably on the sleeve. Bad enough the Nike slash now occupies the upper right breast. This is still baseball—not NASCAR.

The Show will go on, but . . .

2020-06-23 ManfredBallsOK, so the universal designated hitter won’t be coming just yet. That ought to settle the more stubborn traditionalists, who forget often enough that there’ve been a few traditions baseball was better off without and moved to eliminate them appropriately.

But it looks like we’re going to have major league baseball this year, after all. It also looks like it’s going to be nerve wracking, not just because of a sixty-game season by itself but because the continuing coronavirus world tour may make a few more stops baseball isn’t going to like.

The Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays have had to close their Florida camps when five Phillies-organisation players and one such Blue Jay tested COVID-19 positive. As of Sunday, according to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, forty players and/or team staffers have tested positive for the virus.

And when the Show teams return to work a quick-and-dirty delayed spring training, it looks like they’ll be doing it in their home cities instead of at their normal spring training camps in hard enough-hit Arizona and Florida. Which makes things perhaps a little simpler for most but a little trickier for the Miami Marlins, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That assumes the players can handle such a brief spring training. The Major League Baseball Players Association has until five o’clock Eastern time today to let MLB know the players can report for such abbreviated and re-located spring training by 1 July, with a projected 24 July season opening. Not exactly the (all things considered) ideal Fourth of July season opening many thought would have been big enough.

While you ponder how not-so-great both sides in the MLB impasse have looked, ponder concurently why there was such an impasse in the first place. The owners and commissioner Rob Manfred tried to renege on a late March deal with the players, plain enough and simple enough, for all the complications that followed. If you want a thumbnail sketch here and now, you won’t get much better than NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra:

The terms of that basic framework: the players earned the right to receive prorated pay for however many games played and Major League Baseball would get to decide how many games would, in fact, be played. In light of that, one might’ve assumed that when it came time to set up a 2020 season, it’d be a pretty straightforward thing: the owners, per the March Agreement, would simply say “we’ll play a season of X games” and it’d be done.

Except when the owners first spoke, and proposed an 82-game season in early May, it came with a catch: a demand that the players give up their previously-negotiated right to prorated pay and accept different financial terms. Legally speaking the owners had no right to ask for that and the players were under no obligation to negotiate that. They declined to do so and, instead, countered with various proposals on season length and did not negotiate pay rate. The owners, nonetheless, spent more than a month asking for the players to abandon their rights to prorated pay, proposing multiple alternative schemes. It was not until June 17 — after the players said they would no longer negotiate if MLB kept including pay concessions in their offers and, instead, simply demanded that MLB impose a season and be done with it — that MLB came back with its first offer that complied with the March Agreement.

In shorter words, it took the Show this long to start setting a season because the owners tried—in the middle of a pandemic scaring the hell out of a country that needed the Show to help keep morale alive when nobody knows just when the coronavirus world tour will end at last—to use it as a shield to pull a fast one on the players whose previous inconsistent unity came together the moment they smelled this rat.

Calcaterra also reminds us that relations between the owners and the players weren’t exactly friendly before the pandemic forced baseball’s limbo in March:

The owners had been eating the players’ lunch in recent years, having negotiated a couple of owner-friendly labor deals and, on top of that, putting the screws to players in free agency. In light of that there was already a lot of mistrust and, with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December 2021, each side was already beginning to mobilize for labor battle. Reacting to the pandemic and coming to some sort of an agreement to deal with it would’ve been difficult in even the best of circumstances, and the owners and the players were nowhere close to being in the best of circumstances as the 2020 season was about to get underway.

The players’ lesser cohesion between 2016 and March may have seduced the owners into thinking that, with their continuous tries at reneging on the March agreement, they “could, once again, exploit rifts in the union and get a favorable deal as a result.” Oops. The players hollered foul and stuck to it. For now.

The questions to come include whether they’ll stay so cohesive when it comes time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season. Neither Manfred nor Players Association executive director Tony Clark come out of this mess looking better.

Manfred is exposed as a commissioner unwilling to translate his express power to act for the good of the game into acting as though that good is more than making or saving money for the owners . . . who also forgot what a horrible look it would be when they spent so much time trying to trash what they agreed to in March they were seen as ignoring health implications in MLB’s return.

Clark, though, is seen now as a union leader who doesn’t always read pulses properly and doesn’t always see the bigger picture, including the prospect of recent negotiations and owners’ maneuverings leaving free agency to face what some writers call a potential blood bath.

Or, as Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted Monday, “So we gave up shares of playoff money, eliminating the qualifying offer for 2021, paycheck advance forgiveness, Covid 19 protections, and protection for non guaranteed arb contracts for next year in order to hold on to our right to file a grievance.”

Bauer had tweeted earlier that the pandemic wasn’t the right time for a battle: “If there’s going to be a fight, the time for that fight is after the ’21 season when a new CBA is negotiated. … We’re doing irreparable damage to our industry right now over rules that last AT MOST 16 months. What kind of sense does that make?”

Nothing about 2020 has made any kind of sense so far. The owners looking terrible makes the same sad sense it always has. The players’ union looking foolish now doesn’t. Everyone in and around baseball knows that.

But at least they kept the universal DH from poisoning the pond, right?

Let it stay. Permanently.

2020-06-22 BartoloColon

Let’s not and say we did: Averaging 5,492 plate appearances a year from 2010-2019, Show pitchers averaged 23 home runs a year. Or, one home run per 239 plate appearances. Oh, funsie. (Newsday photo.)

I get the impression that the only baseball debates more bristling than those over the owners vs. the players in the current pandemic impasse are those bristling over the universal designated hitter that’ll be put in place for this year (if there is a this year) and next year at minimum. OK, you asked for it: Let the universal DH stay forever.

That’s my call and I’m sticking to it. And you’re dealing with a guy who would sooner have tried to pass the camel through the needle’s eye than insist the National League give up the ghost—and, by the way, the futility of 99.99 percent of those pitchers who bat in the number nine hole—and accept the DH.

I insisted on that refusal until some time between 2018 and 2019. Because reality has a way of knocking you down faster than any hitter ever got knocked down by Bob Gibson after hitting one out off the Hall of Famer. Sure as hell faster than it took (age 42 years, 349 days) for Bartolo Colon to hit the only home run of his major league life.

In my case, reality only begins with making note that, in 2019, major league pitchers posted a wonderful .128/.159/.163 slash line. (Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage.)

Which was a mild improvement over 2018’s .115/.144/.149. Yep, last year’s balls might have been juiced, after all. Oho, but what about the eight seasons prior to that? What about them? Very well, as the man said on television once upon a time, you asked for it:

2017—.124/.156/.161.
2016—.132/.164/.171.
2015—.132/.160/.170.
2014—.122/.153/.152.
2013—.132/.164/.169.
2012—.129/.162/.166.
2011—.141/.174/.182.
2010—.141/.175/.174.

The slash line for pitchers at the plate all decade long? .130/.161/.165.

Now tell me how nuts Thomas Boswell to write a year and a half ago:

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

Tell me, too, how nuts an old magazine known as Sporting Life was to write thus:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

That was written in . . . 1891. The year in which then-Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Chase Temple first proposed leaving pitchers to pitching strictly and having someone else who isn’t a pitcher bat in the lineup in his place.

The following year, after the collapse of the ancient American Association sent four teams into the National League, Temple’s fellow owners missed implementing the DH by four votes. According to Temple himself, the somewhat mythological Chris von der Ahe, owner of the former A.A. St. Louis Browns (I am der Boss Pressident of der Prowns) let him down by voting against it.

The DH didn’t cross the mind of any American League owner, apparently, until 1906, when Connie Mack got fed up with his pitchers swinging at the plate as though their bats were made of papier mache. (The 1906 Philadelphia Athletics’ main pitchers hit for a collective .201 that year. Don’t even think about it: in the dead ball era pitching wasn’t quite as tough or hard as it became much later.)

The Tall Tactician’s proposal didn’t go anywhere. Neither did a 1928 proposal to introduce the DH—by National League president John Heydler—that the American League rejected. Not until several minor leagues including the AAA-level International League adopted the DH in the 1960s did the idea get traction again, and then because maybe the single most despised owner in baseball at the time took it up.

Charlie Finley noticed the DH’s staying power in the minors. He also noticed two more things in 1972: 1) The National League out-drew the American League when the AL’s run production shrank. 2) His Oakland A’s pitchers couldn’t hit if you set the balls up for them on tees: their slash line was .165/.198/.203. (The very outlying exception: relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. His 1972 slash line: .316/.316/.474.) The American League’s pitchers overall in 1972: .145/.184/.182.

That’s when the American League—with commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who usually took anything Finley said as a declaration of war, giving his blessing—turned to the DH. (Year One A.D.H., aka 1973: the American League out-hit the National League.) The National League took it up again in 1980 and 1982 and it lost.

Without the DH, but with the remaining cop-out of pitching around the number eight hitter to strike out the opposing pitcher, Boswell wrote, “some weaker pitchers survive in the NL But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.”

Actually, from before this century. Since regular-season interleague play emerged in 1997, the American League has a .522 winning percentage. (3,166-2,898; or, the AL has won 268 more games.) And only in five seasons has the National League won more interleague games than the American League. Sure, they did it last year and the year before, but that snapped a fourteen-season American League winning streak.

I don’t like a lot of the possible temporary 2020-2021 rules proposed for the Show’s return. Especially the idea of starting extra innings with each team getting a man on second to open the tenth inning.

I’m not as wild about the three-batter minimum for pitchers as I thought I might be. I don’t like the pack of television commercials for each pitching change, either. I’m also tired of things like that reviving meaningless and usually mal-informed debates about the death of the complete game, too.

(News flash: Complete games began dying off after the dead ball era ended. Damn right you can look it up. And thank God for it, unless you love the idea of ruining arms prematurely and ignoring the concept that pitchers like Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan  were and remain anomalies. Or, that Robin Roberts was so worn down from his passel of early ’50s complete games and 300+ innings seasons he had to remake himself as a junkballer to stay in the Show as long as he did. I love complete games, too—but I’d rather see pitchers have longer, more productive, less injurious careers.)

But you know what I like even less?

1) I don’t like managers and coaches paying so little attention to warmup activity in the bullpen (more than you think don’t) that they don’t realise the guy they’re about to bring in might have thrown the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches before he got into the game, with about a better than 50 percent chance of being gassed—and battered—going in.

(And if he’s been throwing that much in the pen before coming in, why the hell are we still letting him throw eight more pitches on the game mound before facing his first hitter?)

2) I don’t like the thought of some poor soul—who may or may not have been overworked in the pen before coming in in the first place—coming in with less than his best stuff and getting killed to death because his skipper can’t lift him until he’s faced three batters minimum.

But I like the idea that a National League lineup spot won’t be wasted anymore by the single most automatic out in baseball. I like the idea that National League managers might come to enjoy having, among other things, the option American League managers have: you could, in theory, use that number nine hole for either an extra cleanup-type or an extra leadoff-type. Quite a few teams have.

From 2010-2019 the Show’s pitchers averaged 5,492 plate appearances a year and, for those who insist it’s worth the wait to see a pitcher hit one over the fence, 23 home runs a year. One bomb per 239 plate appearances. If you watched a team’s regular lineup hit one homer per 239 plate appearances on a season, you’d call it the Second Dead Ball Era. Oh, funsie.

 

Having a wild Wednesday

2020-06-18 NationalsPark

Nationals Park.

What a Wednesday. It only began when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted, “Breaking: MLB and players union are closing in on an agreement to play the 2020 season, via players. Deal expected to be for prorated pay and include expanded playoffs.”

Heyman kicked off what was possibly baseball’s most exciting day since the Washington Nationals shook, rattled, and rolled their way to winning Game Seven of last year’s World Series.

The difference is that the excitement had nothing to do with a gutsy pitching performance, or one manager having to hook a bold starting pitcher whose tank reached empty after surrendering a two-run homer, or another manager calling for a play review so his next pitcher might have a little more warmup time, or the first manager’s best relief option being reached for a foul-pole ringing, coffin-forming home run.

It had to do with baseball itself being exhausted of the unconscionable standoff between owners to whom the good of the game means making or saving money for it and players who don’t like people trying to renege on agreements but whose itch to play the game can be ignored for only so long before they have to scratch it.

On Tuesday came the word that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark met up and talked. Come Wednesday, once Heyman hit the merry-go-round switch the horsies galloped almost all over the place.

Some said the deal might be a 66-game season with a postseason expansion from ten to sixteen teams. Others said a 60-game season. Jayson Stark of The Athletic tweeted get your kicks on route 66: “12 games each vs 4 division opponents. 3 games each vs 4 interleague opponents. 6 games (home and home) vs interleague rival.”

Halt right there, tweeted NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra: “16 playoff teams is a joke. As it is I have made a mental distinction between the season and the postseason, considering them different things but if they go to 16 the season starts hurtling toward meaninglessness.

Slow down, returned Stark, who ran down a quick list of teams who’d have made last year’s postseason in a 60-game season for a sixteen-team field: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Colorado Rockies in the National League; the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Oakland Athletics.

You may have noticed, as Stark couldn’t resist noticing, that among the missing in that scenario would have been 2019’s world champion Nats.

Then came the first chink in the chain pulling the merry-go-round in its circles, from Heyman’s fellow MLB Insider scribe Robert Murray: “Two sources with direct knowledge do not expect Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to the MLBPA to get a deal done. If a deal will be agreed upon, as [ESPN’s] @JeffPassan said, it needs to be for more than 60 games.”

Around 5 p.m. Pacific time USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale elucidated on the new proposal also including a universal designated hitter for this year and next. Shortly before that, former major league general manager Jim Bowden noted a likely deal would mean both the owners and the players foregoing grievances-to-be.

Then Heyman weighed in again, around 5:20 PDT: “The framework of the deal between Manfred and union chief Clark included: 60 games at 100% full prorated pay, waiver of grievances, 16-team expanded playoffs for 2 years, universal DH, more. Owner sources say it was agreed to pending constituency approval, meaning owners, players

Two hours and ten minutes later, Murray slipped another chink into the merry-go-round’s motor chain: “People familiar with players’ thinking believe that they are seeking more games because they don’t feel a 60-game season is worth losing their right to file a grievance. ‘The ability to file a grievance,’ one agent said, ‘is almost worth letting the owners cancel the season’.”

What seems still to be another key is that the players don’t want a too-short season and a too-convoluted postseason but, as Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal posited, they may be willing to settle for 65 games. May. For a nation starved for major league baseball that may yet prove as good as major medical relief. May.

A day earlier, Yankee president Randy Levine, a man not necessarily renowned as a moderate among baseball administrators, struck another bull’s eye when he isolated one key issue other than dollars tied to that March agreement: “From what I’ve discovered, the holdup is not about the number of games or money at this time,” he said.

The holdup, as I understand it, is about resolving the other items in the March 26 agreement. They include final agreement on all of the health and safety protocols, deciding what happens if a season is interrupted by a second wave of the virus, which players can opt out and under what circumstances can they, and a host of issues like that.

Exactly. The owners often behave as though they forget it won’t be them at risk if baseball returns while the coronavirus’s world tour continues. The players—you know, the ones the fans pay to see play—will be at risk. So will fans once they’re allowed to return to the ballparks. So will the stadium workers, from the concession stand workers and hawkers in the stands to the grounds crews, stadium maintenance, and scoreboard personnel.

The owners also behave as though getting into baseball is a guaranteed financial bath. As though Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t buy the White Sox for $100 million in 1981 but has a team now worth $1.7 billion. As though David Glass—who’d helped Reinsdorf push for the 1994-95 strike—hadn’t bought the Kansas City Royals outright for $96 million in 2000 (he’d been the team president up to that point) and sold them for $1 billion last year. To name two.

Small wonder the players don’t want to surrender their right to a grievance without a battle, and small wonder the owners want them to agree to such a surrender.

So perhaps when all was said and done on Wednesday’s merry-go-round, the best news was the likelihood of the universal DH for this year and next. Unless there’s a codicil somewhere that isn’t yet known, bank on the universal DH remaining universal. At long enough last, the National League will have what a slightly pre-20th century Pittsburgh Pirates owner first proposed for sound reasons and last year’s collective pitchers’ batting average (.125) justifies: the end of a wasted lineup slot and too many rallies aborted in the womb.

There may be a deal to get a 2020 season, any 2020 season, played yet. Maybe by the end of this week, maybe by the end of the coming weekend. But while we’re at it, there is a suggestion we might make to the players who have, otherwise, done a better job than normal of making Joe and Jane Fan understand just who’s done the most to try hustling them.

The MLBPA’s Player’s Trust has committed $1 million to minor league players whose leagues may not play this year because of the coronavirus’s not-so-grand world tour. Yet there remain a little over six hundred former major league players who played before 1980 whose careers were short for assorted reasons—and who were frozen out of a pension plan re-alignment that year which gave full pensions to players with 43 days major league service and full health benefits upon one day’s MLB service.

Longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller eventually said that not revisiting that mistake was his biggest regret. His successor once removed, Michael Weiner, collaborated with Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig in getting those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service.

It was a beginning, but there were two problems. One is that the players in question can’t pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths. The other is that the ill-fated Weiner—who loved baseball deeply, left no doubt about it, and earned a reputation for reasonableness even in his hardest negotiatings—died of brain cancer before he could have the chance to think about pressing the matter further.

Others have tried prodding Clark toward giving those pre-1980 short-career players a second look and building upon what Weiner and Selig began. Himself a former longtime first baseman, Clark has disinclined thus far. Even when New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden acknowledged, by way of a source inside the MLB apparatus, that Clark “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Legally, neither MLB nor the players’ union is obliged to send another dollar their way. (Neither, for that matter, is the separate Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, likewise disinclined, especially after forcing three of the 600 plus—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman Eddie Robinson—off its pension services committee.) Morally is something else entirely, when you remember that those 600+ players were Players Association members who stood with their fellows during the moves and pickets that pushed open the door toward free agency and all its riches.

If the Players Trust can send drydocked minor leaguers $1 million for openers, surely the MLBPA can find a way to do further right by those 600 plus who were frozen mistakenly out of the 1980 pension realignment. Assorted current players sort-of strong-armed their teams into taking better care of their drydocked minor leaguers. Such players might want to think about their wrongly frozen-out major league predecessors a little more.

Even a commitment to revisit and readjust the pension plan for those pre-1980 short-career players when the Show gets back into business would be a serious step toward resolving Miller’s regret and finishing what Weiner and Selig started.