Published April 12, 2010
Shame on Joe West for the comments he made last week about the Yankees and Red Sox taking too long to play nine innings. "Pathetic and embarrassing," is how the umpire characterized the pace of the games between the rivals, revealing just how out of touch he is with the modern game.
West, who's been calling balls and strikes for parts of 34 years, comes from an era where hitters would swing at anything close. It was a man's-man credo -- I can crush whatever comes my way, is what sluggers used to boast. Bad-ball hitters like Yogi Berra were singled out for a skill that was statistically counter-productive.
Today, with on-base percentage emphasized more than ever, hitters are working the count in order to see better pitches, while exhausting opposing hurlers in the process.
Old-timers like West obviously don't have the patience for the mini-marathons. But real purists understand the value in waiting. And waiting.
A's GM Billy Beane, the founding father of the Money Ball era, said, "You're not going to make a living hitting off, say, CC Sabathia for eight innings and then Mariano Rivera for one.
"Going deep into counts is a way to get the more talented pitchers out of the game sooner. What you prefer is to get deeper into the staff and get some of those at-bats against middle relievers."
There's plenty of data to back up Beane's point (not that he needed the help). But the Yankees proved last year that waiting pays the ultimate dividend, no matter what West thinks.
According to research found on RiverAvenueBlues.com, the Yankees led the American League in pitches seen in 2009 with 25,049. That would explain, in part, why they led in walks (663) and runs (915).
Of course, most hitters are looking for more than just ball four -- they're trying to get into the best-possible counts, either 2-0 or 3-1. That requires extraordinary patience, waiting through two, three and sometimes even four pitches until a hurler concedes with a hittable strike.
The New Way clearly frowns on hacking away at the first pitch: the Yankees swung at the first pitch in only 24 percent of their plate appearances last year. And back in 2003, at the height of Money Ball's popularity, the A's were even more laid-back, swinging at just 18.5 percent of first-pitch strikes.
The battle ground inevitably centers on the third pitch of an at-bat, where either the pitcher or hitter gains leverage.
"The difference between 1-2 and 2-1 is terms of expected outcomes is just enormous. It's the largest variance of expected outcomes of any one pitch," then-Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta told "Money Ball" author Michael Lewis. "On 2-1 most average major leaguer hitters become All-Stars, yet on 1-2 they become anemic nine-hole hitters. People talk about first-pitch strikes. But it's usually the first two out of three."
One of the best illustrations of that split is Joe Mauer's efficiency with a 2-1 count last year -- a stunning .509 average. Yet, at 1-2, he dropped to .241.
The point, of course, is that baseball has become a more cerebral game, belying the increasing speed, strength and athleticism of today's stars.
Most hitters now have a plan with each at-bat, one that evolves from pitch to pitch. If you don't think there's been a generation change, go back and watch a grainy, black-and-white World Series game on the MLB Network.
Take note of how early in the count hitters start swinging. Notice, too, how many pitches out of the strike zone they chase. "Being aggressive" wasn't just the accepted philosophy -- it allowed games to be played in nine innings.
Today, plate discipline has replaced unfocused "aggressive" hitting. Everyone's reaching for the holy grail -- the 3-1 fastball that practically screams "Crush Me."
West might as well get used to it.
THE SPIRALING METS:
We mentioned a few days ago how badly the Mets needed an Opening Day gem from Johan Santana. He delivered, smothering the Marlins in a 7-1 rout.
But Santana was out-pitched on Sunday by Livan Hernandez, the Nationals' No. 5 starter, and the Mets ended their first home stand losing four of six. It was a huge psychological blow for a team that started the season on a tightrope.
At this rate it won't be long before the countdown begins on Jerry Manuel's job, especially since the Mets embark on a potentially difficult road trip to Colorado and St. Louis.
More than almost any team in the National League, the Mets needed to get off to a good start, if only to erase the organizational memory of the disastrous 2009 season. So far, it looks like more of the same, dreary calculus -- no reliable starting pitching and not much clutch hitting (Jason Bay doesn't have an RBI yet).
Not even the highly anticipated return of Jose Reyes could change the Mets' luck, as they lost both games to the Nats with their front-line shortstop back in the lineup.
Manuel, who's well aware how quickly he could be fired, said it would take 20 games to get a sense of where the Mets are headed in 2010. By the end of the next homestand, after they've faced the Cubs, Braves and Dodgers, they Mets will have played exactly 22 games.
The clock is surely ticking.