Long Ball Lust
By: Larry Dierker
I went out to a ball game at Minute Maid with some friends last night to celebrate May Day. Except for the camaraderie, I would have preferred to watch every pitch Justin Verlander threw on TV. I could assume what he was throwing, but I was about midway up in the field boxes behind the dugout, so I couldn’t see the details of his mastery (8ip 3h 0r 0w 14k). I got the big picture, but it is impossible to see the location and movement of the pitches at the ballpark if you’re not pitching, hitting, catching or umpiring.
On the way home, I listened to the post-game talk show, and Astros fans were alternately reviling Ken Giles for giving up a three-run homer to Gary Sanchez in the ninth, and bemoaning the Astros feeble attack. If you’ve played enough baseball, you know that sometimes you don’t hit because you don’t get any good pitches to hit. And sometimes you get the opportunity and don’t seize it. Last season, the Astros missed a lot of good pitches to hit in a late season series in Oakland. Then they didn’t see any good pitches at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS.
From the box seats, I could feel the emotion and hear the applause as Verlander ended yet another inning with a strikeout. That’s the beauty of being there. Still, I couldn’t tell you if the Astros got very many good pitches to hit from Domingo German, Dellin Betances, David Robinson and Aroldis Chapman. But I could guess. Twelve strikeouts is a pretty good clue.
After I got home I started poking around, looking at the standings and some of the other games. I noticed a column on ESPN that really got my attention. It was about home runs and strikeouts. Home runs have been exploding like the fireworks on the fourth of July, even in the chill of April 2018. When the temperature rises, they may hit enough long balls to exceed last year’s record breaking total. Strikeouts are on a record pace as well. Even though I couldn’t see the pitch locations at the ballpark, I could see the velocity of the pitches on the scoreboard. Verlander wasn’t the only one who was blowing the ball by hitters. Domingo German, Dellin Betances, David Robinson and Aroldis Chapman fanned twelve Astros batters. The proliferation of home runs in today’s game makes perfect sense. Most home run hitters have uppercut swings to get the ball in the air. That’s the swung they teach these days. The level swing is passé. But most upper-cutters strike out a lot. When they crush a 95-mph fast ball up and in, they almost always hook it foul. They can’t lift a good hard Verlander slider either. Most sluggers hit mistakes, and most major league pitchers make plenty of them.
In my day, I threw most home run hitters a lot of four-seam fast balls up and in. When I had it riding, they didn’t bother me. Henry Aaron was a different story. He was a front foot hitter and he did not uppercut. One time he hit one off me in the Astrodome. I was sure it was going to hook foul, but it flew straight as an arrow into the mezzanine seats about five feet inside the pole. Amazing. I saw Albert Pujols hit the same home run off Roger Clemens in the 2005 All Star game in Houston. They are among the few hitters who can keep their hands inside the ball and hit it on the meat of the bat without hooking it, even when the ball is right on the corner, just inches from their hands. Barry Bonds could do it too.
The second thing that caught my eye was the launch angle of fly balls, a statistic that has only been kept since 2015. Each year since then, the angle has increased. This year it is running higher than ever before, 11.7 degrees. In each of the last three years this angle, along with the home runs it produced, has increased. There was a lot of cold weather this April and the home runs were slightly down from last year. When the weather heats up, so will the launch pad, and they may still beat last year’s record. Don’t be surprised if they do.
However, the object of the game is to win. In some games, my intuition tells me that swinging up is not the best way to attack. For me, the Big Red machine was the toughest assignment because of its versatility. When I had the 4-seamer hopping, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster and Cesar Geronimo (an upper-cutter), were easy. It was the other lefties that got me — Ken Griffey Sr., Dan Dreissen, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose. Morgan was dangerous and had a good eye. He hit me some, and I walked him a lot – and he could steal bases. The rest of them weren’t as dangerous, but they drove me nuts with slap hits and bunts. And they stole bases. That’s the best way to beat a power pitcher who is on his game. That was the only chance the Yankees had against Verlander Tuesday night. But they didn’t even try. They aren’t built that way.
I’m not sure anyone is even trying to build a team that way now. It’s an all or nothing ballgame. Home run or strikeout. I am not conversant with the latest metrics but I’m sure there is proof that swinging for the fences will produce more runs over the course of the year. Little ball is dead. But then there are those games like the one I watched last night. I doubt it would be possible to take a different approach once or twice a month. But, I’d like to see it.
When I was managing the Astros, we had five power hitters in the lineup every day. I seldom bunted except with the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher. And I didn’t hit and run either. We had base stealers, but our hitters were not required to take a pitch when they were running. I knew they would only get a few pitches to hammer. I didn’t want Jeff Bagwell or Moises Alou to take one of those pitches to let Craig Biggio steal second base.
Very few, if any, managers employ small ball tactics now. Perhaps some of them should at least be sensitive to special situations. The Astros often shift three infielders to the right side of the field on left-handed batters. At first, none of them tried to bunt for a hit. Now they try once in a while.
The Astros also have a whole lineup full of speedsters with home run power. So do the Yankees. Every team is looking for these gifted players. But, they haven’t all found them, and they can’t all afford to keep them. It might be wise for the Yankees to bring back some little ball tactics for special situations like Verlander. On Tuesday at Minute Maid, the Astros would have been better off trying it against the Yankees’ pitchers the way they were throwing.
When you play the rank and file day after day, it might be a waste of time and effort to try to build the type of versatile offense the Reds had in the seventies. Metrics have changed my mind about a lot of things. And they served the Yankees well in the top of the ninth. Ken Giles was throwing well over 95 mph. But he got a few pitches up and out over the plate. I couldn’t vouch for that because of where I was sitting. But I could assume it by watching the two-line drives and the majestic home run that followed.
There were 28 strikeouts in the game and only 13 hits — one of them a big blast.
This may be an exaggerated snapshot of a ball game today, but in April of 2018, there were more strikeouts than hits for the first time ever.