Jason Kendall thinks we’re forgetting how to play baseball. I’ve told this story before, but it goes to the heart of his argument: In 2010, Kendall blew out his shoulder and had surgery. When he was ready to get back on the field, the Royals sent him to Arizona to begin his comeback. Kendall was there with a bunch of kids, just starting their professional baseball careers. One day they were working on a hit-and-run drill. Jason was told he could skip the drill, but he said no, he was part of the team and would work on it like everybody else. He stepped into the cage and hit groundball after groundball toward second base. Afterward, a kid wanted to know why Kendall was hitting grounders at the second baseman.
Kendall explained that on a hit and run, with a right-handed batter at the plate, it was likely that the second baseman would cover the bag, not the shortstop. Hit a 16-hopper through that hole and your team has runners at first and third and you have an easy hit. (Kendall definitely used more F-bombs than I did during the explanation.) So why didn’t a ballplayer who was good enough to sign a professional contract already know that?
Kendall blames tournament teams.
Amateur players want to get noticed. They want a scholarship offer or a professional contract, so they want to put up numbers that will get attention. Knowing how to hit the ball through the hole on the right side or produce a fly ball when necessary or lay down a bunt does not get a lot of attention these days. On-base and slugging percentage do.
That’s why what I’m doing here drives some people crazy.
When I finally got serious about baseball, I was 38 years old and being taught by professional players. Russ Morman, Jerry Dipoto, Dan Quisenberry, Clint Hurdle, Bob Apodaca, Danny Jackson and Tim Bogar, among others, taught me the game. Their views became my views. I learned to value what they valued… and it’s the same stuff Ron Polk values. His Most Valuable Player Chart, which our scoring system is based on, caught my eye because it recorded many of the same types of plays that I’d been taught to regard as worthwhile. I’m scoring games with a 35-year-old evaluation system that tells me a player who can get a bunt down is worth something. It’s old-school baseball.
(By the way, this isn’t the first time baseball has gone through this argument. Ty Cobb thought that Babe Ruth ruined baseball. Cobb thought that Ruth turned an exciting game of speed and strategy into a boring game of fat guys standing around and swinging from their heels.)
Kendall thinks that a system that recognizes blocked pitches, breaking up double plays and hitting the ball to the right side helps fans appreciate that kind of old-school baseball. It helps fans recognize the blue-collar player who demonstrates skills that are no longer universally valued. So we’re not all using the same measuring stick, and that leads us to different conclusions.
If you think the sacrifice bunt is a stupid move, the fact that Chris Getz is a good bunter is not a recommendation. If you believe that sooner or later a sacrifice bunt will be necessary and a smart move in the right situation, Getz looks better. If you’re looking at OPS and I’m looking at offensive versatility, we’re not going to hold the same opinion of Getz. If we have different definitions of what constitutes a good ballplayer, we’re going to have different conclusions about who is on that list.
Until Kendall brought it up, I had never really thought of myself or what I’m doing with Polk’s evaluation system as old-school, but it is. It’s certainly not the only way to look at baseball, but it is a legitimate way to view the game. Sabermetrics has something to add to the sport, but so do the players and coaches who have been playing their entire lives. Providing their point of view is the reason this site exists. If reminding fans about the value of old-school baseball is my role, I’m happy to play it.
And does anybody know where I can buy a fedora?
An example of an old-school player, small ball and winning
Kendall and Getz are mentioned quite often, and now you know why. In my view of the game, they’re valuable players. To some others, they aren’t. It’s easy to agree on what Alex Gordon brings to the team, but players such as Kendall and Getz are more controversial — so we argue about them.
Semi-quick story from awhile back: I was at a Royals game with a friend who wasn’t a huge baseball fan but wanted to learn. The game was tied in the bottom of the fifth, and Matt Stairs led off with a double. Angel Berroa walked to the plate, and I said, “Berroa needs to hit the ball to the right side to move Stairs to third. To prevent that, the pitcher will throw the ball down and in so Berroa will hit the ball to third or short.”
First pitch, down and in. Berroa grounded out to third and Stairs had to hold at second.
The next batter (whose name escapes me) lined a single into left center, but Stairs could only advance to third. The ball was hit too hard; the center fielder got to it right away, and Stairs ran like Stairs. First and third, one out and John Buck walked to the plate. I said, “Buck needs to get the ball in the air to the outfield so Stairs can score on a sacrifice fly. To prevent that, the pitcher will throw a sinker down in an attempt to get a double play.”
First pitch, sinker down. Buck grounded into an inning-ending double play.
The Royals missed a great opportunity to take the lead. When the starter had to leave the game in the next half inning, the ball was given to a so-so middle reliever. The Royals weren’t in the position to throw one of their better relievers unless they were out in front and those innings might translate into a win.
I turned to my friend and said, “This game is over — it’s about to get ugly,” and it did. The middle reliever blew up, and the Royals missed a chance for a win — all because Berroa did not hit the ball to the right side, something that went unrecognized by most of the crowd.
So what’s this have to do with Getz?
Last season, the Royals were in Detroit (don’t hold me to that — I’ve got to check every year to make sure of my wedding anniversary), and Getz came to the plate with less than two down and a runner on third. It was a pleasure to watch a professional hitter sort through the pitches he was offered until he found one he could drive to the outfield, which drove the run in. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he did it again a few innings later. For Getz, those plate appearances were typical.
Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer calls Getz a smart ballplayer and says, “He always gives you an appropriate at-bat.” Which is probably why he led the 2011 Royals in “situational batting average,” which includes moving the runner over from second with nobody out, driving in the run from third with less than two outs, getting sacrifice bunts down and conducting the hitting part of a hit and run. Getz succeeded in those situations over 76 percent of the time. It’s not a stat that gets fans excited, but it’s a stat that wins ballgames.
Many fans either ignore this kind of thing altogether or dismiss the execution of these plays as routine. Even the name for playing this way, “small ball,” might lead the casual fan to dismiss this type of play as unimportant.
In my opinion, there’s nothing routine about these plays. All too often in the Royals’ recent past, pitches were not getting blocked, bunts were not laid down and hitters were not having good situational at-bats. Like a lot of fans, I like the Royals’ young talent, but the main reason I’m upbeat about the future is that I see them playing better fundamental baseball. They haven’t hit an inattentive cutoff man in the back for quite a while.
Give Ned Yost some credit for this. Trey Hillman talked a good game when it came to fundamentals — most managers do. I’ve yet to hear any manager say he doesn’t care about fundamentals, but I’ve seen plenty of managers skip the work required to make the theory of good fundamentals a reality. The Royals’ outfielders now practice throwing to the bases before the first game of each series. The team regularly runs the bases as a group, practicing their turns. The base stealers regularly do early work on leads, visual keys and breaking for the next base.
I don’t believe these things are small. Ask Red Sox fans if Dave Roberts stealing a base in the ninth inning of game four of the 2004 ALCS was “small.” Those small things that a player like Getz can do — moving runners, hitting the ball to the right side or stealing a base at the right moment — add up to the biggest thing of all.