When we started this website, my goal was to bring the player’s point of view to baseball fans. I’d been lucky enough to hang out with a lot of ballplayers and their conversations about a game often differed from what was reported in the media the next day. The newspaper would say a game was lost in extra innings and the players would say it was actually lost in the 7th.
I was looking for a way to help fans think like players, when I came across Ron Polk’s Most Valuable Player Chart. I thought it would be useful because it recorded many of the same things players talked about: like moving runners over, 8+ pitch at-bats and less than 12-pitch innings. It would force people (and me) to pay attention to the small, but important parts of the game.
Ron Polk’s credibility didn’t hurt either: he’s won more games than any coach in any sport in the history of the SEC, led his teams to eight College World Series appearances, five SEC championships and 23 Regional appearances, he’s in two Halls of Fame, he’s seventh all-time in NCAA head-coaching victories, he’s been National Coach of the Year three times, he’s produced 35 All-Americans, 75 All-SEC players and 21 major leaguers, he’s had seven tours as a member of the coaching staff of the USA National Baseball team and has served as a coach on the U.S. Olympic team twice. I thought any baseball fan would be interested in how this guy thinks about the game.
Boy, was I wrong.
His system for measuring player contribution was attacked almost immediately and has been called stupid, a waste of time, a joke and crap. I’ve also been called a moron for thinking it had any merit. Interestingly enough, people who played the game at a high level don’t feel the same way. In fact, former Royal Brian McRae, uses the system when coaching his teams and the same goes for hundreds of baseball programs around the country.
So why the violent dislike for what Ron Polk created and hundreds of coaches find useful? I blame math (which has been the source of many of my problems). If you judge the system in terms of math, you’ll never understand it. If you look at it in terms of baseball, it makes sense.
Here are a few examples of the ‘math’ complaints and the ‘baseball’ answers:
Why one point deducted for a strikeout swinging and two points deducted for a strike out looking? They’re both one out.: A perfectly legitimate math complaint, but the two strikeouts are different to ballplayers. With two strikes the hitters is expected to expand his zone, stop being picky and try to get the ball in play. A strike out looking does not give the hitter or his team a chance and is considered by many coaches to be bad baseball.
Why three points deducted for getting picked off first and six points deducted for getting picked off third? Again, they’re both one out.: Same answer. They’re both one out, but much different in terms of baseball. The runner on first is 270 feet away from scoring and is trying to do everything possible to get in scoring position. While getting picked off is regrettable, it’s understandable and is considered part of doing business. The runner on third is 90 feet away from scoring, is a much more valuable runner and most of the time isn’t going anywhere until the ball is put in play. Getting picked off third is a much bigger mistake than getting picked off first.
Why two points for a sacrifice bunt or fly? That’s as many points as a double.: Well, if I were creating the system I might not have given two points for a sac bunt or fly, but Clint Hurdle once told me the most important thing you can do as a manager is convince 25 guys that the team is more important than they are. Once you do that, amazing things are possible. A sacrifice is just that: someone saying the team is more important than they are and if Ron Polk thinks it’s worth two points, I’m not inclined to argue with a coach who knows more than I do. If you think you know more than Ron Polk, be my guest.
Critics have also complained that the system is subjective (it is, just like balls and strikes), that it gives too much credit to defense (seems fair, I think other measurements give too little credit to defense) and that I’m an idiot (OK, you’ve got me there).
Frankly, scoring a game and keeping track of the Polk system categories is a lot of work and every season I think about dropping it. Is it really necessary? But then I remember what I’ve learned from it and see its value. Here are a few things that might’ve slipped by without the Polk system:
Scoring mental mistakes helped me identify Gregor Blanco as a player who lost focus on a regular basis. He tried to leave the field before there were three outs on more than one occasion, once had to be told to take his base after losing track of the count and another time ran a non-existent contact play. When I asked about him I was told Blanco’s mental mistakes contributed to Atlanta’s willingness to let him go.
Paying attention to mental mistakes also revealed that Billy Butler sometimes neglected his defensive assignments. On more than one occasion he was not in position to act as the cutoff man in the middle of the infield.
Mental mistakes also pointed out that Jeff Francoeur sometimes missed the cut-off man. Although in Frenchy’s case, he’d do it out of enthusiasm (I think I can get that guy), not laziness or inattention and sometimes made it work.
Keeping track of breaking up the double play and heads-up base running revealed that the 2011 Royals were a much better base-running team than they’d been the previous year. It also showed that Billy Butler, of all people, was fairly successful at forcing the pivot man to move laterally and that prevented some double plays. Billy wasn’t getting there and flipping the pivot man, but his size made the middle infielder take an extra step to the side which delayed the throw to first.
Keeping track of walks that score showed the destructive power of a base on balls. By the time a run comes around, we often forget how that runner got on in the first place. Time after time the margin of victory or defeat was a walk that scored. In 2010 the system showed how Gil Meche destroyed his season with walks.
Keeping track of outstanding defensive plays revealed the worth (much to some people’s dismay) of players like Jason Kendall and Matt Treanor. Their ability to block pitches in the dirt allowed pitchers to use their entire arsenal with a runner on third. In 2010 Kendall blocked a pitch in the dirt with a runner on third in nine one-run wins. (And no, this is not a routine play. One of the reasons the Royals moved John Buck and Miguel Olivo was because this play was not being made.)
Outstanding defensive plays also showed that Eric Hosmer was making the entire infield better. Of Hosmer’s 83 outstanding defensive plays in 2011, at least two-thirds of them were on bad throws from teammates.
The system showed what makes Chris Getz valuable (another thing that made some readers angry). Because Polk’s system keeps track of a lot of small things in different phases of the game, Getz was able to consistently score points through actions that often go unnoticed. He’d rarely knock your socks off in any one category, but night after night, consistently found a way to contribute.
The system also showed the worth of staying healthy. It’s the difference between being the most talented player on the team and being the player that contributes the most. If your best player can’t get on the field, he’s not helping you.
I realize that if you hate Ron Polk’s system I probably haven’t changed your mind, but even if you think the points are off, it does reveal patterns of play. You might not think Melky Cabrera deserved the most points in 2011, but the fact that he took a lot of extra bases ought to be of some interest.
Trust me, nobody finds Ron Polk’s MVP chart a bigger pain than I do…I’m the one that has to score it. But I’ll score it again in 2012.
The hitting lesson
Even though I played baseball poorly, playing the game has helped me write about it. Unless you’ve stared up into the sun trying to maneuver under a wind-blown pop fly, you just don’t know how difficult it is. Playing a ball off the fence, being overmatched at the plate or deciding whether to send the runner home has helped me understand what players and coaches go through.
In fact, I still go to the batting cages regularly. I’ve gone to Kevin Seitzer’s hitting facility (Mac-N- Seitz in Martin City) so often, I think I’ve financed one of Kevin cars. So when Kevin suggested I take a hitting lesson, I took him up on it. I’ve played against Kevin in the Men’s Senior League, so he’s seen my swing…and he hates it. (Hey, so do I, but I’ve learned to live with it.) At my age I’m guessing I’m not going to get a lot better before my kids put me in a retirement home, so I suggested my son, Paul, take the hitting lesson. I’d watch and learn.
I don’t know how many major-league hitting coaches offer lessons to the public, but I thought it would be a cool experience for my son and well worth the money. It would also give me a chance to watch Kevin teach. He started by asking Paul to take a few swings so he could see what he was working with.
After a half dozen swings Kevin said, “Paul, where’d you get the good mechanics?” I cleared my throat and pointed to myself, after which Kevin turned back to Paul. “Like, I said, where’d you get the good mechanics?” When Kevin got done dogging me, he went to work on Paul’s swing.
Most of the basics were in place, but Kevin wanted to increase Paul’s ‘load’ (the motion back before the swing starts forward). They also worked on keeping the hand loose and independent of the front shoulder (swinging a bat without jerking your front shoulder open is a lot harder than it looks). Finally they worked on the finish (both hands to the back of the neck).
I asked Kevin how much more complicated the work gets when coaching major league ballplayers like the Royals. What he said was amazing: they work on the exact same stuff. Players’ mechanics don’t go bad in one day: it happens bit by bit. They make a slight, maybe even unnoticeable, adjustment and then another and another. One day they wake up and their swing is so fouled up they don’t know how to get back to where they were. That’s when a hitting coach can be invaluable.
When Mike Moustakas was in the middle of his slump I asked if he was working on something new or trying to get back to where he’d been. He said he was working on getting back to his old swing. Moose took a couple days off and during those two days took about 700 swings, searching for his old stroke. Fans often think players are ‘natural athletes’, but I’ve never met a ‘natural athlete’ who wasn’t working his rear end off.
So Kevin worked with Paul and Paul got better. I stood there and tried to absorb as much as I could. Because you never know…that retirement home might have a softball team.
A word of advice
Kevin would ask Paul to work on something and have him take a few swings. While this was happening, Kevin would watch silently. The hitter needs to concentrate and talking to him splits concentration. Kevin was always encouraging and when Paul would make an adjustment successfully, praised him. In two half-hour lessons Kevin’s teaching method had Paul hitting the ball harder and more consistently.
I’ve been going to the batting cages for two decades and I’ve seen a lot of fathers working with their kids. Too often this amounts to criticizing the kid after every swing. So here’s my hitting lesson: your kid is going to be your kid a long time after he or she quits being a ballplayer. What you teach them about being a good person if far more important than what you teach them about being a good athlete. Be kind, the game is hard. If it wasn’t, you’d be playing instead of harassing a child.
And pay for a damn lesson.
Ted Williams once asked Mickey Mantle if Mickey was top or bottom-hand dominant. Mantle said he couldn’t hit for two weeks after that. As Yogi Berra once said “I can’t hit and think at the same time.” So after a hitter polishes his mechanics, he’s got to forget them once he steps inside the batter’s box. It’s far too late to try to figure out which hand is dominant.
That’s why you see those practice swings outside the box. Once the hitter steps in, it’s all about relaxing and seeing the baseball. The hitter then reacts, without conscious thought, to what he sees. That’s also why you see those rituals between pitches.
Fans who haven’t played can’t understand why someone needs to adjust their batting gloves between each pitch. The hitter doesn’t really need to adjust his gloves, he needs to adjust his mind and the physical ritual helps. David DeJesus once talked with me about his routine: David would hold the bat up in front of his face, take a breath and a practice cut and step in the same way every time. He was trying to clear his mind of outside thoughts. A routine that he didn’t have to think about would aid that process.
On the other hand, I had a routine (I’d wonder how I was going to make an out this time) and it never really seemed to help.