December 2011

Whitey on Interleague Play & Expansion

I always thought of Whitey Herzog as a happy, almost carefree guy.  Now that I’ve finished his book, You’re Missin’ a Great Game, I realize  that he is good natured, but he is also desperately in love with baseball, and righteously distressed about the way it is heading.  In that sense, we are alike.

The thing that seems to bother him  most is the schedule.   Scheduling Interleague games creates a strength of opposition problem, which he believes is unfair.  It is, and I said the same thing when I was managing.  We had to play our in-state “rivals,” the Rangers in a series at home and in Arlington, while the Cardinals did the same thing, playing the Royals.

At that time, the Rangers were a much better team than the Royals and we were in close competition with the Redbirds for a division championship or a Wild Card berth.  Shortly after I made my complaint, I was put on notice not to say it again.  MLB is adamantly against any kind of criticism.  They want everyone to do everything exactly the way they prescribe it with no exceptions, no complaints.

Actually the strength of schedule problem didn’t bother me much.  I viewed it as a minor issue because of the length of the season.  During the course of the year, you catch some teams when they’re hot, some when they’re cold.  You play them when they have several stars on the DL and when they are perfectly healthy.  And you have no control over that.  In that sense, the Rangers or Royals issue didn’t seem that important.

What is important, going forward, is the balance of the schedule now that there will be 15 teams in each league in 2013.  That is an awkward number.  I’m not sure how the schedule will look with Interleague games being played throughout the season.  My guess is that it will prevent head-to-head matchups among division contenders in September.  Those matchups are the essence of the pennant race.  We lost them for a few years at the beginning of Interleague Play and it was so obvious that MLB returned to an unbalanced schedule so that teams within a division would play each other down the stretch.  I don’t know if that will be possible in 2013.

Another thing that bothered Whitey and bugged me too was the last expansion.  It was clear to a professional observer that the talent was already diluted and further expansion would only make it worse.  I know that if you can expand, you can also contract; I also know will never happen.  If you could go back to 28 teams, it would help with the dilution problem.  But the scheduling would still be ungainly.   To get to a number of teams that could provide a really good schedule, you’d have to go back to 24.  Or you’d have to expand to 32.

This is where Whitey blew my mind.  He actually supported the 32-team scenario, and he wrote about it thirteen years ago! In his mind, the sanctity of the schedule is more important than the paucity of Major League-caliber ballplayers.  And I’m not sure I disagree with him.

The problem is that there aren’t enough cities to support MLB now.  I think you could move the Rays to San Antonio and improve the current set-up.  But when you look at the smaller cities that can support football and basketball, you won’t find any that can draw enough fans for 81 baseball games, not to mention compete with teams in big cities for local TV revenue.  Then there is the geographic problem.  There aren’t enough big cities in the western states.  In baseball, you play every day.  And you just can’t keeping hopping back and forth from coast to coast without serious jet-lag.

The only reason Whitey grudgingly recommended 32 teams is that he’s been around a lot longer than the current owners and has seen how we got into this mess to begin with.  He traces it all the way back to the designated hitter.  In the early seventies, baseball attendance, especially in the American League, was losing ground while the NFL was ascending.  Pitching was dominant back then, so the A.L. owners decided to “experiment” with a DH to add more offense to the game.  It worked, but there was an unintended consequence.  The DH was almost always a high-priced player.  With the inroads Marvin Miller was making for the players in the area of free agency and arbitration, salaries were climbing even without the DH.  The owners would need to create new revenue.  Whitey could see it coming.

From that point, 35 years ago, just about every change in baseball was a result of the owners trying to enhance revenue.  The way he describes it is that they shoot first and aim later, and then try to figure out how to clean up the mess.  Each time revenue-enhancing changes brought problems, they shot again without aiming.

Expanding to 32 teams would at least allow for a balanced schedule.  The consequent dilution of talent problem would likely solve itself over time.  Further expansion would create more cities that can’t compete financially.  But from my perspective, which goes almost as far back as Whitey’s, that would still improve the big picture going forward.  And the owners might like because it would create more immediate revenue.  Anything you change at this point will require further adjustments.  But if you get the schedule issue solved, at least you would be aiming before you shoot.   And at least you wouldn’t shoot yourself in the foot — again.

Hit and Run

Whitey Herzog was a great manager and he has the championship rings to prove it.  One thing was obvious to me when I saw him on the field at Busch Stadium.  He had it all together.  His players generally  seemed happy and his coaches, though professional, were loose and friendly, like the Rat.  They were easy to talk to.

I’m reading his book, “You’re Missin’ a Great Game” now, and I wish I had his personality when I was a skipper.  He had the players in the palm of his hand, even when they disagreed with him.  There was a lot of laughter and almost no stress in the Cardinals clubhouse.

But in the area of his greatest strength, there was a false assumption.  They were the Runnin’ Redbirds, but when it came to the hit and run play, he often had them running for the wrong reason — to avoid the double play.

Years ago, Bill James published an abstract each year.  One of the categories he analyzed was how many ground ball double plays each pitcher induced.  The best at that time was Tommy John who got one twin killing in just under every five opportunities.  Nolan Ryan, by contrast, got only one for every twenty chances.  The average among all big league pitchers in the year I studied was one in ten.

Knowing this had an influence on how I managed.  I seldom employed the strategy because it made no statistical sense.  Still, I would have used it more often if I had been able to sell my idea to my runners.  My idea was to abandon the conventional thinking about the play.  For their entire baseball lives, they had been taught that the runner’s job was to take a conservative lead and run after the pitcher threw the pitch.  In other words, get a lousy jump.  They had also been instructed that, as hitters, they had to swing and make contact no matter where the pitch was thrown.  If a hitter was lucky, he would get a pitch he could hit on the ground where the shortstop or second baseman had vacated his position to cover second.

I didn’t want to force my power hitters to swing at pitches they couldn’t hit hard, which is one of the reasons I didn’t use the play.  But I may have used it occasionlly in if I could be sure the runners would try to get a good jump.  Let’s say we had Craig Biggio on first with one out and Jeff Bagwell at the plate with Greg Maddux on the mound.  In this situation Bagwell was much more likely to hit  a double play grounder than a home run.   Bagwell had a lot of power, but Maddux was able to take it away from him with his sinking pitches.  I would have hit and run in that situation with Biggio or Bill Spiers on first base.  But I was a poor salesman.  I tried to get our runners to get a good jump on the play instead of playing it safe.  They thought I was crazy.  “What does he know?  He was a pitcher.”  I could almost hear them say.

Oddly enough, people thought we were a hitting and running team because we often ran on pitches the hitter swung at.  We were stealing, not employing the hit and run.  But to the observer, it look like the same thing.  My instructions to the hitters was to swing at any pitch you can hit hard whether the runner is stealing or not.  My strategy, because I was a pitcher, was to run a lot.  It puts pressure on the pitcher and it takes an infielder out of his normal position.  Preventing a double play   was a secondary consideration.

Still, even my coaches didn’t buy into it.  They didn’t mind the hitters swinging at pitches they could drive, even if the runner had a good jump and would probably be safe.  We had a lot of power hitters and everybody wanted them to go for the extra base hit.  We were in the middle of the Steroid Era and playing for one run before the eighth inning was a fool’s errand.

The hit and run strategy came from the Dead Ball Era when playing for one run made sense.  There were very few home runs back then and hitters seldom struck out.  Many pitchers posted ERAs below 2.00.  Putting the ball in play was easier than it is now.  And you had to win a lot of games by scratching out one run.

But old habits die hard.  One day I asked all my coaches if the hit and run was an offensive or defensive strategy.  Every one of them said the same thing as Whitey.  Against ground ball pitchers, you have to try to prevent the double play — a play that is at best a one in five chance.

Here’s the rub.  If the runner has a good jump and the batter hits a ground ball, the runner is almost always safe at second.  So, you end up giving up an out to get a man on second.  But, if the runner gets a bad jump and the ball is hit hard, the defensive team turns the double play anyway.  Whitey’s presumption is that the runner will get there in time to break up the double play.  But even if he does, you give up an out and the runner is still on first.

So, what’s the risk of trying to get a good jump?  “Don’t get picked off on the hit and run”  is what players have always been told.  But how how often do base stealers get picked off?  James does not have a stat for that event, but anyone who watches a lot of games knows that it seldom happens.  So, in effect, there is very little risk.  But if it happens to you when the hit and run is on, it’s an unforgivable blunder.  I told our guys, “Don’t worry about getting picked off.  If you do, it’s my fault.”

They took that advise like a rebellious teenager listens to the admonition from his parents to be careful when they hand him the keys to the car.  I couldn’t sell my ideas like Whitey.  Fact is, I probably couldn’t sell my hit and run ideas to him.