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.