The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Al Bethke’s Baseball Philosophy

Posted on | April 13, 2011 | 3 Comments

In pursuit of answers to that Eternal Blogger Question — “How’s traffic doing today?” — I checked SiteMeter and saw that I’d been linked by Al Bethke, a Milwaukee Brewers fan who describes his blog thus:

If you are a believer in respecting [on-base percentage], throwing strikes, and keeping the ball in the park, you may have found the place you’ve been searching for. I don’t believe in paying a no hit/good field [shortstop] $7 million per year (Jack Wilson, I’m talking about you). I don’t think it’s a good idea to “play for a run” early in the game. Build up your minor league system, and watch success follow.

Which is to say, Mr. Bethke believes in common-sense fundamentals. His point about building up the minor-league system is on the mark.

This is the great secret (although it’s not really secret at all) by which Bobby Cox turned the Atlanta Braves into perennnial pennant contenders.

During the 1980s, the Braves were always getting beat in the N.L. West by the Dodgers. Atlanta was always signing free agents or getting screwed over in trades. And the basic business strategy of the team (going back to the days of Hank Aaron) seemed to be: Get a big power-hitter in the clean-up spot of the batting order, tell him to swing for the fences, and sell tickets to fans who want to see a lot of home runs. So Atlanta went through the Bob Horner/Dale Murphy eras — c’mon Braves fans, how many times did Dale strike out swinging at that outside curveball? –without developing into consistent winners.

It was Bobby Cox, hired as general manager in 1986, who persuaded Ted Turner to change the team’s overall philosophy. Cox pointed out that the reason the Dodgers were winners was because they had the best farm system in baseball. Not only did this permit L.A. to develop its own talent, but it gave them a superfluity of up-and-coming personnel that could be used as “player-to-be-named later” in big trades. The Braves expanded their farm system, adding a second A-league affiliate and another rookie-league team and, by the time Cox decided to make himself the team manager (with Bob Schuerholtz as GM) in 1990, the Braves famously went from “worst to first” to claim the National League pennant in 1991.

Something else: During their great run (winning 14 division titles, five NL pennants and one World Series in 15 years, 1991-2005) the Braves were a team defined by great pitching. Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz — in the 1990s, Atlanta had the best starting rotation in baseball. Not just great arms, but smart and well-coached by Leo Mazzone. The trademark of Mazzone’s pitchers was that they could throw a change-up with the same motion as their fastballs. (C’mon, Braves fans: How many times did  Maddux and Glavine get strikeouts by throwing a change-up as their two-strike pitch?) Because the Atlanta had a relatively weak bullpen, Cox and Mazzone routinely left their starting pitchers in the game for 100 or 110 pitches. As long as the starter was still throwing strikes and getting hitters out, he’d stay on the mound until his arm fell off. My memory may be faulty, but as I recall, the Braves’ pitching staff routinely led the league in complete games during their glory years.

“You could look it up,” as Leo Durocher Casey Stengel* used to say.

The point is that the key to success in baseball is a concentration on the fundamentals of the game. Good pitching, good fielding and — as Al says — “respecting OBP.” The best hitter is the one who gets to first base most often. A strong batter who focuses on making solid contact with strikes (and not swinging at balls) will get his share of home runs, but good hitters always get lots of singles and doubles. (Triples are rarities, generally requiring exceptional speed.)

And let us not forget walks: The best hitters get lots of base-on-balls. This isn’t just because they’ve got the “good eye” to avoid swinging at bad pitches. A strong contact hitter with good power will force the opposing pitcher to “nibble at the corners” of the plate, throwing low at the outside corner or bringing the ball in tight on the inside, to try to prevent the hitter from getting anything in his power zone. When a pitcher does that, he will usually throw a higher percentage of balls than strikes, and the key for a hitter increasing his on-base-percentage is to resist the temptation to swing at junk pitches.

“Make him throw you a strike,” as coaches used to yell at hitters, during the years when I covered high-school sports for newspapers in North Georgia.

Batting order and the strategy of particular game situations is another aspect of baseball philosophy worth more examination than I am in the mood to give it now. Back in the day when Dale Murphy was batting clean-up for the Braves, he suffered badly because even when he came to bat with runners in scoring position — which wasn’t often enough — Atlanta seldom had a solid hitter in the No. 5 spot. So if there was at least one out, unless Murphy could get a home run or knock a double off the fence, the Braves didn’t really gain much by having Murphy at bat. There was therefore a certain logic, after all, to why Dale was always swinging for the fences.

Of course, doing these things is more difficult than merely describing them, but major-league baseball players are supposed to be the best of the best, professionals in every sense, and if they can’t get the job done, there are always plenty of players on the bench, or in AAA clubs, who’d kill for the opportunity to be on the field.

Assuming the players have the ability to play the game, then, the difference between consistent winners and consistent losers is to be found in their understanding of how the game should be played.

And so, in addition to the fact that he linked my blog, his excellent philosophy of baseball justifies my encouragement that you go read Al Bethke.

(* – Thanks to the commenter who fact-checked this.)


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