Saturday, July 26, 2014

Herald! The New Era of Defensive Baseball!

After watching a defensive juggernaut last night between the Jays at Yankees that included lots of successful shifts by the Yankees and that included 6 straight innings of scoreless ball; and inspired by a conversation between Rogers Sportnet's play-by-play man Buck Martinez with colour commentator Pat Tabler on the subject of the shift; I decided to write this short historical, 'What time is it?' piece.

Yankee Stadium, New York, New York, July 25, 2014 - 7:05 PM ET
INNING                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9   R H  E
Toronto Blue Jays(54-50)   3  0  1  0  0  0  0  0  0   4 10 0
New York Yankees (54-48)   0  2  4  0  0  0  0  0  -   6 11 0

Nobody talks about the history of the 'juicing' of the ball a various moments in major league baseball, but the times in the history of the game where the windings of the official ball were tightened or loosened are document-able and marked great turning points in the way the game was played. In 1920 major league baseball introduced the jack-rabbit ball into the game. In the great era of pitching of the 1960's did major league baseball loosen the windings? Or did the league finally adjust to the jackrabbit ball? - a combination of the slow spread of Branch Rickey's codified farm system and a rise in the gene pool of the population of the country as a whole - resulting in a more physically fit generations one after the other coming to the ranks of the majors?

The answer is not certain.

After the revenue distribution troubles of the 1990's Major league baseball again it appears, juiced the ball once again. This was obfuscated by the introduction of performance enhancing drugs into the cultre of sport gererally and gradually into game of baseball as well. Players and coaches interviewed in the early 2000's phrased it this way - they said the ball came off the bat faster than before. They called it the "Nuclear" Baseball.

That Nuclear Ball is still in play today - now with-out the steroids that mess up any statistical analysis of the era.

Are we seeing today the culture of the game's response to the Nuclear Baseball?

In the early 2000's Joe Maddon took over as manager of the Tampa Bat Devil Rays - and he began to work with the general manager to craft a small-market-team-economic-metric that could win it all though drafting athletes rather than by drafting players by the position they played before they were drafted - and along side that, instituting a farm training system that stressed baseball fundamentals.

The idea was that the nuclear baseball got through the infield quicker, go to the gaps quicker - and also that as such, the run was less worth less than it was in the game as it existed before the nuclear ball - and conversely defense was worth more. Games we saw a lot of in the 1960's that were 3-2 affairs were now 7-5 tilts. Line drive home runs were a new thing. Line drive doubles to the wall were way more prevalent - and as such they plated more runs because there were more runners on more often when they happened.

So a double or a triple held to single was worth much more than the same defensive play made in the jack-rabbit ball era of the 1920's-1980's.

A successful team in the field in the nuclear ball era was a team that had three centre fielders, in left centre and right; as well, a winning team on the infield couldn't afford the slugger with suspect defense at 3rd - or in left. Concurrently the centre defense had to have incredible range - a centre defense on the infield erased line drive base hits, they erased ground ball base hits - and turned then into outs.

Add the digital revolution and the science of recording that new data in baseball, Sabre metrics - to add mathematical probability to defense in the form of pitching to shifts - and all of a sudden the 5-pitch pitcher with command and control becomes something a winning team must have in order to play the shift.

And there you have it a small market team Oakland and the the Rays in their turn have revolutionized the game - with the help of the cotton mill's ability to add tightness to a flying thread of cotton.

Michael Holloway
July 25, 2014

Game Box Score via ESPN Box Score:


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