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May 1, 2003

Breaking Balls

Mmm...TiVo

by Derek Zumsteg

Things I've Learned Watching Baseball on TiVo:

This year after talking to Jonah Keri and his wife, I put down money to buy a TiVo before the season started, and I've found that besides its general life-enhancing qualities, it's taught me a lot about baseball. I love, for instance, being able to do the instant eight-second replay on third-out close plays when the broadcast goes almost immediately to commercial. So here's what having unlimited replay capability, along with slow-motion and freeze-frame, and all the other amazing TiVo features, has revealed to me.

First, ties do not go to the runner. Ties go to the defense. The runner needs to clearly beat the throw to the glove to be safe at first. After that, there is an enormous swing in the out threshold of different umpires. Baseball has hugely increased the quality of the umpires in the last few years--you'll see second base umps run out to cover fly balls and make better calls on traps than they ever did before, for instance--but there are as many standards for caught stealing as there are men who put on the uniform. I've seen the standard on out-calling take many forms:

  • Ball got to fielder before runner is in
  • Runner tagged somewhere on body
  • Runner tagged in leading half of body
  • Runner tagged on head/arms/shoulders
  • Runner tagged somewhere before he touches the base
  • Runner tagged on leading surface with 6" of dirt between runner and base
  • Runner caught in run-down

Michael Wolverton found this in the statistics years ago, and I have to believe that smart teams are keeping track of which umpire is at second, because the difference is huge. Teams could easily use video to figure out if an ump is particularly lenient, or smitten by good base stealers plying their trade.

Still, sensing the discrepancies there and having seen it over and over are entirely different things.

Random, Vaguely TiVo-Related Thoughts:

  • At some point, I'm going to have to apologize about Alfonso Soriano. Almost no one has ever been successful in the major leagues without taking walks in the minors. I'm totally serious about this: David Cameron did some work on this last year, but there are almost no elite players who didn't show decent plate discipline in the minors. Soriano, you have to go back to a few years ago when he was with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp (before he "retired" to get out of Japan) to see a season where he took walks. There are always outliers: Magglio Ordonez started drawing walks in the majors, for instance, and Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs one year. I've thought that eventually major league pitchers would stop throwing Soriano meatballs, then exploit and embarrass him.

    That hasn't happened, and watching his at-bats over and over, I've started to think it's time to say I was wrong. Seeing him take inside pitches and turn on them with those whip-fast hands, I honestly have no idea how I'd pitch to him. I keep thinking of Ball Four: smoke in on the hands. I think I'd ride him way inside on the hands, out of the strike zone, and see--and I know how bad this sounds--if you can either tie him up or hit him for a strike either way, because I haven't seen him bail out on that pitch. It's the kind of thing that makes me want to bust out the pitcher-v-batter matchups, to see who has had success against him, and who has done really poorly him, so I can compare what they throw, and how.

    In fact, I'm going to do some of that. Jamie Moyer, 4-20, five strikeouts with three homers. Ow. Pedro Martinez cuffs him pretty good, 3-23, one double, eight strikeouts. Roy Halladay's done OK, while Tanyon Sturtze has held him to 5-23, three doubles, and....two walks. Joe Kennedy munches on him, while Victor Zambrano gets rocked. I'm not seeing a pattern here.

  • The camera loves some players. I've watched a lot of Mariner games, and Gil Meche (who is, for those of you not in Seattle, the buzz out here) has his good-looking mug on camera more than anyone else. While the team's up, here's a shot of him in the dugout, talking to a coach. Between starts: Here's Meche charting pitches, or sipping a cool cup of beverage. It's like the producer has a crush on him. I haven't watched enough games to see how bad this gets on other networks, but I sense that every team has one or two of these handsome-looking guys who bend light to their visage.

  • I have a weak stomach for gore that I've managed to desensitize through repeated viewings of the "Evil Dead" movies and related films in that hallowed pantheon, but I've found myself using the live rewind to take second looks at injuries. There's something fascinating about seeing players go down. Now, to be fair, I'm not going to go buy "Compound Fractures Gone Wild" or anything ("You won't believe what happens when bones are hit by more than one NFL lineman"). But when I was watching the Blue Jays-Yankees game where Ken Huckaby dropped a shinguard on Derek Jeter's shoulder, I, like Will Carroll, kept going back and forth, trying to pick up what had happened and how bad it would be. I knew for all my hatred of the Yankees that they didn't have a backup plan, and that middle-infield injuries were the only place they could be hurt and feel the pain. And I do this all the time--did that pitcher clutch his shoulder, or was he adjusting his uniform? Paying attention to player health the way I already look at swings or deliveries over and over is entirely new to me.

  • I've found that some of the best baseball is played with lopsided scores. One of the things I love about baseball is that you can't run the clock out, or play time-out games, or milk possessions. You need to get 27 outs to finish a game, and if you're down 16-1 you still have to go up there and hit. It's those situations where we find out what's in a player's soul: Are they focused all the time, fighting every plate appearance, running to back up infield plays, or do they go up and hack if they're far enough ahead, or jog toward fly balls? Pitchers, freed from the pressure of being too fine and hitting corners or trying to unintentionally walk batters, put out their best stuff, batter after batter, trying to end the game. The game's outcome isn't in doubt, and you're left with the world's best athletes, just out there playing baseball.
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