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June 22, 2004

Breaking Balls

Derek's Guide to Winning Baseball, an Occasional Series

by Derek Zumsteg

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Earl Weaver in Weaver on Strategy presented a set of guidelines for running a team. The book is the best on managerial strategies and roles I've come across, and the respect accorded it is well earned. Don't play for one run unless it'll win you the game--James Click's series on bunting should be required reading for managers. Browsing any day's box scores shows you examples of managers bunting early, or for no good reason at all.

Weaver's Fourth Law, from the book: Your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs.

This leads to a short rant about bunts, particularly early in baseball games. The concept behind the rule runs throughout the book, though, and underlines the single biggest conflict in the game of baseball: The defense wants to get outs without giving up runs, and the offense doesn't want to give up those outs.

Here's my first rule of winning baseball: "Don't give the opposing team anything they can't get themselves."

For example, let's take pitching. Say your team is up against a pitcher who can't throw strikes consistently. They're throwing them way out of the strike zone, in the dirt, over the backstop, and the strikes are few and far between.

Why do players go up and hack at the ball? Why not get up there and wait it out? If you watch enough baseball, you'll see this happen enough to drive you nuts. Don't give a pitcher a strikeout if all he can do is throw balls.

That's not a hard-and-fast rule, of course. Sometimes a wild pitcher throws a slow, controllable meatball up for strike one. But when a fastball comes in so high the batter has to jump up to take a cut at it? Maybe you should let that by. No hitter is so impatient that he can't just sit the bat on his shoulder and watch a pitch.

If they can't get a strike, don't give them a strike.

Mets at Royals, June 12. Chris George comes out and looks baaad. Gerald Williams bunts his way on (Gerald Williams, yes, bunted for a single in 2004). Then it's a strike, and ball, ball, ball, single to Kazuo Matsui. Four balls to Cliff Floyd to load the bases. Then with no real choice but to throw strikes to Mike Piazza, George walks Piazza in seven pitches.

Bases loaded, 20 pitches already with no outs, knowing at once it's unlikely they can get a reliever out there any time soon and the longer George labors this inning, the earlier you'll chase him from the game...I'm thinking "take".

Nope. Ty Wigginton lines into a double play on the first pitch. Vance Wilson grounds out to the pitcher on the second pitch he sees. Royals go on to win 4-3.

More importantly, if they can't get an out, don't give them an out. We can even put the two together.

The Yankees against the White Sox. April 9, they're up against Jon Garland in the fourth. The Yankees are working him for pitches pretty well (56 pitches through three). So then:

Garland to Hideki Matsui: ball, strike, three balls
Garland to Bernie Williams: four balls
Matsui is then picked off second base.
Garland to freaking Enrique Wilson: four balls

So...first and second, and Garland has thrown one strike in 13 pitches. He's now thrown 69 pitches before getting an out in the fourth. Even Enrique Wilson managed to keep his bat on his shoulder.

I don't get it. Take, John Flaherty, take! Don't do anything!

Kenny Lofton goes on to walk (hey, that's a run if Matsui was still on) and then Jeter looks at the first pitch and grounds out to third on the second to end the inning.

Now, the Yankees lost that game by a wide margin, but it's 1-0 headed into that inning against a starter who looked shaky and then had no control--and they gave him the inning.

And that's Joe Torre. One of the best managers in baseball, giving the key to the lock to the struggling escape artist. Don't do that! Just as the Yankees can afford to spend millions on a Jose Contreras and then figure out what to do with him later (like ship him off to the Mariners, who need pitchers like the Rockies need bunts), when you have a great offense, you can recover from mistakes like that.

Mistakes like these don't make up a huge margin. But they can decide a game or two over the course of a season, which can sometimes mean the difference between October baseball and October golf.

Finding and exploiting marginal advantages is the job of a good manager. Piling them on top of each other makes for a great one.

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<< Previous Article
Prospectus Triple Play... (06/22)
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Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Um... (06/17)
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Premium Article Breaking Balls: Framin... (06/24)
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Premium Article Under The Knife: Hip T... (06/22)

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