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April 19, 2017

Rubbing Mud

What Ozzie Smith Thinks Can (and Can't) Make Baseball Better

by Matthew Trueblood


Everything in baseball divides itself into threes. There are three strikes in an out, three outs in an inning, three fundamental dimensions of the game (offense, pitching, and fielding), and three broad constituencies who constantly fight for control of the game, both on and off the field: owners, players, and fans.

Of late, though, each of those triads have become a bit problematic. The rate at which those three strikes get racked up has skyrocketed, and that trend is only increasing. The three outs per inning are taking a bit too long to accrue, not because outs have actually become harder to get, but because the action that begets those outs is unfolding more slowly. The game is spinning on an increasingly bipolar axis, as hitters and pitchers take center stage and defense becomes a smaller piece of the puzzle.

All of that has left the owners, the players, and the fans somewhat at odds with one another. The strain is natural and inevitable. The owners want to pursue the solution to these problems that will most thickly line their pockets. The players want the solutions that balance the interests of batters, pitchers, and fielders best, and that asks as little of them (in terms of changing their habits on the field) as possible. The fans’ self-interest is just as crass, in a way, but the game is for the fans, so their concerns have a bit more intrinsic nobility.

The problem is this: other than the economic pressure they can exert as the consumers of the game, the fans don’t have a voice in this conversation. They don’t have an opportunity to influence the process as directly as the owners and players can. An effort is underway to change that, in however small a way. Ozzie Smith and Kingsford charcoal have partnered up on a national marketing campaign designed to elicit feedback from as many fans as possible, regarding what they like best about baseball.

Specifically, the project asks fans to reach out via social media and express their preference among the three dimensions of the game, in their most extreme forms—big homers, strikeout fastballs, and incredible defensive plays. It’s a false choice; the game is best when it offers us the widest variety of these exciting single moments. Smith agreed with that point in talking to me, but noted that one possible outcome of this endeavor might be to undo the erosion of emphasis on defense he’s seen over the 20 years since his retirement.

“It’s all about what’s emphasized most,” Smith said. “I think right now teams are putting a lot of emphasis on sluggers, a lot of them are looking for those triple digits, and maybe defense isn’t getting as much attention, even though we do have some great shortstops making some great plays.”

I asked Smith whether the game could be reshaped, over time, to be a faster-paced undertaking. In 1984, Smith’s Cardinals played 84 games that concluded in two-and-a-half hours or less. Last year the Cardinals played only 10 such contests. Could the league change enough marginal incentives to induce faster, more aggressive play, more early swings, more contact?

“No, because I think, really, that replay has slowed the game down tremendously,” Smith said. He noted that he understands why replay has become part of the game, and that he would probably have another World Series ring if replay had been in place in 1985. Still, he doesn’t like it. “One of my favorite parts of the game, as a fan, was always watching Lou Piniella or Jim Leyland out there yelling and screaming—the human element. And we’ve lost some of that now. So I do think that replay has been part of what has made games slower now.”

As for the on-field factors that have driven the aesthetic changes in the game, Smith believes many of them will sort themselves out.

“Teams are realizing it—you see it with Alcides Escobar, Brandon Crawford, Elvis Andrus," Smith said. "Those are three of the best shortstops in our game today, and those three teams have all been on the rise, and that’s because those players are able to give their pitchers confidence. It’s really about your pitchers being able to have confidence that they can get a ground ball and get an out, and that they don’t need to strike out every hitter they face.”

As we know, though, the league has moved steadily away from the slick-fielding, slap-hitting infield archetype to which Smith (and two of the infielders he named above) belongs. One reason for that is the shift, which has allowed teams to substitute strategy for athleticism (to some extent) on the infield. Smith detests that trend.

“The shift has never made sense to me,” he said. “Because if I’m a pitcher, now I know I can’t make a mistake. I know that I have to pitch to the defense, because if a hitter even mis-hits a ball the other way, that’s a free single. So it doesn’t inspire confidence the same way that a great defensive infield can.” Hitters have rarely taken advantage of that opportunity, of course, so the shift has remained generally effective. I asked Smith why he thinks that’s so.

“It’s really a lack of commitment on the part of the offensive player,” he said, dismissing the idea that adjusting one’s swing might be impossible to fundamentally change, and specifically shooting down the notion that the sheer stuff of modern pitchers precludes the kind of bat control that made Smith and many other hitters successful in the 1980s. “It’s really a failure to work enough at using the whole field, which is what we were always taught. And that’s the power pitcher’s toughest out, the contact hitter who he knows can fight the ball off, use the opposite field, and then that eliminates the shift.”

While teams no longer accept players without any offensive punch, even at defense-first positions, there is an increasing sense that teams understand defense better today than ever before. I asked Smith whether he thinks Statcast (and other advances in our statistical understanding of the art of fielding) will help revive interest in defense, and eventually drive teams back toward valuing those skills more highly.

“No,” he replied, rather flatly. “I don’t put a lot of stock in those numbers, because at the end of the day, it’s about how many plays you made, and how many you didn’t make. It’s about the preparation and the practice you do to be ready, to improvise, and to get the out.”

Smith’s opinions and positions won’t resonate much with a saber-slanted, 21st-century baseball audience. Even those who crave the version of the game to which Smith still seems attached (the old-school brand of baseball, featuring more bunting, more running, more small players, more balls in play, and more managerial arguments) would arch an eyebrow at Smith’s disdain for modern hitters, his imperfect understanding of their plight, and his proposed remedies for what ails them.

The shift isn’t going anywhere. Replay is an arena ripe for reform, but will only be expanded (making officiating games more impersonal all the time). Smith makes good points about the way pitchers approach opposing batters, and the freedom that truly great defenders give them. We saw that with last year’s World Series combatants, who each boasted excellent defenses (especially on the infield) and so were able to support their pitchers without leaning heavily on shifting. That did seem to allow their hurlers to be more aggressive, at times, and to pitch to all parts of the zone.

For the most part, however, Smith was unable to offer any revolutionary ideas for restoring the game to the higher excitement level he believes his era delivered. Still, I felt all of this was worth sharing, for a simple reason: Smith was the anti-Pedro Baez. Smith made the game buzz at all times. He made it impossible to take one’s eyes off the game. He’s known for the excellent defense, and (of course) that’s the way in which he delivered the most value over his career. At the plate and on the bases, though, Smith kept the game moving, and still offered plenty to watch.

An elite contact hitter, he saw just 3.53 pitches per plate appearance during the portion of his career for which we have data, mostly because he so rarely swung and missed. Smith also stole at least 25 bases and was caught fewer than 10 times in 12 different seasons, two more such campaigns than anyone else in baseball history can boast. Though he lacked power (and would have been a better offensive player if he had had power, of course), Smith added excitement to the game at the plate and on the bases, in addition to doing so with his glove. He kept the ball changing directions.

Smith and his corporate partners might get a less filtered, less carefully cultivated brand of feedback than MLB itself has, in its internal efforts to find out what fans want most from the game of baseball. They might help unearth some new ideas about how the game can best appeal to fans everywhere. If nothing else, though, this project will yield an opportunity to be reminded that baseball should be fun, and that players like Smith made it constant fun. The game need not be played just the way Smith and his contemporaries played it, but few players have more authority on the issue of making baseball an aesthetic delight than Smith has.

You can get involved in Smith’s and Kingsford’s Best of Baseball promotion by posting on the Kingsford Facebook page, or by tweeting @STLWizard and @Kingsford using the hashtags #BestofBaseball and #contest.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  St. Louis Cardinals,  Interviews,  Ozzie Smith

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