Eric Chase Blog

 

My Dad Vs. Sabermetrics.

My Dad is the reason I love baseball. 

He took me to all my Little League games. 

He took me out to eat after those games. 

He said I prematurely aged his body with him being my personal practice catcher. I was prone to bouts of extreme wildness. Sometimes my curve ball did most of its curving when it was repelling back off the ground towards his legs. 

He dropped me off at school early for baseball practice, and he'd leave work early to come to my games.

He called the Towson coach to assure that I got a chance to try out for their team. 

My Dad and I don't talk much about what normal fathers and sons probably discuss. I'd guess that 85% of our dialogue is something about sports. I dunno, maybe that's normal after all. 

For the record, he owes me a dinner of my choice after falsely believing the Phillies would win...well, I don't remember how many games he foresaw them winning in 2013. I do know they failed to reach whatever his prediction was by a large margin. Dad passed on the chance to go double or nothing. 

As much as my Dad and I discuss sports, particularly baseball, I try not to bombard him with an array of new, advanced statistics that I find helpful and fascinating, but more than anything for me, they are truthtellers. 

My Dad's no fool. He just doesn't spend any of his Internet time on Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference. Unlike me, my Dad clearly has a life. 

Oh, and Dad always was the one who aided me with my homework as I was growing up. Chemistry, which he struggled with (as an adult I mean!), was a challenge for both of us, but his he was quite helpful in math until I got to about trigonometry in 11th grade. Before then though, my Dad was a key reason the subject that usually devoured me, didn't send me home with anything lower than a B. 

No, he didn't do my homework for me! My Dad guided me through the 'show your work' nonsense which I never grasped the importance of. 'Dad, why show it, when I know the answer!?!?' 

'Because they want to see that you can think and solve the problem on your own.'

OK, whatever, I'll show the work. 

As I said, once we passed Algebra Two I was off to sea on my own. I think the only way I kept my good grades afloat that year was a strategy I'd conjured up some time early in high school.

In most math classes, they did comprehensive reviews of what you should've learned the prior year probably through the end of that calendar year. I did my best to ace all the quizzes and tests on the review material so that when they began to teach the new stuff, and I'd likely stumble along, the C's and D's would bring those early year A's down to B's by the end of the year. Disaster was usually avoided. Though ask me to tell you the story of 10th grade Geometry one year. 

My Dad was no math genius; he was just more mentally disciplined than his 15 year old son. As he should have been, since he'd been through the math game before. 

Not only did I get my love and appreciation of sports from my Dad, but also my at-times robotic objectivity. He probably didn't know it at the time, but my Dad was the impetus behind 'why do I have to show my work!?'

It was as PEDs in the game were still thriving, but Ryan Howard was once the most fearsome power threat in all of baseball. NL MVP in '06, coming within 3 of tying Maris' 61, along with 149 RBIs and a .313 average. The following three seasons Howard averaged a .930 OPS. 

The year after that, in 2010, Howard's slugging percentage plummeted to a career low .505, and since has never gone higher than that. 

GETTY IMAGES

Leg injuries have assailed Howard's last two seasons, after his 2011 season was famously ended, concurrent with the demise of the Phillies dynasty, when a ruptured Achilles tendon left him helpless on the ground as the Cardinals upset the 102 win Phillies in that year's NLDS. 

Even before the leg maladies, and Howard's frightful struggles against left handed pitchers - any of them, not just the exceptional ones - Howard was probably one of the first batters who teams emphatically shifted against whenever possible. 

Ryan Howard's life in the batter's box since his MVP days have often looked like this.

Except, with a lot less success. Even that hit was a fluke. 

Defense has choked off offense in MLB the last few years. At this point, the vast amount of information and statistics teams have at their disposal have helped extinguish the previous twenty five years of historic offensive baseball.

You've seen enough baseball to know that more than just Howard gets shifted on these days. The low-budget Rays and Pirates have gained competitive advantages by precisely aligning their defense more than anyone else in the game recently. 

Whether you want to define them as advanced statistics, or simply just call them 'new,' without them, my Dad was WAY ahead of beating the shift years ago.

From the very first ground or line outs to a second baseman in short right or to short stops playing on the first base side of second, my Dad has queried why Howard and others who see that shift don't simply put pride and power hitting contract aside and just drop down a bunt. 

It took four or five years of futilely plunging averages and offenses, but according to SI's Tom Verducci in this column, it's time for offense to strike back. 

How about more strikeouts and more pitching changes? Yawn. Nothing new there. The only question is how much longer do those trends continue to play out? But also expect to see more defensive shifts -- even within an at-bat according to the count. Teams soon will need a defensive coordinator.

 

Now it's time for the counter-move. What we should start seeing are pull hitters who put in honest practice time to bunt or push the ball to the open spaces. Teams are giving away hits -- in some cases doubles (see Robinson Cano at Fenway Park last year) -- and hitters are too stubborn or proud to take them. It's all situation-dependent; you don't want David Ortiz bunting for a single with two outs and nobody on base. But there are too many situations right now when taking what the defense gives you is a smart play, and yet it's not even an option for most hitters.

This is why I'll never be a full blown, unwavering supporter of using sabermetric weapons to verify each point, or to win an argument. 

Even objectivity needs emotion. And even something brilliantly obvious can combat something of the intelligentsia of baseball. 

In fact, it reminds of how War of the Worlds ended. 

The aliens with their menacing size and advanced technology easily conquered the planet. 

Ultimately though, the Martians were undone. Not by stolen alien technology used against them. Not by the remaining population coming together in violent uprisings. Not by bigger, badder aliens conquering our conquerers. 

But by some of the tiniest and least complex organisms in history of the universe. 

Bacteria. 

They never saw it coming.

Neither did that shift defense, as yet another bunt gently rolls into short left for a double. 

Epilogue!

In the last 10 days Fangraphs has had some fine writing on bunting against the shift, here and here

To summarize, bunting isn't as easy as you may think it is. 

That's acceptable. But with what wouldn't amount to an inordinate amount of practice, timely bunting through the chasm of a shift should be much easier than trying to square up two round objects and get it to go between lesser holes. 

 

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