A Year-Round Conversation About the Game We Love

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Game of Skills, Hearts and Minds

"I don't care how long you've been around, you'll never see it all." -- Former major league pitcher and manager Bob Lemon 
Regardless of who you were rooting for or whether you paid any attention to this year's World Series, the 2011 Fall Classic was indeed that, a classic. It was a great example of what makes the game great and the little things upon which a team's fortunes can turn.

Put yourself in the position of anyone in a Rangers uniform in what you thought was the end of Game 6. With the exception of less than 10 days off between mid-February and late October, your entire year has been dedicated to one thing, winning the World Series.

Think about what it feels like to be one strike away from achieving the goal you've worked hard for all season and that you dreamed about most of your life. You're on the top step of the dugout, your legs have enough spring to shoot you to the moon, you're waiting to see that last strike land in the catcher's glove or the ball arching towards an outfielder who will surely catch it starting the celebration. And then... 

Oh, and to have this happen not once but twice. Forget it happened to a team you may not care about or even dislike. It could have been the Goldman Sachs All Greed All Stars out there and you still might have some empathy for what it must be like to have your heart ripped out, when you are so close to accomplishing a lifelong dream.

But before you lose any sleep worrying about any long-term damage to their psyches, keep in mind that most professional baseball players are by nature and training, very resilient. Success at the major league level requires not only great physical skills but also great mental ones, particularly the ability to shut things out and concentrate on the matter at hand.

You have to shut out crowd noise, your own inner demons about a recent slump or the last at-bat. Forget the guy you're facing has owned you, or that it's your free agent year, or that you are a hit or strike out away from a ticket back to Fresno or doing something else. You have to concentrate on doing your job at the plate, on the mound, or in the field, right now.

I admire the ability of big league players to focus that way and forget about history or what just happened. After charting and editing video of 28,000 Curt Schilling pitches, I was always impressed with his ability to put things behind him.

As a pitcher who was always around the plate, he gave up a fair number of home runs, though usually solo jobs. What I liked was watching was his reactions after giving one up. That gimme the ball flick of the glove when he was thrown the new ball. The fleeting look, like he just missed an easy quiz question and then boom, the mask of concentration goes back up. It's back to business again, staring in for the next sign from the catcher.

I wish I had that kind of mental discipline. Many fans probably don't think of baseball players as rocket scientists. Most are not in terms of formal education or interests. But it takes a lot upstairs in the ways I've described to make it to the big leagues and stay there. That's why they are big leaguers.

Come spring training, they will for the most part put aside what happened this year. It all starts anew and that's one of the many reasons why we love the game.

What do you think? - Let's talk baseball!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Avoid Winter Blues - Welcome to Infinite Baseball

If you are like many baseball fans, it's depression time. The season is over and the three dreaded non-baseball months are staring us squarely in the eyes.

I'm writing this blog to help you survive the seemingly endless winter until the only time we care about finally rolls around, that joyous day in mid-February when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

So especially for these dark times when we're forced to scour for scraps of baseball news, I offer this blog as an online buffet to enjoy tasty conversation about baseball year-round.

We'll look at the game from the perspective of some of its most interesting inhabitants, sometimes players, but most often the coaches, managers, trainers and other behind-the-scenes baseball personnel.

For 13 seasons, I was lucky enough to work with major league players and coaches, primarily helping them analyze statistics and video. This 1999 ESPN SportsCenter Video segment explains what I did.

Besides making it easy for players to sort and watch video of any game situation on laptops [a big deal back then in the VHS tape era], we focused mostly on isolating what you could call organic statistics. By organic, I'm talking about information that can help players in actual game situations.

This is different from looking at broader measurements such as batting average, ERA, OPS and the like which are used for evaluating player performance by big league GM's to make personnel decisions and more important, by fantasy league managers.

Baseball reduced to its core elements is about pattern recognition and adjustment. Its atomic structure consists of endless singular battles in which pitchers try to fool or overpower hitters.

Since he's holding the baseball, the pitcher controls these battles. To help hitters offset this advantage, our program had a feature called NextPitch that would predict the type and location of the next pitch, based on all previous similar situations. It could also be useful to pitchers, as Curt Schilling noted in the ESPN video. The last thing a pitcher wants to do is become predictable.

That is the constant battle, the pitcher going after the hitter's known weaknesses and tendencies, and the batter adjusting, and trying to anticipate what a pitcher will throw next. Adjusting and readjusting, pitch after pitch, at-bat after at-bat; it is the game within the game.

Okay, like many of you, I could talk baseball forever but I'll wrap up this first post here. I'll be back again soon with more thoughts on the game we love, thoughts you can consider and weigh in on.

I'll also be bringing in some special guests from the professional baseball world to talk about what they do and answer your questions. And if there are any aspects of the game you would like to see covered in this blog, feel free to drop a comment in the box or e-mail me.

So buck up. Now you have a place to get your baseball fix between Halloween and Groundhog Day. And hey, pitchers and catchers report in about 100 days. We can make it. Let's talk baseball!