Depending on which source of inaccurate Internet information you subscribe to, “God is in the details” was said by Gustave Flaubert, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Groucho Marx.
(OK, I made that last one up, but the point is the same: Details are important.)
On more than one occasion I’ve had a friend or acquaintance tell me they love baseball and would like to go to a game with me and have me explain what I’m seeing. But by the third inning, most of these friends and acquaintances become ex-friends and acquaintances and are desperately thinking of ways to get me to shut up.
So what’s the problem?
Understanding baseball requires paying attention to detail. And as a nation we’ve developed the attention span of a hyper-active hummingbird. If you feel the urge to check your cell phone before you finish this article, you know what I mean.
But for those of you who truly do love the minute details that make up the larger game, I’ve got some nuggets of information for you.
Last Thursday morning, I went to Kauffman Stadium and had a couple conversations that revealed the kind of information I find fascinating. If this stuff doesn’t spin your gears, this would be a good time to check your cell phone.
Does Billy Hamilton have trouble playing the wall?
After seeing a couple balls go off the wall that I thought Royals centerfielder Billy Hamilton could catch, I asked outfield coach Mitch Maier if Hamilton had trouble playing the wall.
Mitch explained what’s happening, and what’s happening is pretty interesting.
Hamilton has played most of his career in Cincinnati, and the centerfield wall in the Reds’ ballpark is 406 feet away from home plate. Kauffman Stadium’s centerfield wall is 410 feet away, so just about the time Hamilton expects to hit the wall he’s still got an extra six feet.
An outfielder can take his eye off the ball and check the wall early in his route, but by the time he’s reaching the warning track he needs to be focused on the ball.
Warning tracks are only a couple strides wide — not enough time to get stopped when going full speed — so players have to develop a feel for when they’re approaching the wall. After starting a total of 21 games in Kauffman Stadium, Hamilton doesn’t have that feel yet.
Mitch believes Hamilton will get better at playing the wall as the season progresses.
Positioning also has something to do with it.
A lot more balls are going to land in front of Hamilton than behind him and Mitch wants those balls caught. If a hitter has the pop to bang one off the wall, tip your cap. But don’t get beat on a busted-bat flare that drops in between the infield and outfield.
Mitch also pointed out that if you drew a circle that portrayed Hamilton’s range, you wouldn’t want part of the circle on the far side of the centerfield wall; you’d be wasting range.
Anytime you see an outfielder get to the wall and have time to set up and make a catch, the outfielder could have been positioned closer to home plate. So Hamilton’s positioning has him arriving at the wall at the very edge of his range, and that means he won’t have time to set up and make an easy catch — and those balls off the wall will remain difficult.
The Royals will trade that for Hamilton taking away balls that might fall in front of him.
So, no, Billy Hamilton isn’t afraid of the wall. He’s just figuring out where it is.
Does Terrance Gore get picked off too often?
Terrance Gore has stolen five bases in nine attempts. And for a guy that fast, those numbers aren’t good.
Maier is also in charge of base-running for the Royals. So while I had his attention, I asked if Gore should be getting picked off when he was that fast. Did he really need such a big lead?
Maier said that Gore had once misread a “key” — the movement of the pitcher that indicates whether he’s delivering a pitch or attempting a pickoff. But then he made a couple of points worth considering.
When Gore pinch-runs, everybody (including the hot dog vendors) knows he’s going to steal, so everybody is on high alert and doing everything they can to stop him. So Gore gets no caught-by-surprise stolen bases.
Here’s another thing worth knowing:
Back when I started paying attention to this stuff, the average delivery time for a pitcher to get a ball to home plate was 1.4 seconds. On one of Gore’s pickoffs, the pitcher had a delivery time of 0.97, which is incredibly fast. So yeah, Gore needed every extra inch he could add to his lead.
Maier added that the Royals’ success rate on steals needs to go up to the 75% range, but at some point he thinks they’ll rip off a bunch of them in a row and be just where they want to be.
He then pointed out that the effect that a base-stealing threat has on the hitter and pitcher isn’t captured by the numbers ... and gave an example.
With Billy Hamilton on second base, the pitcher — in this case, Houston’s Gerrit Cole — kept looking back at Hamilton. When he finally delivered a pitch, it was a fastball down the middle and Adalberto Mondesi hit it over the centerfield wall for a home run.
If Hamilton wasn’t a threat to steal, Cole could have concentrated on Mondesi and made a better pitch. Some “caught stealings” can contribute to some two-run home runs — and that can be a decent tradeoff.
Cam Gallagher was catching that day, so I asked him about two-strike counts and whether hitters changed their approach, which would lead to Gallagher changing the pitches he called.
In the old days, teams might throw a down-and-away fastball just off the plate in every 0-2 count and give the hitter a chance to get himself out by swinging at a marginal pitch.
These days, there’s so much information — the upside of analytics — that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Some hitters — mostly middle-of-the-lineup guys with pop — just keep swinging for the fences, so if you’ve got one of those guys 0-2 chasing sliders, go ahead and throw a third one because that hitter isn’t adjusting.
Other guys — contact hitters — might look to hit the ball to the opposite field with two strikes, so they can be vulnerable to fastballs inside. But you better remember what you did the last time you had that hitter 0-2, because if you busted him inside and he remembers it, that might be the pitch he’s now looking for.
And a middle-of-the-order guy might be willing to settle for an opposite-field flare if there’s a runner in scoring position.
This is why catchers — at least the smart ones — show up early to study video and scouting reports. They need to know a guy’s tendencies.
It’s gotten so complicated that catchers are wearing wristbands that help remind them of what to do in certain situations. I’ve talked to at least one old-school coach who hated the wristbands until his team started using them. He said that after that, the conversations about pitch selection went to another level.
So you can teach an old dog new tricks as long as the old dog thinks the trick is a good one.
This is the stuff that makes baseball worthwhile
The Royals are currently 16-31, so if the only thing that interests you is winning, much of the time — at least for now — you’re going to be disappointed. But if you pay attention to the details, there’s always something worth watching.
And if the Royals do enough of the small things right, they’ll do the biggest thing of all ... because God — and winning ballgames — is in the details.