Defining the fundmentals in baseball?
August 31, 2007 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I am a late-blooming Baseball fan. I grew up in New Orleans (no baseball), lived in Boston for six years, and now reside in Houston. Since baseball is religion in Boston, and since I was there to see Boston win in 2004, I have become something of a fan. Here are some questions that have bugged me since I started watching:

1. Why do fans and the media react so hot-and-cold in April? The season is so long and when I read books about baseball's early years, or look at previous seasons, it's pretty clear that what happens early doesn't necessarily amount of much in September or even October. Still, some teams are pronounced "dead" in April that are contending now andvice-versa. Why?

2. On the surface, baseball seems very simple: Swing, hit, run, and field, catch, throw. It seems there's quite a bit more since announcers and fans seem to elude to each player doing many more things beyond standing there waiting for the ball to come to him. I know about hand-signals, though I have trouble seeing them on TV or figuring out what they mean. Beyond those things, do the players do anything else during the game?

3. Along that simple/complex theme, how much control does a manager really have? The Astros fired Phil Garner this week. The act seems to blame him for a bad season, but how can Phil Garner, for instance, force Wandy Rodriguez to throw better on the road? How can he force Clemens and Pettitte to come back? They seem like things out of his control. And then there's that whole physics thing, with the gravity and round objects reacting to one another.

4. Why does a pronounced "good team" get swept by a pronounced "bad team?" All you Sox-Yankees rivalry fans can calm down. I am not speaking of Boston's loss in New York this week. Rather I am speaking generally about, say, a team going on to win the World Series who repeatedly get swept by or lose series to so-called "basement dwellers."

5. On that note, it seems that one player does not make a team. Matsuzaka is supposed to put Boston back in October. Alex Rodriguez is supposed to make sure the Yankees can win it all. But this doesn't seem to happen often, so why so much focus on single players? Is this more a construct designed by the media? (I suppose the same thing happens in the NFL, too, what with Ricky Williams' draft year and how he was supposed to win New Orleans a Super Bowl, but I digress.)

And, finally, one fundamentals question:

6. Every once in awhile, I'll see a catcher put his body literally between home plate and a runner coming from third. Somehow the collision seems to affect whether the runner scores or not. Can someone explain this?

As the years go by, I find I grow more fond of the game for a lot of different reasons. I just want to understand it better, at least those things that go beyond the very basics.

posted by tcv to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (35 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Still, some teams are pronounced "dead" in April that are contending now andvice-versa. Why?

More than 100 years of major-league play indicate patterns of success and non-success over a 182-game season, which ruthlessly separates the wheat from the chaff.. Plus, it makes good copy.

I know about hand-signals, though I have trouble seeing them on TV or figuring out what they mean. Beyond those things, do the players do anything else during the game?

I recommend the George Will book "Men at Work" and the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball." Both provide kick-ass insights about the game within a game.

Along that simple/complex theme, how much control does a manager really have?

Some managers call every pitch, every defensive alignment and every offensive play (swing, bunt, take a pitch, etc). Some done. Check out the Men at Work book above -- a whole fourth of the book devoted to managers.

Why does a pronounced "good team" get swept by a pronounced "bad team?"

Usually, it's pitching. A pitching staff that gets hot at the right moment is always tough to beat. See the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, which, on paper, should've been crushed by the A's. But Orel Hershisher went on a history-making tear at just the right time.

so why so much focus on single players?

Complex question, but a simple answer is that in baseball, an individuals' performance has a wide-ranging impact that is not immediately apparent. The presence of Alex Rodriguez in an offensive lineup has the potential to change an entire pitching strategy for the team. For example, since he is more likely to get a hit for power, you do not want to walk the batters appearing before him in the lineup. That means you are more likely to throw them strikes, which in turn makes it more likely for those players to get hits, too. Part of the reason Babe Ruth was such a good batter is because he had another Hall-of-Famer, Lou Gehrig, batting behind him in the lineup.

6. Every once in awhile, I'll see a catcher put his body literally between home plate and a runner coming from third. Somehow the collision seems to affect whether the runner scores or not. Can someone explain this?

You have to touch the plate to score. The catcher has to tag you to get you out. Therefore, the catcher will physically block the plate with his body, and the runner will collide with him in an attempt to get to the plate and jar loose the catcher's grip on the ball, thereby rendering the tag ineffective.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:48 PM on August 31, 2007

I'd like to answer # 2. More than any other sport, baseball has a game-within-the-game. You are right that at its base fundamental physical level, it is quite simple. But for every nine inning game the ball is only in play for like 13 minutes. So clearly something must be going on during the other time, you are right about that. And what is going on is almost infinite. Every single play is a set of dynamics that is dependent on lots and lots of factors. One simple example is that the team on defense will position themselves differently based on the count on the batter, the number of outs, the presence or lack thereof of runners on base, the score, the number of outs in an inning, what inning the game is in, the strengths and weaknesses of both the batter and the pitcher, the handedness of pitcher/batter, etc. etc. ad infinitum. You get the idea. And this set of circumstances changes with EVERY PITCH. Most players can't keep it all in their head but the coaches on the bench and the "battery" (pitcher/catcher team) have some idea (discussed beforehand) how they want to pitch each opposing batter in different situations (might pitch the same guy differently in the first inning than you do in the ninth). So in between pitches there are subtle adjustments being made, sometimes physically but always mentally in what is expected to happen.
posted by vito90 at 2:54 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can answer a couple of these.

4. Because even the best teams go through dry spells when their star players aren't producing up to their usual caliber, and/or all the pistons aren't firing at the same time. Baseball seasons are so long that teams will inevitably be hot and cold at various time between the beginning of April and the end of September. The best teams are the ones that are hot more than they are cold, but even they can get beat by the bad teams.

6. If the runner can hit the catcher hard enough so the ball falls out of his mitt, he'll be safe, thus scoring a run.

I'd answer more, but I've got to run. I can't wait to check back later for more replies though. I'm a huge baseball fan.
posted by bjork24 at 2:54 PM on August 31, 2007

As for #3. A good manager can get you a few extra wins over a 162 game season, a bad one could cost you alot more. Since playoffs are often earned by beating an opponent by 1/2 game at the end of a season a manager's impact can be enormous in a close race. Now you're right that a manager can't make a guy hit or throw better, but they can increase their player's and their teams likelihood of success by putting them in the best possible position to win. Judicious use of a pinch hitter at a crucial time in the game, pulling a starting pitcher and deciding what reliever to use at a critical time, employing the use of hit-and-run or sacrafice bunting at appropriate times can get you a few extra wins.
posted by vito90 at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2007

Thats a lot of good questions. Upon preview it seems you've gotten some very good answers.

I'm particularly drawn to answer #1. Baseball fans can be fanatics, as living in Boston has probably taught you. While the early games in April and May may not seem to mean much, they really add up at the end of the season.

Look at the collapse happening in Milwaukee right now. The NL Central was practically sewn up and done with in June and July. Now the Brewers are in freefall. Those early games helped the Brewers up, and cut down the Cubs, who were playing terribly.

Now the Cubs are up two games and the Cardinals not far behind. It's going to be a bloodbath, and each team will look back at the stupid losses they had at the beginning of the year and wish they had a few games back.
posted by sanka at 3:06 PM on August 31, 2007

This whole "dead in April" thing probably came about with the evolution of the obnoxious 24 hour media, in which people like Buster Olney have to talk about something all the god-damned time.
posted by xmutex at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2007

Here's my best go.

1. I'd say folks react so much in April because they're excited about the season starting, but I don't believe anyone who follows baseball necessarily feels that an April showing has a definite effect on the season outcome. That said, one the teams start playing in April, you're given the chance to judge the playing ability of the team, and then you can make an educated guess to how they'll do the rest of the season.

2. This is a rather broad question, which in fact, really requires a lot of smaller detailed questions. A batter will receive signals from the third base coach on how to approach their at bat; bunt, swing away, hold, etc. At the same time, the batter will try and think which pitch the pitcher will throw next, etc.

Signals are also given by a catcher to the pitcher, telling the pitcher what pitch to throw next. This isn't so much the catcher telling the pitcher what to throw, as allowing the catcher to know what type of pitch to expect next (as a pitcher can shake off a signal given to him for one he does want). Though, sometimes, catchers know where to put the ball next, and will signal such.

Every fielder, mean while, will be thinking, "What do I do, if the ball comes to me?" He'll take into consideration how many outs and if there are any runners on base.

The batter on the on deck circle will also be watching the pitcher to see if he can spot any behavior that the pitcher might use (a tell) for any particular pitch.

So there's a lot things going on, at least in the heads of players, that you can consider.

There's also strategy...and I'll go into that next.

3. The manager is basically the head coach of the team and makes all the decisions, such as where a batter should bat in the line up, to who will be playing what position, and which pitcher should be throwing that game. The manager will signal the third base coach to indicate what the batter should do (bunt or swing for the fence!), or tell a runner to try and steal, and choose if and when to pull a pitcher and to send in a reliever.

He's basically the brains behind the overall strategy going to work in the game. Out of the game, its expected that he's going to work with his assistant managers and coaches to get the absolute best performance out of his players. A manager can make a big difference on such things as motivation and performance.

4. There's a quote from the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball, that goes,"a team that loses a third of its games is considered great, and a team that wins a third of its games is considered horrible." Basically, a good team won't win all the time, and a bad team won't lose all the time. Sometimes a bad team can overcome its handicaps and play beautifully versus a good team, and like wise, a good team can simply have a bad week, etc.

A good team can afford to be swept by one team, and still go on to win most of their games. Sometimes some teams simply have a psychological effect on the other team, and other scenarios, like if the game is at home or away, or how long the team has been on the road, can affect the outcomes of games.

Ultimately, no team is absolute perfect, and no team is absolutely horrible. Sometimes they meet in the middle with surprising results. :)

5. One player does not make a team, but he can make one hell of a difference. The one player can be the reason a winning run was scored, or that the other team was held scoreless. Also, a good player can simply inspire teammates to play better or harder, by setting an example. Attitude and personality also go a long way. However, as the Yankees prove, you can have a trove of great players, but its no guarantee of success.

In terms of the "great player" phenomenon, I'd say it arose both naturally, and artificially. People want heroes and players to adore and cheer for, and they tend to gravitate towards the player with the greater skill when they do so. Now, as I said naturally, I mean that if Great Player A hits a home run to give the team the winning run, more often than not, then the media will focus on him and raise him up, because he is doing an outstanding job.

6. When a catcher stands between home plate and a runner coming from home, its termed, "blocking the plate." The fact that he stands there has nothing to do technically if the runner scores or not, but rather its strategy. Generally, when a runner is coming home, it will not be a forced out, it has to be a tagged out. The best way to tag someone going for home is to face them in front of the plate. This achieves two effects. One, it makes it a lot harder to reach home plate for the runner. Two, it makes tagging with the ball easier for the catcher.

A catcher is allowed to block home plate, but only if he has the ball. A runner, like-wise, is allowed to clear the running path, I.E., crash/slam/slide into the catcher to reach home. He has motivation to do this, because if he knocks the ball free from the catcher's grip, the tag won't hold and he'll be safe.

So to sum that up, a run is scored when the runner touches home plate. A catcher will try and prevent this, by blocking the plate while holding the ball, in order to tag. A runner can collide with the catcher, if they're blocking the plate, in order to reach home and try to knock the ball free of the catcher's hold.

I'd strongly recommend renting Ken Burn's "Baseball." While it won't necessarily give you a "primer" on the sport, it provides a beautiful history and will give you an understanding of the sport's past and how it came to where it is today. You'll learn more about the game's philosophy and character, as well.

Hope this helps answer. :)
posted by Atreides at 3:08 PM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'll take a stab at #1. A perfect example is the Yankees this year. They got off to such a poor start in April and May that they fell so far behind that it has taken the best record in baseball since the all-star break to pull with 5 games of the Red Sox and to tie the Mariners for the wildcard. There was so much hope for the Yankees early on then their pitching failed them so they fell far behind. Now, as clearly the best team in baseball, they might not make the playoffs. So April matters. It is a long season, but if you get too far behind you run out of time to catch up.

Then there are teams like Tampa Bay that are out of it at the end of April. They are simply teams with inferior talent.

I know it is very dated, but read Ball Four by Jim Bouton. It will give some insight into the game.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:19 PM on August 31, 2007

some teams are pronounced "dead" in April that are contending now...

As others have stated, it's almost a set-piece bit of theater by now. The counterpart to the pronouncement of death in April is September's assertion that, "that's why they play the games." It's just hyperbole, but fans and announcers both know that in some cases, a very poorly performing team can contend later in the season and even if they don't contend, a million small scenarios could play out.

As far as the game-within-a-game goes, the best thing you can do if you're really interested is to read the books that have been suggested, but even more than that, get out to watch any level of minor league baseball. You'll be much closer to things and you can gain a much better perspective on the entire scope of activity in that environment. If you go with someone who knows the game well they can describe things to you.

In terms of the manager's role, it varies widely but their job description runs the gamut from cheerleader and motivator to tactician and strategist, and they do that while managing a pretty complex organization with a lot of moving parts. If you watch enough baseball, you'll notice patterns. A manager might not control the pitcher's action on the field, but things like leaving a pitcher in too long and pumping up pitch counts take their toll over the season. So a manager's decisions today have a large impact on events later. And players know that, and when the stop respecting their manager, it has a drastic effect on motivation and commitment levels, even for professionals.

Lots of good answers here, though, hope mine contributes something!
posted by mikel at 3:23 PM on August 31, 2007

As for #4 - Whitey Herzog said it best. "Before the season even starts, you've already won 50 games and lost 50 games. It's what you do with the other 62 that matters". It holds true as a matter of statistics (The worst teams each year still win 50 to 70 games, the best teams each year win 90 to 105 games) and it holds true in real terms as well. How this second part manifests is by first place teams losing two of three or getting swept by crummy teams. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do, every ball hit by the opponent drops in, every call goes against you, everything the opponent tries works. But the very next day the script is flipped and you can do no wrong. That's baseball. She's a harsh Mistress.
posted by vito90 at 3:36 PM on August 31, 2007

In addition to Ball Four, read Weaver On Strategy - Earl Weaver was probably one of the best managers ever, and his book talks about what made him that way. Now, on to your questions:

1. April is the first month of the season, and the media like to think of it as a "tone-setting" month. However, if this were true in 2007, the Yankees would be dead and buried, and the Brewers would be running away with their division. This is why they play 162 games.

2. Here's one example: defensive players shift their position based on the strengths of the hitter at the plate - the manager will shift the infield and/or the outfield to maximize the chance of getting the hitter out. The easiest way to see this is watching Barry Bonds hit - the second baseman shifts over to cover the gap between first and second, and the shortstop covers second base, because Bonds hits almost exclusively to the right side of the field.

3. The manager has almost zero effect on the play on the field. The primary job of a manager is to make sure that his players get along, and to see that his players accept their roles because there's not enough playing time for all the guys that want to play.

Baseball is unique in that there are games almost every day. It's more of a "typical" work environment (as you or I understand it) than most sports, because players spend a ton of time together, and not all of that time is spent practicing - baseball has a lot of down time where players just hang in the clubhouse, and a manager needs to be able to make sure that they all get along.

4. Pitching and defense are key. Look at the Seattle-Anaheim series this week - two good teams, admittedly, but it came down to the fact that the M's don't have much good pitching and can't get guys out when they have to, and that's the case in most unexpected defeats as well.

5. Yes, the media creates that in most cases. Look at A-Rod when he went to Texas - he was expected to be the savior, and to lead that team to the Series every year. It didn't happen, because Texas didn't complement him with enough good players. One stud pitcher, for example, is good for 18-20 wins, but in the context of a 162 game season that's not very much.

6. Atreides has it - the catcher is trying to prevent the runner from touching the plate. The catcher often gets run over doing this. This is why you shouldn't ever be a catcher.

Baseball is a great game, and a lot of fun to follow - if you have any further questions, my email's in my profile.
posted by pdb at 3:39 PM on August 31, 2007

A useful way to look at the "how can a crappy team beat a great team" question is this: every team is going to win a third of its games and lose a third of its games. It is the other third that divides champs from chumps. Some of the "predetermined" losses for a great team are going to come against poor teams. this also makes it easier for a Red Sox fan to take a sweep at Yankee Stadium -- just put those games in the "we were always going to lose those three" category.

Also, I think the biggest element of the "game within the game" is the psychological battle between pitcher/catcher and batter over what type of pitch is going to be thrown next. The difference between a fastball, a change-up (the technical name for a "slow ball"), a slider and a curve are drastic at the major league level, and as a batter has only .02 seconds to decide whether or not to swing at a given pitch, much of that decision must be guesswork.

For example, part of the reason for Manny Ramirez's success, I think, is that he actually does not try and overthink the coming pitch (home plate of beans?), but just uses his prodigious physical gifts to simply react within that .02 seconds.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:41 PM on August 31, 2007

Response by poster: Quick note: Wandy Rodriguez piched a real gem in Chicago today. The Astros beat the Cubs 6-1. Just when I say he's predictable on the road... ;-)
posted by tcv at 3:45 PM on August 31, 2007

I think one of the most significant things about baseball has to do with the disproportionate importance that one single player, the pitcher, has on the game. He has the most ability to control how many runs the other teams scores and thus the outcome of the game. He's got the ball way more than any other player (catcher coming in second) and he begins every play (except, I suppose, if a runner decides to steal a base, but even then the pitcher would be involved in the play by trying to throw the runner out). The pitcher is indispensable, and a good pitcher can make a team that's fairly weak offensively pretty much unbeatable. And the reverse is true obviously as well: if the pitcher sucks, then there's pretty much no hope for a win. In fact, in the extreme situation, if a pitcher throws a no-hitter during which the other team's batters can make absolutely no contact with the ball, then theoretically you don't need the rest of the players on his team, except for the catcher. He could throw 9 "1,2,3 innings" and no one in the infield or outfield would even touch the ball. On the other hand, a batter doesn't even need to hit the ball if really bad pitcher keeps throwing balls-- he can walk and eventually the pitcher can walk him home.

As a consequence, pitchers tend to be extremely expensive (Sox paid $50 million just for the pleasure of speaking to Matsuzaka, although A-Rod's quarter billion dollar contract is still the biggest on record, I think). And because pitching is so physically destructive for their shoulders and the rest of their bodies, they can't even pitch often. Most pitching coaches wouldn't even let one of their star starters pitch an entire game.
posted by buka at 3:48 PM on August 31, 2007

You may have noticed that the coach wears the same uniform as the players. That's not the case in any other sport, but there's a good reason why. Baseball is sort of like a chess game, with the coaches playing against each other.

Others above have mentioned some of the things coaches do, but the single most important decision that coaches make is when to take players out of the game. And the reason that's important is that once a player has left the game, he can't play any more.

So deciding when to put in a pinch hitter can be the difference between victory and defeat, but it isn't necessarily an obvious choice. You have a good opportunity to maybe make a game-winning score -- but it's still odds against. And if you put in a pinch hitter, then the player you're replacing, who may be good at defense, is no longer available to you.

That's especially an issue when it comes to pitchers, since pitchers historically are not very good batters, but are the team's primary defense. (And that's why I despise the "designated hitter rule", and only watch National League games. The DH rule makes life way too simple for the coaches.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:50 PM on August 31, 2007

Bah, Rock Steady, thanks for getting that quote right for me. :)
posted by Atreides at 4:04 PM on August 31, 2007

Great thread! I have to run out in about ten minutes and can't give a full answer right now, but here's a graphic from the NYT which illustrates how baseball signalling works.
posted by edverb at 4:19 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

"Good" teams losing to "bad" teams? Baseball is a very competitive game.
posted by milkrate at 4:20 PM on August 31, 2007

4. More than perhaps any other major sport, baseball involves chance on a day to day basis: rocket line drives are often hit right at fielders, and weak swings often result in hits. Over the whole 162 game season, these things average out: MOST rocket line drives will be hits, and MOST weak swings will result in outs. But each game only contains 27 outs, and if, in that span, a 'bad' team gets 6 infield hits on check-swing dribblers, and a 'good' team hits 6 line drives that are caught, the 'bad' team has a good chance of winning.

The Texas Rangers, one of the worst teams in the league, recently scored 30 runs in a game, for example. Many if not most of those hits were dinky bloopers.
posted by notswedish at 4:32 PM on August 31, 2007

A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.
Summerland - Michael Chabon
I don't have any specific answers to your questions, but I too, am a recent convert to baseball the sport. Not being a "sport fan" in general, I used to follow basketball because I felt basketball players were vulnerable on the court, running around inside a rectangle with hardly a "uniform" between them and the spectators.

But now, I find myself fascinated with how baseball makes men vulnerable: a tired pitcher is relieved of the ball and walks off the mound to the jeers of 40,000 spectators, a muscle-bound fella swings a bat as hard as he can and falls to the ground as he misses a ball. Conversely, a baseball game is never over until it's over. Even in the 9th inning, with two outs and two strikes, a hitter always has a chance, time can stand still in a way that few other sports can duplicate.
posted by jeremias at 5:18 PM on August 31, 2007

On the whole "star player" thing:

A star player can make a big difference as others above have mentioned, but he must be complemented in the lineup or he'll just rack up the personal stats while his team languishes. A "star pitcher" is nearly indespensible. Most winning teams have a legitimate #1 pitcher, the rest desperately want one.

A lot of the more recently successful teams play "small ball". Grind it out, work the count, make contact, hit singles, bunt runners into scoring position, smart baserunning. With a fairly standard lineup, these tactics can win you a lot of games. A lot of that is due to the manager and his philosophy of the game. Reminds me recently of the 05 White Sox, who won the World Series.
posted by sanka at 5:26 PM on August 31, 2007

The reason bad teams sweep good teams is the same reason that people win the lottery:

Lots of people are playing the lottery.

There are lots of series of bad teams against good teams.

And keep in mind that, in baseball, a good team might win only something like 60% of their games, and a bad team might lose only something like 60%.

And the reason that the Yankees swept the Red Sox is because the Red Sox suck.
posted by Flunkie at 6:27 PM on August 31, 2007

The biggest reason I like baseball over other sports is because any player on the team can be a star. It's not like basketball where the center and/or power forward is probably the name on the team, or football where it's in the rules that only certain offensive players can score (absent weirdness like recovering offensive fumbles).

Everyone bats. Everyone can score. I've seen pitchers hit home runs. They don't do it very often, but it does happen. Most decent pitchers have multiple home runs over their careers. Conversely, any player on the field can make a miraculous defensive play. In baseball there are no spear carriers, no nameless many who help the starring few to glory.

Baseball also doesn't favor freakish body patterns. They aren't mountains of meat, like football players. They aren't stilts, like basketball. Small men and big men play equally, and any of them can be a star.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:29 PM on August 31, 2007

how much control does a manager really have?

Sometimes it depends on when the game is. Bobby Cox has managed the Atlanta Braves since 1990; he's currently the fourth winningest manager in major league history. (He also holds the all-time record for ejections.) During that time the Braves had arguably the best rotation of starting pitchers in the history of baseball and won an unprecedented 14 consecutive division championships from 1991 to 2005.

During that time, the Braves won one World Series, because Bobby Cox is a great regular season manager, and a terrible playoff manager. He gets too conservative, and he leaves his pitchers in too long, so they get tired and make pitching mistakes that lead to losing close games in the late innings.

The catcher often gets run over doing this. This is why you shouldn't ever be a catcher.

I know several former catchers (two of them women), and the thing they loved about being a catcher was the opportunity to knock the runners on their asses. (It helps when you're wearing armor and the runner isn't.)
posted by kirkaracha at 7:02 PM on August 31, 2007

Regarding questions 2 and 3, there is this quote in the prologue to Dickson's The Hidden Language of Baseball:
Cleveland was playing Chicago. [White Sox] Runners were on first and third. [The Indian's] Schalk signaled to the moundsman for a curve. Speaker saw the signal flashed and ordered a delayed double steal. Gleason caught that signal, the White Sox switched positions, and Schalk signaled for a pitch-out.

The pitchout signal was caught by Uhle, who was coaching, and Speaker signaled for a change. The result was that the runners held their bases and the pitcher wasted a ball. Schalk signaled again, the infield changed and Speaker ordered a delayed steal. Ray was warned and ordered another pitch-out, but no sooner had he flashed that signal than Speaker had ordered another wait and Schalk, thinking to outguess Tris, ordered a fast ball. As Schalk changed his signals Speaker, guessing that he would do exactly that, signaled for the hit-and-run, with the result that a hit whipped through the infield, winning the game.

-- Bill Wambsganss, for the New York Evening Post
Managers are like chess players, and signals are the means by which they move their pieces.
posted by event at 7:33 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You've got a lot of good answers, so I'll just chime in on a few of the comments.

Now, as clearly the best team in baseball, they might not make the playoffs.

The yankees are in first in the wild card race. If they don't make the playoffs, they're not the best team in baseball (I'll ignore the ridiculousness of claiming they're "clearly" the best team now).

Claiming that the best team in baseball may not make the playoffs is nonsense. The most talented? Sure. Highest paid? Yep. But they don't play the game on paper.

The manager has almost zero effect on the play on the field. The primary job of a manager is to make sure that his players get along, and to see that his players accept their roles because there's not enough playing time for all the guys that want to play.

Again, not true. The manager controls much more than the chemistry of the team. The list would be a long one, but one example would be his management of the bullpen. An over-used bullpen can be death to playoff hopes.

That's not to say that in the end the difference between a good manager and bad one is more than a few games, but those few games can make the difference between making the playoffs and not.
posted by justgary at 8:31 PM on August 31, 2007

justgary, you took my bait and bit. Ok, I'll bite back. which team is better than the Yankees right now? They have the best record in baseball since the all star break. They have outscored every other team in the league by far. That is what baseball is all about. Arguing with a friend over a cold beer about which team is better and what is the correct approach to getting better. Many people still rip on the Yankees for buying their team. But, know that Jeter, Cano, Cabrerra, Posada, Phillips, Hughs Joba, Mariano, Duncan, Pettite, Ramirez, Wang and one or two others on the current roster came up through the farm system.

The beauty of baseball is that there is no clear answer. It is not black and white. There is always next year (see Cubs).

What I particularly like about the sport is that it is a game of failure and how you deal with failure. A great hitter gets out 70% of the time he has an official at bat. The successful teams and players learn to deal with failure well and learn to take advantage of the times they succeed. A lot of it is luck. But it is also a thinking sport. When to call for a bunt, a hit and run, a steal, every pitch is carefully chosen and may be called not to get the batter out on that pitch but to get him out next time he comes up when he is looking for the same pitch in the same situation.

I once took a recently emigrated chinese national to a cub game. It was his first game ever. He did not know the rules. I thought it would be easy to explain. Three outs per team per inning. Goal is to score. Pitcher tries to get the batter to strike out or hit it to his teammate. It tuened out that while watching the game, he had so many questions about what was happening I realized how complicated the game really was. Try explaining the infield fly rule to someone who has never played before. Explain what happens when the ball gets stuck in the ivy at Wrigley. Tell him why the bleacher fans throw back the ball that the other team hit into the stands right after you explain to him that if a ball goes into the stands the fans get to keep them and even fight over who gets it. Try to explain why the pitcher keeps adjusting his cup and spitting.

Baseball is a great sport.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:57 PM on August 31, 2007

Hughs= Hughes
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:57 PM on August 31, 2007

5. On that note, it seems that one player does not make a team. Matsuzaka is supposed to put Boston back in October. Alex Rodriguez is supposed to make sure the Yankees can win it all. But this doesn't seem to happen often, so why so much focus on single players?

Because Steinbrenner bought Reggie in '77 and the Yankees won the World Series. Ever since then owners in all sports have been trying to do the same.
posted by any major dude at 9:11 PM on August 31, 2007

Most of the hard answers needed have already been supplied, but in the spirit of "more understanding yields more enjoyment"...

6+) On almost every double play attempt at second base, there is a terrific piece of baseball ballet in which the runner attempts to put his body in the way of the fielder or the throw, in order to "break up" the double play. The fielder, in turn, needs to (more or less) reach the base and make a throw around, over, or behind the runner who is attempting to force a collision or at least pressure the fielder into a bad throw.

This is a more frequent and more subtle version of your catcher at home plate example (it'll happen a few times every game, while the play you describe at home is a once-a-week event), and it's a great thing to watch.

Also, since you seem to have the luxury of watching games in person, rather than on TV, one great technique for gaining appreciation for the overall game is to choose one fielding position to watch each inning or so, to see how that player positions himself before the pitch, moves at the time of the pitch, and reacts to any hit ball. They do not start in the same place each time or do the same things in every situation. By asking yourself "why did he do that now?" you will be able to think yourself into a lot of insight. You'll miss some plays, of course, by taking your eye off the ball, but usually one can see that action indirectly, and gaining an understanding of situational play has a lot of trickle-down benefits.

On TV, of course, this is impossible. We see the ball and only the ball.
posted by rokusan at 9:42 PM on August 31, 2007

justgary, you took my bait and bit. Ok, I'll bite back. which team is better than the Yankees right now?

Right now, at this moment, you might be right. They're playing great baseball. I'm not arguing that. But next week that could change.

You said that the best team in baseball might not make the playoffs. If the yankees don't make the playoffs, that doesn't mean the best team didn't make the playoffs.

In other words, if the yankees tank and end up missing a playoff spot then you can, if you want, say the best team on June 31 didn't make the playoffs. But its basically meaningless. For instance, you took a random amount of time, since the all star break, and said the yankees are the best team in baseball. I could take the time since day one and say the red sox are the best team in baseball. We could start tonight and over the next two weeks maybe the tigers are the best team in baseball.

As far as clearly, I'd argue that part of what makes baseball great is that there rarely is a 'clearly'. A team that is clearly the best doesn't get 2 hits against tampa. If the yankees don't win the world series, no one would be shocked. If they were clearly better, they would be.
posted by justgary at 9:43 PM on August 31, 2007

For example, part of the reason for Manny Ramirez's success, I think, is that he actually does not try and overthink the coming pitch (home plate of beans?), but just uses his prodigious physical gifts to simply react within that .02 seconds.

Actually, Manny does quite a bit of guessing about which pitch is coming (especially as he gets older and his bat gets slower). That's why you see him take so many third strikes -- he's guessing offspeed and he gets fastball.

one player does not make a team
Well, that's true. But let's say, for example, your fifth starter is comprised of a combination of Lenny Dinardo, Jason Johnson, Kason Gabbard, and Kevin Jarvis. If you replace those people and their combined 6.3 era with Daisuke Matsuzaka, your team gets a lot better. Say, for example, you have your best hitter get injured in the middle of a tight game in an semi-important series in late August. Let's call him Manny Ramirez. When you replace Manny Ramirez with Eric Hinske, the team will go from winning a bunch of one and two run games to losing a bunch of one and two run games.

which team is better than the Yankees right now? They have the best record in baseball since the all star break. They have outscored every other team in the league by far.

The Angels, Boston, and the Indians. The Yankees have scored more runs than any other team; on the other hand, sixteen teams have allowed fewer runs (including the Kansas City Royals).
posted by one_bean at 12:45 AM on September 1, 2007

Some other books worth checking out on Baseball are Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent and The Hidden Language of Baseball. The first follows one game from the 1982 season, but includes a lot about the history of baseball, the rise of free agency and strategy. The later is mainly about signals. One caveat about Nine Innings though, I grew up following one of the two teams in the book, so I knew most of the players on one side going in, it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of it (it's a great book), but it might.

And, I got to see a pitcher hit a homerun last night.
posted by drezdn at 7:52 AM on September 1, 2007

One thing I find appealling about baseball that might fit under number 2 is the idea of players that make up for appalling defense with incredible offense (I'm looking at you Ryan Braun).

Sometimes you have to make a trade-off of this player will cost us X amount of runs over the season, but will create Y runs for us (This is more of an issue in the National League, because you can't just make them your DH). On the Milwaukee Brewers, the third baseman (Ryan Braun) came up from the minors this year as an offensive juggernaut. He was one of the fastest players to reach 20 homeruns in their rookie season and has an AVG of .333 (it's slipping a bit though).

The dude sucks at third though. He tends to miss line drives, and has trouble throwing to first. It's even cost the Brewers some games.

So now, when a game is tight, the manager will put in a salty veteran who makes plays (Craig Counsell) and rarely makes errors... Who also can't hit.

When you're watching a game (again more so in the NL than AL), watch for switches made between innings. For example, last night near the end of a close game, the manager moved the CF to right, adding a better defensive presence to both right and center.

And watch how outfielders react to how a ball is hit to guess if it's a home run.
posted by drezdn at 8:07 AM on September 1, 2007

"In baseball there are no spear carriers, no nameless many who help the starring few to glory."

Bullshit. Neifi Perez. Hell, Mario Mendoza.

There are a couple of things I'd like to add to the above:

Re #1, etc.— Something you have to realize is that the vast majority of commentators on national television are absolute morons. They misconstrue statistics, they offer meaningless numbers, they make sweeping pronouncements. Hell, Joe Morgan, one of the lead ESPN "analysts" can't even remember what teams he was on or when he played half the time. When someone starts talking about predictions for the season based on a couple weeks in April, you'll know they're a fool and should be ignored.

Re: #5— One of the things that might be of interest to you is looking at the Sabermetrics statistics, where they attempt to quantify the value each player has overall, like VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), which essentially rates the number of runs per out a player creates when measured against the league average (it's a little more complicated, and for pitchers you figure out the number of runs prevented per out). You can also look at the number of "wins" a player has created by examining their WARP. Using these, and understanding that stats like regular batting average or RBIs are essentially meaningless as standards of comparison can help you get a better picture of who's doing what for what teams. That helps explain why A-Rod is awesome (or Mags for the Tigers) and why, despite the constant discussions of David Eckstein's "heart," he's just not all that great at baseball.
posted by klangklangston at 3:00 PM on September 2, 2007

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