I can see him now in my mind’s eye, his skinny 8-year old body positioned at third base, feet spread wide, oversized knothole shirt draped over his slight frame, slapping his too large glove against those baggy polyester baseball pants hanging off his non-existent hips, cap pulled down low just above his eyes—little Tommy Verducci chirping to the boy in the batter’s box:
“Swing batter batter!”
That’s essentially what a grown up Tom Verducci did last week, when he called out Joey Votto, like some frustrated, meddling little league father yelling from the bleachers at his son to get the bat off his shoulder.
Joey doesn’t swing at enough strikes, says Verducci. He references his 37 HRs in 2010 and his power outage this year to make a damning claim: Votto isn’t swinging at enough hittable pitches and thus is not driving in runs. Nevermind that 51 at bats with a runner on base is a bit too early to be drawing sweeping conclusions on the effectiveness of the 2010 MVP’s hitting approach. Nevermind that the two-spot in the order has a .286 OBP thus far in 2013. Nevermind that Votto is coming off a knee injury. If Derrick Rose, who has been long ago medically cleared to play basketball, can be so apprehensive about an injury that he refuses to so much as take the court, is it entirely possible Joey Votto’s mind bone is not fully connected to his knee bone just yet? Or, perhaps Votto is simply getting off to a slow start. Heaven forbid one of the two best hitters in the game appears human.
Of course, Verducci wasn’t merely attacking Votto’s hitting philosophy, he was going after an entire segment of the population he repeatedly accused of “groupthink”—which suspiciously sounds like code for those OBP-happy, spreadsheet-loving fools who believe that getting men on base with greater frequency eventually results in more runs which in turn eventually results in more wins.
Verducci insists the obsession with driving up pitch counts and waiting for hittable pitches is a failing strategy in Baseball today. Votto is his Exhibit A.
It just doesn’t work, says Tom:
“Video is more abundant and portable than ever. More data is available. And yet the modern approach to hitting is failing. Pitchers are four years into a run of dominance and there are no signs that their run is abating, especially when the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting has become so ingrained.”
But pitchers have video, too. And data. Big data. And I seem to remember Verducci postulating not long ago that while both pitchers and hitters both have access to more data than ever, hitters are at a significant disadvantage due to the reactive nature of hitting, as opposed to pitchers, where nothing happens until the ball heads plateward. Votto is merely attempting to bring pitches back over the plate where they can be abused. Everything a hitter sees today has movement to it. Everything. That which doesn’t quickly finds itself souvenir material. Everything comes faster, breaks harder and later. An aggressive approach to hitting would seem to be dangerous territory for even the best hitters. Over aggressiveness makes average pitchers good ones. It makes good ones appear great.
Cincinnati fans know that. (See, e.g., the ninth inning last night in St. Louis.)
If the K rate in Baseball is rising dramatically, perhaps a reason is the preponderance of quality lefthanders in major league baseball who can bring it these days—Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Matt Moore, to name three. Said Mets first baseman Ike Davis,
“Back in my dad’s day, Ron Guidry was the only lefty who could throw in the mid-90s. Now, we’ve got about 80 lefties who can throw in the mid-90s. And that’s really difficult.”
Buck Showalter would agree: “You don’t see the hit and run anymore because so few guys are able to make contact, managers are afraid to put that on.”
The real truth might be that players are swinging and missing because pitchers are better than ever—and not just lefthanders.
Tom Verducci knows this. It was only a month ago that he wrote a season preview piece for SI—Generation K, Why Strikeouts Rule the Game—nearly 3,000 biblical words dedicated to the belief that there has been a sea change in pitching strategy that has dramatically altered how pitchers attack hitters—all at great advantage to the men on the mound.
Verducci credits Greg Maddux with breaking long-held pitching shibboleths—like pitching lefties down and in and throwing front door breaking balls to righties. Soon, power pitchers were aping Maddux, cutting and sinking the ball on both sides of the plate. Pitchers like Roy Halladay and later David Price are no longer using brute force and a four-seam fastball to crack on hitters, they are using the cutter and two-seamers to force hitters to cover more of the plate when they are behind in the count.
When Verducci wasn’t extolling the revolutionary virtues of the cutter (gimmick pitch turned indispensable tool) and an increased reliance on sheer velocity to befuddle hitters, he was blaming the mindset of sluggers like Adam Dunn and Evan Longoria, who accept strikeouts without the once requisite shame of yesteryear:
“I [Longoria] don’t have a two-strike approach. I mean, I could decide to shorten up [my swing] and roll over and hit a ground ball. But on this level, if you roll over something because you were just trying to put the ball in play, you’re going to be out more than 95 percent of the time. It’s more about, what can I do to help the team? For me, it’s getting three healthy hacks and using them.”
Yet, there wasn’t much reference to the above when indicting this “passive” approach that is supposed to be destroying this Game of Ball. Mr. Verducci uses dubious numbers to further a dubious agenda. In noting that teams that get a lead after as little as two innings win 70 percent of the time, he failed to explain why a patient approach at the plate was incongruous with scoring runs early. He used a statistical table showing a decline in first pitch swinging and an increase in Ks to draw a straight line conclusion—a classically misguided example of correlation = causation.
While dismissing the value of pitch counts, Verducci rolled out what is fast becoming his favorite quote from Cubs president Theo Epstein: “In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact.”
The problem with the quote is that Verducci lifted it out of context from an earlier article. Epstein’s remark was originally made in connection to a discussion about the burgeoning emphasis on velocity in young prospects, how scouts will no longer give Latin American teenagers so much as a sniff if they can’t touch 90; how even fathers carry pocket radar devices to measure little Jimmy’s heater. And it was in that context that Epstein said “In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact.”
That seems … well, dishonest. What is Verducci attempting to accomplish here?
If hitters are no longer swinging at 3-0 pitches the way they once did, what exactly is the problem with that? Since when did a 3-1 count become anything other than piñata-time for the batter? In this era where every reliever that enters the game seems to throw unreal gas and hitters aren’t as [ahem] artificially enhanced as they once were, why is today’s de rigueur practice of taking a 3-0 pitch suddenly a capital crime?
Fernando Rodney would surely prefer that hitters heed Verducci’s advice. The Rays reliever—who gave up a mere five earned runs last season—has already surrendered four this April. Why? He’s walking people. Batters are laying off his devastating change because it doesn’t often cover the plate and hitters are beginning to figure that out.
Meanwhile, Joey Votto marches on, led by a failed strategy which will almost certainly spell his doom before the season is out. As his OPB rises and his offensive contributions fall, we will learn to see it for what it is, The Verducci Effect 2.0.
Coming to a web syndicated baseball blog near you.