Sunday Notes: Thorn on Game Changes, Salaries Redux, Moya on Mashing, more

In the opinion of some, baseball is broken. Not irreparably, but it’s become borderline boring and badly in need of an infusion of offense. Pace is a problem. Games last beyond the bedtimes of millions of young fans, many of whom have short attention spans.

There are myriad issues, and they can’t be ignored simply because certain indicators suggest the sport is thriving. What, if anything, to do about them? In the opinion of John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, there are no obvious answers.

“It’s conflated,” Thorn told me a few days ago. “It’s tangled. People have a vague unease that things aren’t right — not the way the ought to be – and somebody ought to do something. The problem is, there’s no magic bullet.”

But based on historical precedent, an arsenal of options exists. For instance, following the 1968 season – aka “The Year of the Pitcher” – the mound was lowered by five inches. The measure had the desired effect: In 1969, OPS jumped from .639 to .689 and runs-per-game shot up from 6.84 to 8.14. (In 2014, OPS was .700 and runs-per-game 8.13).

It’s important to note that the game-altering move was necessitated by another game-altering move.

“All of the elements that produced 1968 were put in place in 1963,” explained Thorn. “It was a boiling crock, and enlarging the strike zone was a big part of it. After Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, (Commissioner) Ford Frick was concerned that batting records would tumble, and baseball would return to a 1930-level of offense (11.1 runs-per-game). He was trying to head that off at the pass.”

Unlike the 2014 strike zone, which has been criticized for being too low, the 1968 strike zone was high. Pitches at the letters were strikes. And while enhanced bullpen usage is blamed for many of today’s hitting woes, innings-heavy starters excelled in the year “Those Were The Days” rode the charts. I asked Thorn if paradoxes were at play.

“What you’re doing is rearranging the doilies on the armrests,” responded Thorn. “The elephant in the room is that pitchers will dominate hitters. Pitching is action, hitting is reaction, and the one initiating the action has the advantage.

“We have a historical record to indicate pitching dominates. We also have a historical record of intervention being required to strike a balance between offense and defense. Baseball is like a horse race. If you have some horses who are tremendously larger and faster than others, you put more weight on them in order to have a more pleasing result. It’s a handicapped race.”

Last year’s record number of strikeouts concerns Thorn, largely because a lack of contact means a lack of action. Batters aren’t just hitting fewer home runs, they’re hitting fewer singles, doubles and triples. He puts the onus on the men at the plate.

“You have hitters taking long, arcing swings against pitchers who are bigger and stronger, and have developed new tricks,” said Thorn. “It’s as if you had a competition between Fred Flintstone and Bill Gates. Hitters are primitive. There’s strategy involved in pitching, and there ought to be with batting — not mere swinging.”

Predictably, Thorn isn’t a proponent of banning shifts (although he makes it clear that any possible rule changes are beyond his pay grade: he’s offering historical perspective, not suggestions). In his eyes, Wee Willie Keeler’s advice to “Hit ’em where they ain’t’”is just as sound now as it was in the 1890s.

As for clock-watching, Thorn says it’s important to differentiate between time of play and pace of play. When I asked if fans would be more accepting of low-scoring games if they didn’t last so long, he admitted there might be something to it. His primary criticism of soccer is, “There’s so much noodling around in midfield. It’s not merely low scores, it’s few shots on goal.”

Removing the noodling in baseball (as this week’s tweaks are meant to address) would be a positive step. Adding a little more action on the base paths couldn’t hurt. Cutting down on the length of games? The implementation of new checks and balances could obviate the need.

“Three hours of a good thing is better than two hours of a good thing,” said Thorn. “The question is, ‘How do we make a good thing better?’”

——

In 1974, the average time of game was 2:29. In 2014 it was 3:02.

The shortest game at Fenway Park last year was completed in a crisp 2:31. Played on a hot afternoon, it was scoreless through nine before the Twins tallied in the top of the 10th. In the bottom half, the Red Sox hit back-to-back home runs to win 2-1.

I wasn’t in the press box that day, but rather in the stands, accompanied by my teenage daughter. Somewhere around the eighth inning, she said to me, “This game is going way too fast; hopefully it goes extra innings so we’re here a little longer.”

Like Thorn said, it’s all about the quality of the contest.

——

Last week’s story about coaching salaries in the minors elicited feedback from within the game. A number of people I heard from offered off-the-record perspectives not included in the article.

Regarding the relative salaries of college coaches, I was told a particular
lower-tier program starts out their assistant coaches at $30,000 a year. That amount – and this is for an assistant, not a head coach – is comparable to the lowest starting salaries in the minor leagues.

A related comment came from a player who was drafted out of a higher-tier program. He told me that the quality of coaching at major-conference programs is better than you get at the lower levels of the minors. In his opinion, salaries are a big reason why.

A minor-league coach told me his biggest complaint is meal money. He gets $30 a day, a figure that has remained mostly unchanged over the years. That covers not only food, but also clubhouse dues and amenities like cab fare.

Another brought up a human element well-known within the industry: The high divorce rate for minor-league coaches and managers.

“You’re traveling all over the country,” said the coach. “You’re dragging your wife along when you can, but a lot of times you can’t because she has a job. You need both salaries, because not only are you paying your mortgage, you’re paying rent at the place you’re coaching – on $30,000 a year.” With so much away-from-home and financial stress, it’s inevitable that many relationships will suffer.

Perhaps the most interesting comments came in regard to salaries in the big leagues. The contact wasn’t claiming poverty, and he understands fans don’t come to the ballpark to watch coaches, but he questions why some coaches make under six figures while the minimum salary for an MLB player is $507,000, and the average salary is $3.8 million.

“A guy can manage in the minor leagues for 30 years, then get hired to coach in the big leagues and make between $90,000-$110,000,” said the contact. “A rookie comes up and immediately makes over $500,000. I’m not saying coaches should make an outrageous amount, but couldn’t they at least make close to the minimum salary (of players)?”

There is no minimum salary for managers and coaches in the major leagues. Owners control what they earn. MLB managers and coaches pay union dues, but – unlike players — they don’t receive full representation. They do get insurance, and for many, the pension plan is paramount.

——

Staying on the business side – don’t worry, we’re going back on the field soon – I checked in with Garrett Broshuis a few days ago. As you probably know, the player-turned-attorney is involved in a federal suit alleging that Major League Baseball is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The low wages paid to minor-league players are at the root of the lawsuit

Broshuis didn’t have any especially notable updates. He told me the suit is currently in “the discovery phase,” which includes trading documents and making depositions. General managers and directors of player development are among those who will be deposed. Bud Selig and/or Rob Manfred are on the list of possible – if not likely – candidates.

——

Thumbing through an old publication, I read an anecdote attributed to a book called “Willie’s Time,” by Charles Einstein. A quick search told me it was written in 1979 and was about Willie Mays. The earthy anecdote reads as follows:

“(Orlando) Cepeda was on second base and a Reds pitcher said, ‘Don’t you know how to speak English?’ Cepeda responded, ‘Kiss my a– you c———. Is that English enough for you?’”

——

Steven Moya is working to improve his plate discipline. The 23-year-old Detroit Tigers outfield prospect had a 4% walk rate and a boatload of strikeouts at Double-A Erie last year. He also hit a club-record 35 home runs and got his feet wet in the big leagues after being named the Eastern League’s most valuable player.

Chasing is his bugaboo. Moya fanned 163 times and admitted during the Arizona Fall League that he “gets fooled with pitches outside the zone, mostly down and off-speed.” He told me his main focus is “improving his eye” – the 6-foot-6 left-handed hitter was also tinkering with his stance — as he “wants to be aggressive, but only in the strike zone.”

Erie manager Lance Parrish knows what Moya means. A free-swinging slugger during his playing days, Parrish hit 324 bombs while whiffing over 1,500 times. The way Parrish sees it, “There’s a fine line between being aggressive and patient, and it can be hard to determine the two when you’re at the plate trying to drive the ball.”

The young slugger agreed with his 2014 skipper.

“Sometimes you’re too aggressive and sometimes you’re too calm,” said Moya. “You need the middle. It’s kind of crazy, but sometimes I’m actually too passive and end up being late. I don’t want to be late. I want to be on time, so I need to be ready for that fastball in the middle.”

Like many hitters, Moya looks fastball-middle and adjusts. His power is to all fields and pulling pitches on the inside half isn’t something he considers a strength. He agrees with the adage that the best way to hit a good breaking pitch is to hit the fastball. The problem – much of his own making – is he doesn’t see as many as he’d like.

‘Pitchers aren’t going to throw you whatever you want, when you want it,”bemoaned Moya. “If they start me with a bunch of crap and I swing at it, they’re not going to give me a fastball. But if I can leave the bad pitches alone, then they’re in trouble.”

“He’s such a good hitter that there are situations where pitchers don’t want to throw him strikes,” concurred Parrish. “He needs to recognize when those times are. He’s a young guy who has a few holes to figure out, but his upside is tremendous. I’ll say this: He can hit the ball as far as anybody alive.”

——

According to Dave Trembley, John Smoltz could have been a Pittsburgh Pirate. The former manager – now the director of player development for the Braves – told me this story earlier in the year:

“I was managing in Harrisburg, and at the trade deadline (Pirates general manager) Syd Thrift called and asked who the best major-league prospect in the league was. He said they wanted to acquire future talent. I told him this kid Smoltz can really throw — electric arm, high 90s, control and command aren’t good. The Pirates tried to get him, but he ended up going from Detroit to Atlanta in the Doyle Alexander deal.”

——

Red Sox manager John Farrell reportedly said, on Friday, “If Shane Victorino is fully capable and fully healthy, he’s our right fielder.” He went on to say Mookie Betts could conceivably begin the season in the minors.

Interesting. The much-ballyhooed Betts has been the presumptive starter at that position, as well as the team’s lead-off hitter. Projections have the 22-year-old up-and-comer outproducing the 34-year-old Flyin’ Hawaiian, who has been below league average in two of the past three years.

Maybe Farrell doesn’t expect Victorino to remain healthy enough for this to actually happen? Or is he planning to put Betts in center and $72 million-man Rusney Castillo on the bench or in Pawtucket? And let’s not forget about Jackie Bradley, Jr., who is arguably the best defensive centerfielder in the American League.

Unless he falls flat in Fort Myers, Betts belongs in the Boston lineup. My guess is that Farrell backs off his proclamation and Mookie-mania is alive and well on Opening Day.

——

I was recently perusing the roster of the 1945 Cincinnati Reds, in part because Ed “The Wild Elk of the Wasatch” Heusser was one of their pitchers. That led to me learning about Hod Lisenbee.

This was the tail end of the war years, but it’s nonetheless notable that Lisenbee was 46 years old and hadn’t pitched in a big-league game since 1936. Prior to the ’36 season, he hadn’t been in the bigs since 1932.

In 1927 – his rookie season – Lisenbee won 18 games for the Washington Senators. He was already 28 years old, but that’s not too surprising when you consider he didn’t pick up a baseball until he was 21.

Lisenbee threw his last professional pitch for the minor-league Clarksville Colts when he was 50 years old. Clarksville, Tennessee was Lisenbee’s hometown and yes, you could get there by train. (Kids, feel free to ask your parents about that reference.)

The SABR BioProject has more on Lisenbee here.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The league-leader in Wins has won 59% of Cy Young Awards since 1967.

White Sox pitchers led the American League in ERA four times between 1960-1967: Frank Baumann, Joe Horlen and Gary Peters (twice). Dick Donovan, who pitched for the White Sox from 1955-1960, won the ERA title in 1961 with the Senators.

Tigers hitters won batting titles 17 times from 1907-1927: Ty Cobb (12), Harry Heilmann (4), Heinie Manush (1).

Joe Morgan is the only player to score five runs in a game without recording a hit. He did so on June 30, 1977.

Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell struck out 114 times in 8,333 plate appearances. Adam Dunn struck out 2,379 times in 8,328 plate appearances.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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libradawg
7 years ago

I just can’t believe how far scouting has come. I mean, did you see that whole hackneyed gorefest of a scouting report from the mid-80s? “Electric arm, high 90’s, command and control ain’t so good.” What kind of grated nonsensical abortion of a conversation did they have after the were done with the baseball part? I can picture a lot of drawl and poor grammar in that thing. Before radar guns were invented and strike zone management became a specialized thing, what did theirs sound like? “Fastball. Real Fast. Throws it ’round the place.”

Here’s hoping for the sake of one of my surprise Dynasty picks that Moya sees a lot of those kinds of pitchers. Fastballs. Fast ones.