Archive for February, 2017

Fixing Baseball Not That Hard

February 25, 2017

by John Furgele (The Greatest 228)

Baseball has been called the national pastime for generations, but in reality, it is more of a regional pastime.  In Boston and New York, callers will take to the airwaves and talk about who should be the fifth starter, the set-up guy and the backup catcher.  In Pittsburgh, the callers will talk about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s eventual replacement.

Baseball is doing fine, revenues continue to go up, crowds at the games are solid and regional TV ratings are also very good.  But, baseball will keep fighting in the hopes of getting back to its perch as the true national pastime.  On national sports talk radio, it doesn’t get as much run as it should.  For some reason, all the sports talkies think the NBA is more compelling and because of the individual superstar nature of the game, perhaps that’s correct.  LeBron James can have the ball in his hands most of a game and can score 45 points if he wishes.  Jordan did that, so too, did Bird, Magic and guys like Dominque Wilkins.  We know that baseball is not like that.  When Barry Bonds was at his best, he only batted four times per game and he was often walked all four times.  You can’t take ball away from James, but you could take the bat away from Bonds.

Baseball has gotten away from its real roots.  Nobody wants to read “the game was better back in my day,” so I will refrain from that.  But, baseball has changed and that is why Commissioner Rob Manfred is looking for ways to speed up the game.  We have heard the commissioner talk about using pitch clocks, making sure batters stay in the batter’s box and recently, eliminating having to throw four balls for an intentional walk.  These aren’t bad ideas, but they really don’t address the fundamental problems of what is wrong with the game.

The main concern here is how to speed up the game.  An average baseball games takes about three hours to play.  Is that really too long?  Football games take at least that long.  There was a time when Sunday NFL games started at 1 pm and 4 pm; now they begin at 1 pm and 4:25 pm during the regular season?  Why?  Because three hours is not enough time.  But, for some reason, the three hour baseball game has become a sort of persona non grata in the sports world.  There are many who say that there isn’t enough action for a baseball game to take three hours, but in reality, there isn’t much more action in football games.  Think about it.   A draw play that gains three yards versus a routine grounder to the shortstop—is there really that much difference?

Baseball’s biggest problem is the abundance of strikeouts during games. Don Mattingly said that much this week.  Baseball players are trying to hit home runs all the time and as a result, they are striking out at alarming rates.  Last year, Chris Carter, now a Yankee, batted .222 with 41 home runs and 94 RBI.  He struck out 206 times.  There was a time where no big leaguer had ever struck out 200 times in a season.  Even players like Dave Kingman and Rob Deer never did.  And, the game’s all-time strikeout leader Reggie Jackson never did either.  He struck out 2,507 times, but never more than 171 in one season.

There are just too many Chris Carters in the game right now.  He is a one-dimensional player.  He either hits it 550 feet or supplies a game’s worth of air conditioning to the fans.  In the 1980s, watching guys like Rob Deer and Dave Kingman were fun because you just didn’t know what they would do at the plate.  They could hit three home runs in a game or strike out three times.  Most teams had one Rob Deer or Dave Kingman on their teams, but today, there are often three or more per team.  The Miami Marlins have six of seven whiffers on their team and when guys can’t make contact, they see more pitches and the more pitches seen means more bullpen usage, less action and of course, time added to the games.

Baseball is trying to counter this by ignoring this.  Instead of teams trying to teach more contact, they are talking about making the strike zone smaller.  Because the players can’t make contact with an already small strike zone, the higher-ups believe that making it smaller will help create more contact hitting during a game.  All this will do is make the game longer.

The 1974 World Champion Oakland A’s struck out 876 times in their 162 games, an average of 5.4 per game.  In 6,048 plate appearances, that is 14 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games, had 550 at-bats (walks excluded), this would equate to 77 strikeouts for the season.

The 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs struck out 1339 times in their 161 games, an average of 8.3 times per game;  an astonishing 463 more times than the 1974 A’s.  For their 6335 plate appearances, that represents 21 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games and batted 550 times, a 21 percent strikeout rate would be 115, or 38 more than the player on the 1974 A’s.

Baseball needs to keep being proactive.  They need to get a younger fan base and they need to find ways to keep people off their smartphones and more engaged in the baseball product.  Reducing catcher’s trips to the mound can help, but putting the ball in play would help more.  Today, the Bucky Dent’s of the baseball world think they can hit 25 homers per year, and, in doing so, they strike out 133 times per season.  Reality would have that player hit 8 homers per year and strike out 67 times.

When the ball is in play, more can happen.  Scoring is down because strikeouts are up, yet baseball thinks they can increase scoring by shrinking the strike zone and speed up the game by installing pitch clocks.

It is always good to tinker with your product and try to improve it, but in the end, the game is the game.  Baseball is baseball and you can’t make radical changes.  Baseball will never have constant action like hockey and that’s fine. But, baseball is more constant than the other sports.  There are bad football games; games where the score is 3-3 deep into the fourth quarter.  Baseball, because of its innate nature usually avoids this.  It’s one of the reasons why the baseball All-Star Game resembles a regular game because you really can’t go half-speed in baseball.  In football, hockey and basketball, that happens and those games are more than snoozefests.

Baseball can do a better job of assembling its parts/teams.  When I was in high school (1982-1986), if you struck out too much, you usually sat on the bench with a ski hat on during games because you weren’t playing.  Now, that’s no longer the case because teams want that home run more than they want three singles to score that run.

I refer to the movie Major League when manager Lou Brown told Willie Mays Hayes to stop hitting balls in the air.  He told Hayes, “With your speed, you should be hitting the ball on the ground and legging’em out.”  If baseball can get back to that, the product will move faster and be of better quality.

Federer Continues to Marvel

February 2, 2017

by John Furgele (The Official 228)

Where are they?  Where did they go?  When will they arrive?  Are they even out there?  How much longer can this go on?

McEnroe stopped Borg.  Lendl stopped McEnroe.  Becker stopped Lendl and then Edberg and then Sampras stopped both of them.  It has happened for years, but for some reason, it no longer happens.

Roger Federer, at 35, is the Australian Open champion.  He is 35.  His opponent was 30-year old Rafael Nadal.  This, in a Grand Slam final.  Bjorn Borg retired in 1982 at age 26.  Why?  Because he knew that staying at the top would have required 10,000 more hours of blood, sweat and tears.  But, for some reason, this isn’t happening anymore.  Federer is still reaching—and winning—Grand Slam finals.  The man missed the last six months of 2016, and still, nobody could beat him.  Nadal, the finalist, had a rocky, injured plagued 2016, yet here he was, nearing 31 years of age, playing in the fifth set of the Aussie Open final.  The other guy with double-digit Grand Slam titles is Novak Djokovic and he will be 30 on May 22 right before the French Open begins.  And, just for nice, the fourth guy who has four Slams is Andy Murray, who turns 30 on May 15.

Where are the up-and-comers?  Marin Cilic?  Jo-Wilifred Tsonga?  Miles Raonic?  Kei Nishikori?  We keep waiting for them to breakthrough, to be the next big-thing, but it never happens.  Look at Tsonga.  Everybody says he has the game, has the fitness and has the tenacity, but seems to be the perpetual quarterfinalist and sometimes semifinalist.  He reached the Aussie final is 2008.  2008!  And, since, he is 0 for nine years.

Cilic won a US Open title, beating Nishikori, but since that, nothing.  In fact, both haven’t even advanced to a Grand Slam final.  Remember Juan Marin Del Potro.  He defiantly defeated Federer in a five-set US Open final, but injuries have taken its toll along with the fact that in a big spot he can’t beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

There have always been the big four, the big three or the big something.  In the mid to late 1970s, most of the slams were won by Borg, Connors and towards the end, McEnroe.  But you had a Guillermo Vilas who won four (he did win two Aussie titles when the big guns stayed away); you had Manual Orantes, Adriano Panatta and Roscoe Tanner who were able to snag a few Grand Slam titles along the way.  Now, you have Federer with 18 slams, Nadal with 14, Djokovic with 12 and Murray trailing with 4.  After that, you have a handful of players with one.

Borg’s last slam came at age 25 when he won the 1981 French Open.  He would later lose both the Wimbledon and US Open Finals to McEnroe and in 1982, he had retired. McEnroe, the superbrat from Queens never won another Grand Slam after 1984.  He was 25.

Ivan Lendl took over tennis in the late 1980s.  He won eight Grand Slam titles, and played in every US Open final from 1982-1989.  Lendl’s last slam title came at the 1990 Australian Open at age 27.

Stefan Edberg:  26.  Boris Becker:  28.  Jimmy Connors:  31.  Andre Agassi:  32.  Pete Sampras: 32.  Jim Courier 22.  These are the ages of the game’s best players when they won their last slam.  And, here is Federer—and on the ladies side—Serena Williams—winning titles at age 35.  What is going on?

Borg knew that to stay at least even with McEnroe, he would have train even harder, put in more hours, maintain an even stricter diet and in the end, it was something he didn’t want to do.  There comes a time when deep down, the player knows that he is past his peak and when that happens, retirement is not far away.

Connors was the only guy that really wanted to put the hours in.  He kept churning, training and churning some more.  We all remember his great run at the 1991 US Open when he reached the semifinals at age 39.  There, he was blitzed by Courier, but this was a guy defying Father Time.  After winning the US Open in 1983 (he turned 31 during the tournament), Connors never won another, and in fact, only made one other final, losing to McEnroe in the 1984 Wimbledon final.  He would play through 1992 and he would make some semifinals, but in tennis, there is a huge difference between losing in the semifinals and making the finals.

This is not a knock on the game’s greats, but rather, a testament to the immense talent that is Roger Federer.  Not only is Federer winning at age 35, he still dismisses lesser opponents along the way.  You can count on one hand how many times Federer failed to reach at the very least, a Grand Slam semifinal since breaking through at the 2002 Wimbledon Championships.

This could be Federer’s swan song.  He may go downhill quickly, but even if that’s the case, to win a Grand Slam final at age 35 is more than astonishing.  The other wild card is the competition.  Novak Djokovic has been the game’s dominant player in recent years but he now appears to be showing cracks in his armor.  He put so much into the career Grand Slam, and it appears that the 2016 French Open title has taken some steam out of him.  He was ousted early at Wimbledon and then was rolled by Wawrinka in the US Open final and then this year, in Melbourne, another early round exit. Has he reached his peak?

The 2016 tennis season just got a lot more interesting.  Federer has the first slam; Nadal looks like he is primed for a comeback and we all know that clay and the French Open is his best chance to win a 15th slam.  Murray will be defending his Wimbledon title and Wawrinka, with three slams is more than capable of a winning fortnight.  And, I certainly do not think Djokovic is done.

The question is where is the next wave and what I mean by that is when will we see four players not named Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic (and okay, Wawrinka) playing in the final four of a slam?  It has to happen, but it can’t happen when Federer is 40 and the others are 35.  It has always happened in tennis.  When Boris Becker powered his way to consecutive Wimbledon titles in 1985 and 1986 at ages 17 and 18, we thought that his raw power would carry him to multiple titles.  Becker won six slams, but was only 3-4 in Wimbledon finals, losing two of three to Edberg and then eventually being overpowered by a young lion named Pete Sampras.

The day comes when the young guy permanently removes the old guy from the perch of tennis, but as we just saw at the 2017 Australian Open, Roger Federer has decided to stay on the perch for at least a few more months.