In 2010, this blog was created and I started covering the Kansas City Royals. From Day 1, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: bring the players’ point of view to fans. I wanted to talk to the guys down on the field and find out what they thought about the game and why they did what they did.
I made the assumption that guys who play, coach and manage in the big leagues might know more about the game than I did — a concession an amazing number of people refuse to make — and this turned out to be true. Some of my cherished beliefs about baseball were flat-out wrong.
What follows are eight astonishing things I learned about baseball.
(Actually, I have no idea if all these things are astonishing — if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, maybe you’ve heard them already — but I was going for alliteration, and “astonishing” was the best I could do on short notice. And eight seemed about the right length for a column.)
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
1.) In many ways, the players run the teams.
The last time most of us played organized sports was in high school, and most of us were probably scared of our coaches; they were men and we were kids. But by the time an athlete makes it to the big leagues, the balance of power has shifted.
If a player with a long-term contract gets in a squabble with a coach on a one-year deal, the coach might be the one in trouble.
That’s why veteran players are so important. Fans might wonder why a team wants some has-been hanging around, but the has-been might be keeping the young guys in line. The veteran can threaten to put a foot up some kid’s backside; most coaches can’t.
2.) Agents have even more influence than we think.
If a player is unhappy with a coach, the player might call his agent, and his agent might then call the team’s GM. The agent might say, “My guy can’t play for that coach, and if you want to re-sign my guy or any of my other guys, get rid of that coach.”
One coach told me to forget the commissioner; the most powerful man in baseball is Scott Boras.
3.) You don’t want your players going all-out on every play.
When I started covering baseball, I thought great players gave it everything they had on every play. Nope: guys who spend a lot of time on the DL do that.
Smart players pick their spots.
In a good year, a baseball team will play from mid-February until November. If you’re losing a particular game by 10 runs, you don’t want players getting hurt crashing into walls or pulling hamstrings by lunging for the bag on meaningless ground balls.
Nothing will ruin a team’s season faster than injuries, so you need to avoid them when you can.
According to Royals coach Rusty Kuntz, players need to pace themselves and play the game at 80 percent. Then, when it really matters, go all out.
4.) Sometimes big-league pitchers walk big-league hitters on purpose.
We’re not talking intentional walks; we’re talking working around certain hitters in certain situations. I used to believe all walks were good for the offense and bad for the defense; I now know that’s a fairly unsophisticated point of view.
Big-league pitchers start each inning with three empty bases, and the smart ones use them.
I’ve watched Greg Holland walk the bases loaded with a one-run lead because he was working around a hitter he fell behind. I’ve watched Wade Davis walk Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded because — as he put it — one run was better than four. Greg Maddux once said he started having success against Barry Bonds’ teams once he stopped pitching to Barry Bonds.
Big-league pitchers will walk the tying and winning runs into scoring position if they don’t want to throw a strike to the guy at the plate. Pitchers care about wins, not WHIP.
5.) Your teammates make you better or worse.
The effect one player has on another is extremely important but rarely examined; your teammates make you better or worse, but we tend to ignore that because it makes things way too complicated.
Simplified: We shouldn’t assume a player can change teams and teammates and produce the same numbers.
Say you’ve got a sharp second baseman and a not-so-sharp guy at short; the second baseman helps the shortstop out with positioning and keeping his head in the game. Now say the sharp second baseman also lets the first baseman know when an off-speed pitch is coming; the second baseman can see the catcher’s signs, the first baseman can’t.
The sharp second baseman is making the shortstop and first baseman better. And if you get rid of that sharp second baseman and replace him with a knucklehead, your shortstop and first baseman just got worse.
6.) Personal lives matter.
During the offseason, you hear a lot of speculation about which teams are interested in which players, but it’s almost always based on money and stats.
You don’t hear anyone say that a player is a clubhouse cancer or parties too much or smokes too much of the devil’s lettuce. That kind of information isn’t available to most fans, so most fans just look at the numbers.
Teams can’t afford to do that.
If you wonder why a team passed on a guy, it might be because the team knows something the rest of us don’t.
7.) A surprising number of players don’t know their own team’s signs.
I once had a coach with another team (not the Royals) admit that maybe six of his team’s players actually knew the signs. I mentioned that to a coach with a different team (still not the Royals) and he laughed and said on his team it was about four.
When Boston’s Manny Ramirez was accused of stealing signs, manager Terry Francona defended him by saying Manny didn’t know his own team’s signs, so there wasn’t much chance he was stealing anybody else’s.
You might be yelling at your TV wondering why the manager doesn’t put a play on, but it might be because the guy at the plate doesn’t know the signs.
8.) If a player has mediocre numbers, he’s probably smart.
If a player is a knucklehead, there’s a very good chance he’s talented; the knucklehead can miss signs and make up for it by hitting a three-run bomb.
The less-talented player probably isn’t going to hit a three-run homer, so he can’t afford to miss a sign or fail to get a bunt down. The less-talented guy has to understand the situation and make the most of what talent he has.
That’s why you see so many of these smart guys become coaches or go to work in the front office: Their smarts are keeping them in the game. If you wonder why a team is keeping a player with mediocre numbers, it’s probably because that player is intelligent.
So next time you think about ripping some guy for putting up lousy numbers, remember: He might be your team’s future GM.
OK, that’s it for today; maybe you already knew this stuff, maybe you didn’t, but it was stuff that changed how I looked at the game. And every time I talk to a player, coach, manager or GM, and I’m smart enough to listen, I learn something new.