That’s from Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge in the age of the internet. And if your source is Wikipedia, you’ve probably got at least a 50-50 chance that it’s true.
Several people have pointed out that the Royals have a losing record since Alex Gordon returned to the lineup. Alex Gordon’s return is definitely a factor, but it’s highly doubtful it’s the factor. What about the opponent? What about the other pitcher? What about the other guys in the lineup not named Alex Gordon? Were the games played at home or away?
That’s what this bit is about.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The tendency to pick one factor among hundreds, if not thousands, and assume or at least imply that one factor explains why a team wins or loses leads to some very faulty logic.
If the Royals have a losing record in day games after night games in which they wear powder-blue jerseys (and I have no idea if that’s true, so it probably ought to be on Wikipedia) does that mean the jerseys are responsible?
Anytime someone points at one factor and implies that it explains an event that included hundreds of factors, they’re wrong. Alex Gordon is not responsible for the Royals’ September swoon.
It’s actually the powder-blue jerseys.
If Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch, does Ben Zobrist need to take one?
Alcides Escobar is back in the leadoff spot and Thursday night — as he’s inclined to do — Esky swung at the first pitch of the game. If Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch of the game and makes an out, does the guy hitting in the two-hole need to take a pitch?
Old-school baseball says yes: you can’t make two outs on two pitches and let a starting pitcher breeze through his first inning.
When Mike Moustakas was hitting in the two-hole he said no; did it really make a difference if the opposing pitcher got two outs on three pitches instead of two?
These days Ben Zobrist is hitting behind Escobar, so I asked him the same question: if Alcides made an out on the first pitch of the game, did Ben feel like he needed to take a pitch?
As usual, there’s no simple answer.
Ben said it depended on the pitcher. If it was a guy he knew and had faced fairly often in the past, Ben might be hacking right away — he didn’t have a whole lot more to learn about the guy on the mound.
If it’s a pitcher Ben hadn’t faced before, he might take some pitches just to see the action on them; how much sink on the sinker? How does the cutter move? What’s the curve look like coming out of the pitcher’s hand?
I asked if what he learned while striking out in the first inning might help him hit a double in the fifth and Ben said definitely. Fans might see what looks like a weak at-bat, but for Ben the same at-bat might be highly successful; he learned what he needed to know for his subsequent plate appearances.
But facing a reliever is different
Once the game gets to the bullpen, Zobrist’s approach changes; you don’t take pitches to set up subsequent at-bats. You’re not going to see this pitcher again, so you go after the first good pitch you see. An at-bat against a reliever is a much more aggressive at-bat.
What do you do when a pitcher is dealing?
Some nights Ben can look for a mistake pitch — a hanging curve, a fastball down the middle — and just hammer what comes in over the heart of the plate; but what about a pitcher that’s dealing?
According to Zobrist, that’s when you need to hit a pitcher’s pitch. And to hit a pitcher’s pitch, you need to look for it. You’re not going to handle a cutter in unless you’re looking cutter in.
And to make that work you can’t come off your pitch. Pick something you think you’re likely to see and wait for it. If you’re looking cutter in, spit on every other pitch. If you’re looking cutter in you won’t do much with a fastball down and away.
When we see a hitter take what looks like a hittable pitch, it’s probably because the hitter was looking for something else. When a pitcher is dealing, you’re not going to handle three or four different pitches; you’ll be lucky to handle one.
And when you get it, don’t miss it.
(Lucky for me I love hearing about how these guys play the game; and it’s doubly lucky for me that if I ask the right question, players like to talk about it. Knowing what Ben Zobrist is trying to do at the plate makes a Ben Zobrist plate appearance much more interesting.)
Why managers need to stay popular with players
Ned Yost has been questioned for giving most of his starting players the day off after they clinched a division championship. The Royals are competing with the Toronto Blue Jays for home-field advantage and virtually giving a game away did not seem like a good idea.
But Toronto manager John Gibbons did the same thing; his team clinched, he gave starters a day off and now the Blue Jays have lost two in a row.
And that reminded me of the need for managers to stay popular with their players. Big league managers have a lot of people to please: the owner, the general manager, people in the media, the fans and the players.
If the players turn on a manager — and that seems to be what’s happening with the Washington Nationals right now — the players will start to air the team’s dirty laundry. The stuff that was taking place behind closed doors becomes public and the manager’s job is in jeopardy.
So giving guys a day off so they can celebrate a division championship might be a losing strategy on the field, but a winning strategy in the clubhouse.