If you show up at 2:30 in the afternoon and watch early work, you can always tell when the Royals are about to play in a National League park with National League rules. Base-running coach Rusty Kuntz will have some pitcher out on the base paths reminding the pitcher to always turn left when he hits a bag.
American League pitchers don’t hit, so American League pitchers don’t spend a lot of time on the base paths.
Rusty’s job is to remind the pitchers of base-running situations that can come up and what the pitchers should be looking for if they should wind up running the bases. Ask Rusty what his goal is, and the answer’s simple: He doesn’t expect great base running, he just wants the pitchers to stay healthy.
But no matter how often Rusty repeats his don’t-get-hurt mantra, these are competitive guys, and they’re likely to ignore that advice at crunch time.
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And that gets us to Sunday’s game.
In the top of the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies, starting pitcher Yordano Ventura singled to right field. When an AL pitcher gets a hit, it’s like David dropping Goliath with a slingshot, and the pitcher’s teammates are delighted.
The pitcher’s coaches are a little less enthusiastic. Now the pitcher has to run the bases, and even if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s not sitting in the dugout resting up for the next inning.
If nobody’s mentioned this to you before, let me be the first: Baseball is a weird sport.
It has plenty of downtime between pitches and innings, but when something happens it will happen so fast you have no time to think; all you can do is react.
And if you’re counting on your instinctive reaction, it would help if you reacted the right way.
So Ventura’s on first base with nobody out, and Alex Gordon hits a ground ball to Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez and Hernandez stepped into the base path to tag Ventura. The right reaction when a base runner sees the second baseman in the base path is to stop dead in your tracks.
Force the second baseman to make a choice: He can chase you down to make a tag (which gives the runner coming down the line more time to make it to first base) or throw the ball to first base (which makes the defense complete a more difficult double play – a force at first and a tag play at second).
But Ventura didn’t stop; he tried twisting and slithering by the tag and in the process rolled his ankle.
When you change the rules, someone is at a disadvantage
The Phillies starting pitcher was Vince Velasquez, and in 2016 Velasquez has had 26 plate appearances, 23 at-bats and six hits; that’s a .261 average.
Coming into Sunday’s game Ventura had zero plate appearances in 2016. (Now if you want to be argumentative – and why not, it’s the internet – Ventura was the one that got a hit and currently has a batting average of 1.000.)
Even so, National League pitchers are much more used to standing in the batter’s box, laying down bunts and, if they should be so unfortunate as to get a hit, running the bases.
Far be it from me to criticize the people who run baseball – the same people who were in charge when players were pumping steroids and ruining the record books, the same people who thought it was a good idea to have an exhibition game decide home field advantage in the World Series and the same people who think ending a baseball season in November is a great idea – but when an American League team plays in a National League park, the AL team is at a disadvantage.
Does the DH even things out?
Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment: When an NL team comes to play in an American League park it gets to use a designated hitter, but since they play in the NL a lot of those teams don’t have a good-bat-bad-glove guy to fill that DH role.
On the other hand, at least the guys they put in the DH spot are hitters; they might not be great hitters, but they’re familiar with the requirements of the job, unlike the AL pitchers who have to hit.
So in conclusion (and, yeah, I’m finally going to reach one) I think interleague play is unfair to American League teams and one American League team just got a pitcher hurt for no good reason.
If it was up to me – and it isn’t – we’d save interleague play for the All-Star Game and the World Series.