Fewer home runs, more contact can fix baseball

John Gilbert

Huskies ace Troy Newell fired a strike while  sailing through 5-plus innings with a 1-hit  shutout against the Bismarck Larks.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Huskies ace Troy Newell fired a strike while sailing through 5-plus innings with a 1-hit shutout against the Bismarck Larks. Photo credit: John Gilbert

We were making a few road trips in the past week, one to Grand Marais, one to Ely, and two to the Twin Cities. On the way, and armed with satellite radio, I was able to tune in to hear some “enemy” broadcasts of Twins games — one from Kansas City and two from Toronto.
In Kansas City, the broadcasters sought some lively interviews, and landed former manager Whitey Herzog. He was interesting, and went right through a whole inning with the announcers.
They asked him what he thought of the defensive shifts teams are now employing, shifting three infielders to the first-base side against a left-handed hitter and leaving just one on the third-base side. Sure enough, in almost every case the hitter hit right into the shifted players for easy outs. One time, Logan Morrison of the Twins crossed them up by squaring off and dropping a bunt down the third base line for an easy hit.

One of my good friends and I share long-distance strategy discussions about baseball. His prime thing is he hates the shift. I don’t mind it. My thought is that any capable player could and should beat the shift, simply by taking what’s being offered. Whitey Herzog said: “If a team shifted like that against Ty  Cobb, he would have hit .800, and Stan Musial would have hit .600... I saw George Brett, and I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, ‘If they did that against me, I would have hit .600.”  

It’s been an interesting season in Major League Baseball, with everyone trying to figure out what is wrong with the game on one hand, and analyzing how the game is being played on the other.
Here’s an idea: Why don’t those on the one hand get to know those on the other?
Analytics have taken over, and book-keepers seem to have as much impact on teams as veteran managers and coaches. Change the trajectory of your swing, and you’ll hit more home runs, someone suggests. Who cares if you strike out two or three times a game, as long as you hit one long ball.
Here’s a news flash, anylists all. If that worked, and you struck out three times a game, you would not hit one home run every game. Nobody has ever hit 162 homers in a season, and nobody ever will. Give me a good hitter, who makes solid contact every time to the plate, and I’ll take my chances.
If there’s anything I hate about today’s MLB baseball it’s when players take called third strikes — or any strike, actually, but the third one specifically. They must go to the plate thinking the pitcher has to throw what he considers a perfect pitch. If it isn’t, he takes it for strike three. If it is perfect, sometimes he’ll be so surprised by his good luck he’ll take it for strike three.

The emphasis on home runs or strikeouts has gotten to crisis levels, in my opinion. If you don’t believe it, did you watch last week’s All-Star game? Supposedly tne best hitters in baseball were lined up to face the best pitchers, and one of the beauties of the All-Star game is that the best pitchers will try to fire their best fastball past the best hitters, who can’t possibly be fooled by what is coming.

American League wins 8-6 in 10 innings, and our Jose Berrios pitched a rare scoreless inning for the victors. There were 10 home runs in the game, five by each team, to drive in almost all the runs. But wait! There also were 25 strikeouts in the game, 12 by the National League hitters and 13 by the American League.

Does that mean it was spine-tingling excitement? Actually, the last couple of innings were. But before that, you had the “thrill” of watching hitter after hitter striking out and walking back to the dugout.
Remember when good hitters used to hit line drive doubles and occasional triples? A three-base hit is one of the most exciting things in baseball, and the Twins, I must say, have two young guys who execute them often, in Eduardo Escobar and Eddie Rosario. Watching Rosario sprint home from first base to score a run was spectacular.

And despite the criticism he gets, there is no question that when Joe Mauer gets on a roll, his swing is a thing of beauty. It was that way in Kansas City last week, even though the Twins looked foolish in being swept by the Royals. In one game, he lined a double off the top of the center field fence his first time up, then lined hard singles his second and third times up, before hitting a shot that turned into a brilliant defensive play. So he ended 3 for 4.

Next game, I was enthused to watch the start. Joe went up to the plate and, just as I predicted, he took a 93-mph fastball just below the waist, down the middle. Strike 1. He then chased a questionable pitch, and then struck out on a low, inside slider. Without question, the best pitch he got to hit was the first pitch, and it put him in an 0-1 hole that made him chase worse pitches. He struck out three times that game. The same guy who got three hits the day before.

Mauer seemed to get it back next game, in Toronto, when he got three hits. The Toronto radio announcers praised him as one of the great hitters in the game. Twins announcers interviewed him after the game and remarked about what a great streak he’s on, conveniently overlooking the 0-doe-4, three strikeout game.

But Mauer has raised his average to .285, on his way, I hope, to over .300.
As a way to improve Major League Baseball, various ideas have been offered. The games are too long, and pretty boring in many cases. My best idea is to force the umpires to call the strike zone the way we used to have it, at every level of baseball — letters to the knees.
If you threw a pitch letter high today, there is no chance it would be called a strike. In fact, I watched pitches in critical situations that were over the plate but slightly below the waist being called balls. The strike zone now has shrunk to being from just below the waist to the knees — about 2 feet in vertical scope. Put it back to the letters, which would make it closer to 4 feet, and if you called those strikes, the batters would have to swing a lot more instead of trying to con the umpires.

And for sure, stop being surprised by a fastball down the middle for called strike three.
Regardless, the Twins have a shot at functioning in the second half. They can make a run at getting to .500, and that’s reachable. Then we can look ahead. But the return of Ervin Santana to the mound, and Jorge Polanco at shortstop gives the Twins a strengthened lineup. Santana must push himself to match Jose Berrios as the team pitching ace. The infield looks solid with Mauer at first, Dozier at second, Polanco at short and Escobar at third, and the outfield has a four guys who can rotate, led by Rosario, of course, and the resurgent Max Kepler in right, or center, plus Jake Cave and Robbie Grossman, while we await the possible return of Byron Buxton to center field. If Miguel Sano comes back, there is no way he can dislodge Escobar from third, in my opinion, so we have platooning DH prospects in Sano and Morrison in a right/left setting. Garver does a good job behind the plate and is hitting nearly .250. Not bad.

Huskies falter at break, in Great Race

Some entertaining games at Wade Stadium, even though the Duluth Huskies found a way to drop out of first place in a wild, three-team scramble for the lead.
I was watching a sterling pitcher’s duel, with the Huskies and the Bismarck Larks — who play in “the Nest” at home — and it was scoreless, into the sixth.
Huskies All-Star Troy Newell was firing strikes, with a 1-hitter until there were two out in the sixth.
A walk, almost always a sign of bad news, was followed by a Michael Farnell double, and the second Larks hit produced the first run of the game.
In the seventh, Newell returned to the mound, but back-to-back singles ended his night. Reliever Sean Walters came in, but had less than his best stuff. He hit a batter, then walked in a run, then gave up another run on a sacrifice fly — with both those runs charged to the luckless Newell — and then a 2-run single made it 6-0.

The Huskies rallied for a couple of runs but lost 6-2. But they return to Wade Thursday night, and a good homestand could lift them right back atop the second-half race.