“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.
Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.
When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.
Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.
Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.
As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.