Friday, October 15, 2010

Million-Dollar PeeWee Baseball

I've been a loyal Cincinnati Reds fan my whole life, so watching them get knocked out of post-season play in three straight games was particularly disheartening.  The 'Big Red Machine' seemed to be making a comeback, whether anybody else liked it, or not, and I found myself watching game after game in regular season play, quite early in the season, on Fox Sports Ohio, our local cable channel that carries their games.

I even set up a shortcut to their home page, and Fox Sports as well, in order to keep abreast of how they were doing, and voted at least twenty times for my favorite Reds players to make this year's All-Stars, 4 of whom did (even Joey Votto, who got in on the special vote).

Despite my status as 'just another armchair coach', and the obvious cliche of being such, I'd like to use this space on my blog to vent my frustration at several points upon which the team is not seeing any improvement--one or two of which, actually, they've been going at the wrong way for well over the 20 years I've been a more 'astute' fan of the game.

My first point is one of two major tasks I'd like to take with management--the way the Reds management handles the team's offense--in other words, hitting; I'd like to see more of it.  Here's what I mean, and how I believe it would be better promoted for the Reds--let your hitters swing away.

That's right--this isn't PeeWee league here, and yes, we're all grown-ups, just enjoying a Major League Baseball game, knocking the dust off our cleats, stepping up to the batter's box, getting our bats off our shoulders, and ignoring this weird, dogmatic practice the Reds biggest hitters have of just standing there and (horror of horrors) taking 'til you get a first called strike?  I don't know when I first started noticing this...habit, but it was really stultifying this post season to watch my team go down, game after game, inning after failed inning, when 1, 2, or even 3 runners were on base, at times with absolutely no outs, and seeing a grown man with a batting average well over .300 stand up there with his bat on his shoulder, and take a called strike as his very first pitch of each and every at-bat.

You're killing a guy, especially since he knows there's a good chance that a long-ball could turn into a broken-bat blooper due to the 'Emerald Ash Boring Beetle' munching happily on so many Pennsylvania Ash trees, anyway!

PeeWee league pitchers--bless their little hearts--often can't find the plate 9 times out of 10.  We don't see that in major league pitchers, a.k.a. experienced 'fire-ballers', 'K-Zone Kings', etc.  You get the picture--they throw strikes...a lot!


Seriously, I began physically groaning as Lazarus from the grave, I felt so sick.

The Reds were, by far, the best defensive team in the league this year, with Brandon Phillips overcoming some big injuries to become, once again, a standard web-gem provider, every time he fielded the ball.  Brandon is like the clown prince of the modern-day MLB infield.  His jaunty play, comedic antics, and humorous pranks all-too-reminiscent of the old films I've seen of Yogi Berra.

Another player wisely inducted to the Reds this season was Scott Rolen, who quickly became my favorite Reds 3rd baseman of all-time.  Nothing got by him, and his throws to first were bullet-strikes every time.
Their defense turned 142 double plays during regular season play, which was dead-center on the team stats average for 2010.  Most remarkable was their astoundingly low error count--at only 72 errors this season, they tied for the lowest, with San Diego.

Again, to my point, complete with enough 'literary method' to tick anyone off, but--well, it was what I was thinking, all season long, as I found myself acknowledging they'd see post-season play, but dreading what would happen to them if they employed the same flawed offense I'd seen them 'get away with' all year long.
Boy, was I dead-on.

Technically, they had / have great hitters, including arguably the best-hitting pitching squad of any team Cincinnatti ever fielded.  I'll get to my point: "You can't make it a team policy to have a batter take until he gets a first called strike."  I saw it go on all season long with them, too--hitter after hitter, regardless of ability, skill, or even streak-hitting, would go up to bat and stand there, looking like he literally had a manager sitting on his back to make sure he used this same 'process' to...?  Ensure he started out with one strike against him?

That stuff barely flies in PeeWee, if you're coaching a bunch of [sorry!] 'Lupus's' (the wimpy kid in the original Bad News Bears movie).

Get why?  Even a non-fan gets it!  There are plenty of bad pitches thrown well into high school leagues, but when you are talking major league baseball, it's like telling a NASCAR racer to pit his car every time he gets bumped, or more aptly, a National Football League team benching their QB every time he gets hit!

You just can't do it and survive, and if you think this is wrong...well, sorry, but it's happening with the Reds, and I've watched intently over the last few seasons as this 'method' goes 'unmentioned' by fans, announcers, and sports shows alike.

There are plenty of situations where--of course--you want a guy up there waiting for 'his pitch'; what I am talking about makes me nervous to see, though.  I lost count of the number of times Joey Votto did it--although his 'act' is better (standing as if to be up there to swing), it's still an act that will easily be seen through by every other MLB team, and until the Reds correct this problem, or at least amend this methodology somehow (and I do believe it will be through coaching, BTW!), they're going to be studied and beaten each year long before they have a chance to make post-season...

Okay, 'nuff said about that...for now...maybe.

My second big 'peeve' with my team?  Over-switching pitchers.

It's too much to ask that every year, your team has unbeatable pitching.  It's just not going to happen, for any team, for that matter.

But, going along with my similar argument for my 'offensive peeve' above, I'm going to call this one like I see it, too--using too many pitchers in a game can be discouraging for each one of them, leaving them to worry what kind of organization they're working for.

I've seen this scenario play out far too often with the Reds, again, season after season, year after year:
The starting pitcher gets into trouble, or has been in too long, when the other team's big bats are coming up in their line-up next inning.  To complicate things, someone is taking left-vs.-right pitching-vs.-batting records a wee bit too seriously, and we end up seeing three or four pitchers in one inning!  Wow! and, Why?!

Again, we're competitive...check that, and we also know some stats, too...m'kay, now.  But I think that team morale is built on personal morale--and a pitcher who knows he may be in for a single batter, and copiously, too (as in, if he can get his one or two best pitches to work in that at-bat) just isn't going to want to be there next season, when other teams just don't do stuff like that!

It's a constant vote of 'no confidence' from the top down.  It's discouraging, degrading, and it results in a demoralized team who doesn't even know how to support their pitcher (if they've seen him pitch maybe 10 pitches or less, and two or three more that game doing the same).

No wonder the Reds have almost always had two starting catchers to rotate--different methods, techniques, and even attitudes may help them meet the challenge of the constant pitcher switching that is so prevalent in Reds baseball!

Overall, I've always loved watching the Reds play--they're a real team, pulling together to show what it means to display good sportsmanship and fair play.  That, from the ground up, and the top down, always meeting in the middle.  I love that about this team, and I'll always be a fan (tried and tested after this season, surely!)

However, I can't stand idly by and let things go on that are, in my humble opinion, counter-active to this team's positivity, and refinement toward a World Series winning team as well.

Too many of them deserve that World Series ring this year, much less next, and so on.  They deserve to be winners, and, as fans, we deserve the fulfillment of that dream once again, too.

Management needs to be there for that team, and let them play ball like the greats they already are, with no strings attached.  The offense needs no fetters to hold them back--when they see a hittable ball, they need to be allowed to make their own decisions--seeing that type of thinking game going on is a huge aspect of the game that, more often than not, visibly shakes the other team into making errors, even management ones, themselves.

And, hey, I'm not talking about authorizing a bunch of 'Reggies' here, just men who have been trained to make their own decisions, even if it takes watching some more videos, even reading scouting reports on their opposing pitchers.  We don't need strike-out kings, but a mass-mounted assault on opposing pitchers, with lots of free-wheeling intelligent offensive hitting strategies.

As for the pitching, now that the Reds have the 'Cuban Missile Crisis' out there, it's no cake walk to assure Aroldis Chapman sees play in situations that both a) benefit the team, and b) ensure he doesn't end up a by-word for over-extension and injury-ridden, like Steven Strasburg--heck, everybody in the world knows Aroldis' ability is like having a fine wine stocked at a sports bar--he truly is like having a secret weapon in the bullpen.

This is an even bigger accomplishment for Chapman, since he probably set the record for most-photographed rookie in his initial outing, but my concern again, is that he's made a mockery of next year, and sent in to pitch to single batters, or even sides, which would, to me, be both a humiliating disgrace and an under use of his unique ability.

I'll watch avidly next year, but I sincerely hope things get better for the Reds hitters, and that they get to make 'big boy' decisions on the field, even if it means making a switch of another kind (and yes, I do mean management).

Maybe they should hire two or three additional managers, two more coaches, even.  I like Dusty Baker as head coach, but if any of those guys were treated like players, they'd change overnight into better decision-makers, because they'd know in their heads how it feels to be representing their team, but only part-time.