Peter Gammons: The integration of science and humanity

We don’t know why baseball is in an era of inaction, or record numbers of home run and strikeout outcomes. We can look at Yandy Diaz, whose 92.9 average exit velocity is in the top 20 in baseball, yet the average distance of what he hits is 123 feet, infield at double play depth.

We can point to his -1.7 launch angle, the worst of any player with a minimum of 15 balls put in play, and deduct he’d better get the ball in the air more consistently no matter how he squares pitches, but we don’t know if dropping the back shoulder to lift will turn out to ruin the bat-to-ball skills he carried from Cuba to Cleveland. “It will take playing,” says Indians General Manager Mike Chernoff. “He’s human. He needs to play more in this country to make the necessary judgments.”

Yandy Diaz has always walked more than he struck out, but Chernoff hits it on the head. Banging balls through the right side won’t carry Diaz to the All Star Game. Playing might. Thinking launch likely won’t.

Hey, sometimes even the best players don’t fully know what they do. In March, 1986, I had a five hour dinner in Clearwater, Fla. with Ted Williams, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly, and Williams and Boggs sparred over hitting coach Walt Hriniak’s contention that great hitters swing down.

The Sports Illustrated issue with the piece came out on Opening Day. When I went into the clubhouse, a voice boomed, ”Gammons” and sure enough Ted was headed my way waving a copy of the magazine. Boggs was on the cover, a game picture of him hitting. “Tell me that isn’t a perfect uppercut,” bellowed Williams. No argument here.

Wade Boggs had a perfect Ted uppercut, and took it with him to 3000 hits, a World Series ring and The Hall of Fame. “Sometimes perfect swings start down and finish up and through the ball,” says Chili Davis. “Everyone is a little different, everyone thinks a little differently, and most everyone gets to his own hitting position a little differently. No two humans are alike.”

Thirty one years later, baseball is at a fascinating point where the physical, the mental, the reactive, the analytical, theory, practice, and human experience are all converging. Pitching has merged the mechanical and traditional with Pitch FX technology to immensely help pitchers improve in myriad ways different from throwing a side session bullpen between starts, not that the feel of those pen sessions aren’t still extremely important. Look, Wins Above Replacement do not actually tell us how many wins a player is worth in a season; of course not. But it is a useful way to estimate a player’s season, however flawed, and as defensive and base running statistics evolve, it could become become even more important.

And, for now, data and experienced eyes blend into evaluation. No laptop can break down the way a J.J. Hardy or Manny Machado presents his glove to the ball, or, as one pitching analytics coach explains, “definitively define why some pitchers are hard to pick up out of their delivery and why some pitchers get more swings and misses at pitches in the strike zone than their analytics suggest they should.”

One of the smartest baseball persons I know is Nate Purinton, leader of the MLB Research Department, who carry so many of us. He commented about my attention to new analytics like StatCast (hello, Yandy Diaz, averaging a distance of 123 feet on balls leaving his bat at 92.9 MPH). I always joke and say I like to feel like former UCLA star third baseman Mark Harmon as part of CSI Secaucus.

But, for all that we all have learned over the last 20 years and will further learn as the next Mike Petriello or Darren Willman walks through our doors, there are human elements that never will be quantified. No one can Pitch FX why Roy Oswalt—the number one Big Game starter on Bill James’ brilliant study from 1952 through 2002—had such conviction that Brad Ausmus once said, “Roy never threw a pitch he doubted was perfect, which is what made him so great.”

Which rounds the corner to Ausmus, who would have made $15M a year had they had framing stats when he played, and his vast experience behind the plate and with pitchers and his belief “the single most important thing a catcher does is create conviction his his pitchers.”

Framing? “A part of a very complex job,” says Ausmus. So, also, says another former catcher and current first place manager, A.J. Hinch. Now, this may be unfair because the guy is a major league player and terrific guy, but get into the framing mantra to a catcher and you will likely get “Hank Conger” volleyed back at you. The Astros office analytics folks loved Conger’s framing numbers, acquired him for the 2015 season, and 42 steals/1 Caught Stealing a season later, he was off to another heavily analytical front office in Tampa, and disappeared earlier.

Framing is important. Jason Varitek, on the other hand, will point out that he’d have had terrible framing numbers, but anyone who was around those Red Sox teams he backstopped to two world championships in four seasons knows the pitchers died to pitch to him.

Bob Boone was a historically exceptional catcher and handler of staffs, and he talks about presentation, how the catcher presents the target to the pitcher. Last May, when Christian Vazquez was struggling to regain his arm and bat strength coming off Tommy John Surgery, David Price came out, as he often does, at one in the afternoon and wanted to show me why he considered Vazquez “the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to.” Price got a lefthanded catcher’s glove, and put on a clinical demonstration of the way Vazquez sets up and presents the target. It is typical of Price as a teammate to boost someone else, but the target did appear twice the glove’s hand. Why? Dunno. Talk to a lot of catchers and catching coaches and many will tell you that in building relationships with umpires, they are told that in many instances, especially with larger catchers who do not set up low, umpires decide strikes or balls before the pitch reaches the plate. Last week, when asked, one MLB umpiring supervisor confirmed that. “Some catchers’ setup shows the umpires the pitches far better than others,” he said.

Some hold pitches better than others, usually requiring fingertips-to-elbow forearm strength; sit behind Jonathan LuCroy, Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal or Vazquez and you get a taste. And try Gary Sanchez. Additionally, the former umpire said, “ask anyone about Yadier Molina, and you get top-of-the-chart on everything. Handling pitchers. Holding pitches. Stopping the running game.”

And part of that was that Molina loves to throw behind runners at first and second base, which in turn aided pitchers because they took their leads thinking back as well as break. Vazquez, who learned from the Molina brothers, impacts running games that way. So does Cleveland’s Roberto Perez.

When the Twins signed Castro as a free agent, they took some heat for the numbers, but look where the Minnesota staff is now. GM Thad Levine and Baseball President Derek Falvey loved the framing numbers, but as Falvey says, “we knew how good he was at preparation and how well he related with the pitchers. I was fortunate enough to be part of the way the Indians did their game preparations, and I am constantly amazed by Jason and how the pitchers buy in. They do it with conviction, they do it trusting him.” Trust is Theo Epstein’s favorite word to describe the ideal catcher-pitcher relationship.

The Marlins have one of the best young, athletic catchers in the game in J.T. Realmuto. He could have been a Big 12 quarterback. He has the leg strength and feet of a championship wrestler, which he was. Don Mattingly sees him as the developing leader of the team, on and off the field.

When Jeff Mathis wanted to catch more, Arizona was a perfect landing spot, as we’ve seen with the work he and Chris Iannetta have done with the Diamondbacks’ young staff. Mattingly asked for A.J. Ellis as the perfect mentor to Realmuto, because of his preparation and relationship skills and because Ellis has always talked about how when he came up with the Dodgers his mentor was Ausmus. “I learned the important things from Brad,” A.J. said this spring, and has embraced his Miami role.

Boston’s Blake Swihart is similar to Realmuto. He is a great athlete, converted shortstop, high school wrestler, but needs games behind the plate, which is why he is in Pawtucket behind the plate everyday with Leon and Vazquez in the majors. “As Blake slows down, learns to shift his feet and set up and receive the ball a little better, he can get back to the majors and learn from Sandy and Christian, who are really good at every part of catching,” says Red Sox coach Dana Levangie.

Many former catchers and current baseball men scoff at the framing numbers. They’re right in that evaluating a catcher is far more complex than one quantifying number. They’re wrong in that framing does count, either in terms of the confidence a pitcher has in his mate or the knowledge a staff has that he isn’t presenting and receiving so erratic that umpires might serve him with a DUI notice.

Catching cannot be quantified. However, the preparation, framing, presentation, blocking, organizational plans for attacking opponents have all grown exponentially, for human, teaching, and, of course, analytical reasons whose modern courses have converged in the last decade.

Yet, there is no program that can quantify the human qualities of Molina or Posey or Brian McCann or Russell Martin or Roberto Pérez that allows them to create conviction. It’s what makes the integration of science and humanity so everlastingly fascinating and why baseball continually draws us to it.

Comments

  1. Dr. Peter Nanos says:

    Peter,

    I have been reading and or watching you since the early 1970’s at the Globe.
    Your tremendous baseball acumen, and its indelible relationship to the human experience is unparalleled.
    Keep at it!

    Best.

  2. GhostOfFenway says:

    Never stop with the Ted Williams stories Peter. I never saw him play, but the legend is good enough for me.

  3. Scott Langlois says:

    Great stuff Peter. Fine details of the game I Love. You never disappoint

  4. Mark Ferretti says:

    In Spring Training 1991 you were the only sports journalist to mention that the Minnesota Twins one year signing of Jack Morris and several young Twins pitchers led you to believe the Twins would contend despite finishing last in the AL West in 1990. Six months later I kneeled in front of my TV crying as Morris threw a 10 inning 1 to 0 shutout, and Gene Larkins bottom of the 10th SF fly brought home Dan Gladden with the winning run in game 7 of the World Series. I knew you knew baseball in April, 1991. You entered the Mark Ferretti Hall of Fame in October, 1991.