Peter Gammons: The lost game of pepper, Astros’ analytical approach, chess, and more

Dodgers Pepper

Ted Williams used to play pepper almost every day, for what he said was the feel of manipulating the bat and getting the daily feel of exacting the barrel of the bat to the ball. Yet, for a number of reasons like complaints by ground crews that players dug up the grass with their games, pepper has virtually disappeared in the baseball culture; in fact, Walt Weiss says “most kids today wouldn’t know what we’re talking about when we mention it.”

I loved pepper. When I was travelling with the Red Sox for the Boston Globe in the seventies and eighties and would work out when the Sox took early hitting, Johnny Pesky would warm me up with 15-20 minutes of pepper.

Boston had two of the best fielding pitchers in the game, Tom Burgmeier and Bill Campbell, and they played what they called “Killer Pepper,” to improve fielding and practice getting into a fielding position after releasing their throws. My shins will hurt.

Somewhere over the years, grounds crew and ballpark administrators outlawed pepper games.

But Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has brought it back. For the last three weeks, he and his staff have taken Joc Pederson out at 2:45 every afternoon to play pepper, in Roberts words ‘to help Pederson regain the feel of manipulating the bathead.’ Pederson hit two home runs Tuesday night, but Roberts feels that more importantly for a young player who hit .178 in the second half last season, he has begun to use the whole field and develop as a pure hitter. His on base is up to .368. “He has shown the ability to manipulate the bat and take balls to all fields,” says Dodger Pres. Andrew Friedman, a devotee of pepper when he was playing at Tulane.

Trayce Thompson is now taking it up. And their housemate Corey Seager has requested to join.

Roberts and Weiss remember what pepper games meant when they were in high school and college. Weiss instituted pepper games in this year’s spring training, and yesterday said he may encourage players to do it in the regular season. And have pitchers have their own pepper games. “It’s good for  lot of things,” says Weiss, “including team-building.”

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HOUSTON, MORAN, BREGMAN, AND CHANGING THEIR ANALYTICAL APPROACH

When the Astros brought up third baseman Colin Moran—who has been compared to a young Robin Ventura—and started him for the first time Wednesday. It was the beginning of what looks to be a reset of the analytics-only approach to team and lineup construction.

Here are the problems that have to be addressed; The Astros’ swing-and-miss rate is the second-worst in the majors, better only than the Rays (who, by the way, lead the majors in home runs). Their pitchers have the lowest velocity in the game.

The realization is that they need hitters to go with their sluggers. So as they move on in this season and prepare for a longterm run beginning in 2017, Moran becomes a major factor; so does last year’s top pick, Alex Bregman, who is hitting .355 in double-A, has been moved off shortstop—no one’s replacing Carlos Correia—to play other positions, and by September could have Moran, Bregman and slugger AJ Reed readying for 2017.

Then comes the pitching issue, and seeing Vincent Velasquez, who has one of the three highest swing-and-miss rates of any starter last night was a reminder. The ‘Stros shift more than any other team, but without velocity starters, hitters don’t have too worry about reacting to 96, they stay back and slap it ‘where they aint’. Last Sunday—Jackie Bradley got the line moving by staying back and serving a ground ball into left field and getting Collin McHugh into the stretch for Bogaerts, Ortiz, Ramirez, et al. This Astros regime traded off power starters like Mike Foltynewicz and Velasquez who were drafted by the previous regime, and have seen what happens to finesse pitchers like Dallas Keuchel and McHugh when hitters adjust and do not chase out of the zone.

Jeff Luhnow is smart, and will adjust. It will be fun to see what the Astros look like a year from now when Moran, Reed, Bregman and Tony Kemp are mixed in with Carlos Correia, Jose Altuve and George Springer.

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SHOWALTER, DYLAN BUNDY, AND CHESS

This is how great managers think and know their players. Last week, Buck Showalter was talking to Pedro Alvarez about Pedro’s love of chess, and in the conversation mentioned that Dylan Bundy is a real good chess player and Pedro cannot beat him.

Buck was fascinated, and maintains that once Bundy’s arm is built back up to take a regular place in the Orioles rotation next season, the intense concentration and mental skills that chess requires will help make a healthy Bundy an even better pitcher. Just as Dave Duncan liked his pitchers to play golf, because every shot counted, and required concentration.

Somehow I can’t envision Billy Martin praising a young pitcher’s ability to take his queen, take out the bishop and get to checkmate.

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DODGER ROTATION

Roberts is trying to gerrymander his rotation around Clayton Kershaw, hoping that Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu will be back by the Fourth of July. Obviously there is concern about the fact that Kenta Maeda has an 0.74 ERA when he pitches on more than five days rest, 5.16 when he’s started on his fifth day; so getting Mike Bolsinger off the disabled list this week gives him the opportunity to grab an extra day for Maeda every turn or two around the rotation.

Sooner or later, the Dodgers may have to bring up 19-year old Julio Urias up from Oklahoma City. But not to start. Yes, he has a 1.25 earned run average and a 39-8 strikeout-walk ratio in triple-A, but there is an innings issue for the teenager. He has never thrown as many as 98 innings in a professional season, and they don’t want him up over 150. So the current plan is to use him out of the bullpen in one and two inning stints.

They feel very strongly about their future pitching with Urias, Jose DeLeon and Ross Stripling, but they are going to be very cautious, hoping that all three can be in their rotation beginning next season.

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JUSTIN VERLANDER

Some voice argued that Justin Verlander was overused by the Tigers, which someone someday will probably say about Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. That voice hasn’t noticed how this 33 year old pitcher has reinvented himself.

On August 4th last season, Justin Verlander had a 5.05 earned run average and, at 32, was the center of an aging controversy. Then he began his transformation. He became a preparation geek, with scouting reports, analytics and video. He experimented with arm angles.

And, here he is, averaging 9.47 strikeouts per 9 innings, with the highest swing and miss rate on his fastball in any season since the Pitch FX affects became available for the full 2009 season.

Beginning with his Aug. 9 start, Verlander leads the American League in innings pitched and is third in ERA. He recently further altered his arm angle, which has helped his curveball, but more importantly made his fastball tougher to pick up, enabling the swings and misses up in the zone.

It is said that the one thing Verlander dislikes most is not being great, or at least really good. There was a time when it was all natural. Now it’s about scouting reports, analytics, video and constantly re-inventing himself, hence the strikeout-an-inning run of 20 starts.

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RICH HILL

One mistake the Red Sox made last winter was to ignore Rich Hill’s desire to come back to Boston with an opportunity to start. They thought they were deep enough and that they had three young; lefthanders who were better. The A’s signed him for $6.5M—more than he’d been paid over the course of nine seasons.

But Hill is 36, a free agent at the end of this season, and while Billy Beane can make a qualifying offers, paying Hill $16+M at 37 is something unlikely to happen.

The Athletics have already had three starting pitchers go down with injuries this season, and while Sonny Gray has had some off-starts, he is still on the radar of more than ten contenders who need starting pitching.

But Hill could be a pitcher to go after early, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez and Clay Buchholz. Not to mention his relationship with Brian Bannister, who encouraged Hill to go back on top and throw more than 50% curveballs.

Since being thrust into the Red Sox rotation in September, Hill has made 13 starts, thrown 78 2/3 innings, allowed 49 hits, struck out 95, posted a 2.54 ERA, has the highest swing-and-miss rate in baseball, and appears headed to the All Star Game. Tall lefthanders coming out of the bleachers can be very effective at Fenway Park.

Comments

  1. StevieBallgame says:

    Some of my fondest memories coming up as high school bench warmer was getting a chance to showoff the skills to my teammates in the early stages of pregame. Down the line playing pepper…, so simple, so fun, so helpful…It just keeps the whole team in tune mentally, helps boost confidence in the whole roster from guy 1 to 25.

    • Richard Perez says:

      As a high school pitcher in the late sixties, my teammates would play pepper with as many guys that wanted to jump in. Good players made it quick, reactive, and lots of fun. It was great for hitters, fielders ,pitchers, for the comradre of friends . Forty years later I began coaching and found that even the young coaches had no idea what pepper was all about. It c was speaking a foreign language to the uninitiated.

  2. The Ausdie says:

    The Astros swing and miss- yet one of the best hitting coaches on the planet remains their outfield coordinator. Leon Roberts worked with Jeter, Votto, Hamilton, and more- still has them traveling to him in the off- season. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose.

  3. Travis D. says:

    One of the best part/lessons of baseball (at least it used to be) is learning how to make use of all the dead time… Through a career of baseball I want to say that something like 50% of it was just standing around waiting for things to get started. It is all part of what made the game of baseball so great…. “Who cares what time it is, who cares how many hours a day we dedicate to baseball… what in the world is better than ball-to-bat, ball-to-glove, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat”

    If work and an aging body were not factors, I would still be out there, playing a little pepper.

  4. Splinter9 says:

    Best everyday training tool because as Travis D said whenever there is down time a dash of pepper spices up your game