FUNDAMENTALS? WHAT FUNDAMENTALS?

As I continue to add years to my life and get further and further away from the days when there were only 16 major-league teams and every big league player had to be the very best among a huge group fighting for just a few jobs, I get more cynical about today’s brand of baseball.

Several years ago the game of baseball began to change. Expansion meant more pitchers would be needed to fill out starting rotations and bullpens. More and more pitchers were throwing cutters and sliders.  And more and more pitchers were having forearm, elbow and shoulder injuries. Tommy John surgery became common.  Media and fans used the phrase “He’s having Tommy John surgery” as casually as one would say, “I’m going out for a walk”.

The game continues to evolve. We went through the horrible steroid era when 400 foot home runs by 5-foot-9 middle-infielders were commonplace.

The game continues to evolve.  We watched as the pitchers got bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger.  A 6-foot-7 pitcher was no longer rare.  Every team, and I mean every team began to find a pitcher or pitchers that could throw a baseball 100 miles an hour. Some of those flamethrowers pitch at the major-league level. Some remain waiting in the wings on minor league clubs.

The game continues to evolve. Metrics became the guiding protocol upon which to evaluate players. Algorithms are used by every team to determine who, what, when, where, why and to what extent.  No statistic goes without analysis.  Every statistic matters. Size, shape, location, length, frequency, speed, and on and on.  Some teams have number crunchers behind walls in front offices crunching numbers all day long, every working day.  Like stockbrokers looking at trends, guided by numbers of the past and present, the metricians analyze data and forecast the future. Numbers are competitive capital, to be guarded as if they were gold at Fort Knox.

The game continues to evolve.  When once general managers were candid and open about their team when meeting the media, now those sessions are a waste of time. No company secrets are to be revealed. No thoughts of the manager or his general manager are to be spoken.  When asked what went wrong when his team botched bunting opportunity after bunting opportunity, a team manager may think and say something like, “We had our chances”.  Very revealing about why his team can’t bunt.

The game continues to evolve. Not only are players unable to bunt, they are unable to hit the ball to a wide open area on the entire left side of the infield when a team deploys a defensive shift. Left-handed hitters are being given a gift.  The shift deployed in baseball is usually against left-handed hitters.  The defense bunches three infielders between second and first base. The fourth infielder hovers close to second base, usually on the shortstop side of the base.  The area normally staffed by the third baseman is left open.  So is much of the area normally staffed by the shortstop.  Why in the world don’t left-handed hitters exploit that massive, Grand Canyonesque hole?  Hit a ground ball there.  Bunt down the third base line.

Why don’t they?  They don’t want to. And I’m not sure they could even if they want to expose that defensive weakness.

The game continues to evolve. Many, many hitters swing from their heels hunting home runs. Not all, but plenty. Some have changed their swing to get more loft. They are using more uppercut to hit the ball in the air.  The net result?  Huge numbers of home runs are being hit.  But of great concern, as time goes on, fewer and fewer balls are being put in play. Already this season, fewer balls are being put in play than last year.  And that, my friends, is a problem for baseball.

It saddens me when I see a player that should be able, show that he is unable to bunt.  Speedy guys like Billy Hamilton, Rajai Davis, Whit Merrifield, Cameron Maybin, Jarrod Dyson and on and on could add tremendous value to their gift of speed by bunting successfully more often.  It really is a no-brainer. The Yankees Brett Gardner can bunt. So can Elvis Andrus and Ichiro. There are a few others. Not many.

When is it a good time to bunt?  Answer: When you’re fast and you can beat it out for a hit.

When you have men on first and second with no outs late in a game.  You must get the runner to third to set up a sacrifice fly, at worst.  But time and again, I watch players jab at the ball and fail in their attempt to bunt.

Bunting is not an art. Bunting is a skill that is to be practiced over and over.

Fundamental baseball. Are fundamentals being taught? Fundamentals need to be a major part of every minor league development program.  The major-league level is not the time to teach bunting.  It is the time to practice bunting.  The major-league level is not the time to teach a pitcher how to cover first base on a ball hit to the first baseman or between second and first.

The major-league level is the place to practice pitcher’s fielding.  PFP’s (pitcher’s fielding practice) is a part of every Spring Training program for each major-league club.  Yet, in games, we often see the pitcher late covering first base, if he leaves the mound at all.

Fundamentals seem to have taken a back seat for some teams and some players. Driving the ball over the fence and winning games with the home run has taken center stage.

Have you ever seen so many called third strikes? Why? How can that be?  Is the hitter that fooled with a two-strike pitch that he can’t swing?  Was he sitting on a certain pitch that he can drive out of the park and he couldn’t react to what he was thrown?  Called third strikes, an epidemic in baseball, are beyond my comprehension.

Pitchers have adjusted to the home run swing by pitching up in the zone in an attempt to negate the uppercut swing. The problem?  Pitching up in the zone with anything less than say 93 to 95 miles per hour could be a recipe for disaster.  Any good hitter can drive a mediocre high, straight fastball to the gap or over the wall.

Keeping the ball down in the zone remains the best way to pitch.  Keeping the ball down in the zone with movement is the key.  Movement means everything.  It doesn’t matter where the pitch is located if its straight.  The hitter will find it and hit it.  If the ball moves down in the zone it is very very difficult to hit.  Watch how Zack Godley of the Diamondbacks works.  Keeping his curveball and breaking pitches down in the zone helps him win the game.  If he misses by an inch or two up or an inch or two outside, he can get hurt badly. He then compensates by getting too much of the plate and throwing too many “cookies” down the middle to get strikes.

I chose Godley because he is a good example of a location pitcher. There are many, many more pitchers who rely more on location than velocity.  It really is fundamental to their game.

Little things win baseball games. Moving the runner into scoring position matters. Getting the runner home from third base with less than two outs matters.  Executing the double-play matters.  Not giving the offense extra outs matters.

If I sound perplexed, it’s because I am. I’m watching the most talented players in the history of the game fail on fundamental baseball. It saddens me. And it saddens me that front offices accept it. And worse yet, it seems the players accept it.

Baseball fans deserve more. Teammates deserve more. It clearly isn’t pretty to see a ground ball hit right in front of him go through the legs of a major-league second baseman in a tied game with a runner on first base.  The double-play that wasn’t made costs the game.

The bunts that weren’t executed didn’t move over the runners.  It happens way, way too often.

And it isn’t just one or two teams.  Many baseball teams, like the Cleveland Indians, are neglecting to execute the fundamentals of the game.

And yes, there are exceptions. The Houston Astros are the prototype for me of a team that is showing they know how to play the fundamental parts of the game. So far the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks are doing the same. They are working together as a team on the “little things” that help teams win.  There are others as well. However, unless and until they master the fundamentals of the game, some teams will fall short of their promise and join the ranks of those teams looking up in the standings as opposed to wearing championship rings.

DRIBBLERS

How strong is Bryce Harper? He broke his bat in pieces and still hit a mammoth home run. He’s an incredible athlete.

Wondering how long the leash will be for the Yankees Aaron Boone? In my opinion, plenty long. There is no way he won’t get the benefit of the doubt by the front office if things don’t go well. He was their choice.

The Cincinnati Reds are a mess. There is no nice way to say it. This is a team that played Cliff Pennington at third base when regular third baseman Eugenio Suarez went down with an injury. Why would you start a guy like Pennington on a team that is rebuilding?  Don’t blame all the Reds woes on the now departed Bryan Price. The front office has plenty to do with the team’s failures.

San Diego Padres pitcher Joey Lucchesi and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez have earned the buzz they are getting. They are both showing they belong in the major leagues.

This is just my opinion, but I really believe Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez will become generational type stars when they are called to the Blue Jays and White Sox respectively. Maybe they aren’t Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, but they are really, really terrific baseball players.  Both have exciting futures for years to come.

Mookie Betts is back to being Mookie Betts.

It seems the Yankees are going to rely on their bullpen to carry them through games. This is just April. I wonder how those bullpen arms will hold up in say….August.

I’m not surprised by the Mets. They have a solid team. If Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, etc. stay healthy, watch out. They are more balanced than in the past several seasons.

The Diamondbacks have started hot without the help of Steven Souza, Jr. or Jake Lamb, both on the disabled list. They are doing it with solid pitching. Patrick Corbin, now healthy, looks All-World. He, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Zack Godley form an outstanding rotation. The injury to Taijuan Walker illustrated, however, they have a glaring lack of starting pitching depth in the organization.

The two-game set the Indians played against the Twins in Puerto Rico really showed baseball fans the passion and love for the game among Puerto Rican citizens. MLB did a good job arranging the game and helping the people of the island celebrate the game they love on an international television stage.

Watch the blister situation carefully regarding Shoehei Ohtani. Remember, it was a blister that kept the Blue Jays Aaron Sanchez and the Dodgers Rich Hill sidelined in the past. I have concern about Ohtani’s blister.

How about Bartolo Colon? Amazing. To think that he can still bring the fastball at age 44 (soon to be 45) and after throwing 3,334 innings in 21 years at the major-league level is beyond comprehension. Think about that. 3,334 major league innings. Add on another 448 minor league innings pitched and Bartolo has thrown 3782 innings as a professional. He has pitched from 1994 to 2018.  My arm and head hurt just thinking about it.

That’s it for me this week.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff