Saturday, June 27, 2009

National League ball? Yes, please.

The intricacies of National League baseball are downright beautiful. 
If a style of play were like a television sitcom, National League ball would have a complexity and subtleties like that of the multi-layered Arrested Development.  The American League play, on the other hand, is better geared towards those that need a structured guidance and those that appreciate a laugh-track much like Everyone Loves Raymond
The majority of managers in the American League today appear to be on autopilot.  The only semblance of strategy is deciding whether or not implement the infield shift on hitters like David Ortiz, Jim Thome or Travis Hafner.  It is a glorified softball league.  It seems to me that more and more, National League teams are starting to mimic their American League counterparts.  Consider the rosters of the hacktastic Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks.  These are organizations that have lumbering sluggers more appropriate for play at USCellular.  This shouldn't be surprising as those organizations have inserted uninspired managers that come equipped with AL pedigrees as both players and managers so it is expected that they would operate their team as such.  It is uninspired.  Still, even if trends might be suggesting that the style of play is shifting towards that of the American League-type behavior, I still envy the National League for supplying the frameworks that fosters innovation.
Where else would someone like Cardinals manager Tony Larussa thrive?  Larussa and his Redbirds are such a breath of fresh air in an otherwise unimaginative league.  Anyone who has read Three Nights In August realizes how much  Larussa agonizes over every minutia of strategy, of every match-up, of every pitch.  He's playing every possible scenario over in his head to determine what provides his team the greatest advantage.  He is a self-admitting proponent of playing the statistically beneficial platoon match-up but recognizes that they are far from foolproof.  LaRussa has instituted various strategies, like the one-inning closer, that are by and large followed by every team today (for better or worse).  During the 2007 season, Larussa moved his pitcher up on position in the batting order to give the Cardinals the "second lead-off hitter" - an entity that Twins fans hear frequently when either Nick Punto or Carlos Gomez is hitting out of the ninth spot.  Research will show you that this strategy will prove fruitless over enough games, yet Larussa was not afraid to go against baseball's common logic while the rest of the league's coaches coast on cruise control.  
So when the Twins sent pitcher Glen Perkins to the plate with runners on second and first with one out, my attentiveness increased threefold.  With a three run lead in the top of the sixth inning, the Twins were looking to advance Michael Cuddyer to third and Joe Crede to second.  To an unappreciative outsider, this situation would have been an ordinary bunt attempt, but as Buzz Bissinger described in Three Nights regarding Larussa's infield defenses "the complexities are dizzying, the effort to prevent something perhaps encouraging the very thing you want to prevent, the system of pulleys and levers vengeful and sadistic, damned if you do and, given the normal shelf life of a major-league manager - about four years - damned if you do anyway."    

On Friday night, with a three-run lead and three at-bats remaining, the Cardinals wanted to do everything they could to get the second out a third and keep the differential at three.  Larussa ordered first baseman Albert Pujols to position himself 3/4ths of the way to home while third baseman Joe Thurston drifted halfway down the line to cover the left-side of the infield.   If a ball would be bunted by Perkins, it would have very little real estate to roll before one of four players engulfed it.  Back over at second, second baseman Skip Schumaker was holding Cuddyer on like a first baseman to keep him from advancing to the unoccupied third prior to the pitch.  Upon the pitch, Schumaker would have to make a mad dash to first to field a throw in the event that the only play would be there.  Cardinals shortstop Tyler Greene was cheating toward third ready to cover that base where the first out option would be for the defense.  Dizzying complexities indeed.
Perkins took a ball then fouled off a bunt attempted to bring the count even.  With 2/3rds of the infield within a fifty foot radius of home plate, the Twins had Perkins try to pull back and hack at a pitch, hoping to chop it hard enough passed the charging infield and possibly score Cuddyer from second.  Perkins instead bounced the pitch up the first base line but foul.  On 1-2, Perkins managed to lay down a bunt that would land in a space just in front of the pitcher Adam Wainwright whose only play wound up being at first giving the Twins a successful sacrifice.   
Yes, the inning eventually ended on Denard Span's ensuing ground out rendering the entire production meaningless.  Where else but in the National League does this kind of play exist?  Where there is a 100 percent certainty that a batter is going to bunt?  Yes, you can argue that replacing a player whose soul purpose is to bunt creates the offense and with it, a broader fan-base (one that can float seamlessly between monster truck rallies and long home runs).  The designated hitter is a bell that cannot be unrung.  It is ingrained in the fabric of the sport and ensures that 14 players that would have otherwise moved on to greener pastures still receive a paycheck.  That said, we can take the opportunity to celebrate the few days a year now when baseball truly has strategy again.