VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” is the exhilarating cry of the program vendor one usually hears when first entering a big league ballpark.
These days, forget not knowing the players, you can’t even recognize THE GAME of baseball itself.
It’s changed that much.
So, consider MAS your stadium hawker of sorts today, as he offers you this scorecard-type guide to MLB’s new-age style of play.
Warning: You may be in for a shock. It is a modus operandi featuring elements that were once considered baseball blasphemy but today are diamond de rigueur.
• Sluggers hitting at the top of the batting order — Time was when lead-off men were will-o’-the wisp slap hitters who had a “good eye” at the plate and drew tons of walks.
And formerly batting second were “contact” hitters who were also excellent bunters (to move the leadoff man into scoring position).
Traditionally, batters in these top two spots were considered table-setters for the long ball specialists who followed them in the 3-4-5 slots.
Not these days, though.
A leadoff hitter is now likely to be someone like the Chicago Cubs’ burly Kyle Schwarber, an ex-high school linebacker (picture Dick Butkus in spikes).
Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s reasoning?
He hits lots of doubles which already puts him in scoring position.
Makes sense when you think about it.
“The computers say ‘send up your best hitter as many times as possible,’ ” Buck Showalter, old school Baltimore manager, explained to MAS with a shrug.
“So, I may lead off Manny Machado (Oriole superstar slugger).”
And those who think that the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who clouted 52 homers as a rookie last season, is wasted hitting second?
Well, lifelong Bronx Bombers fan Chazz Palminteri, who screen-wrote and starred in “A Bronx Tale,” is OK with it.
“It gives him an extra at-bat when the game may be on the line,” offered Chazz, while appearing on MLB Network.
Hard to argue with that — especially if the real-life Palminteri is anything like his notorious “Sonny” character in that classic flick.
• Baseball is now on the clock — Players are given 2 minutes and 5 seconds between half-innings to take the field and be ready to go.
Once called upon, a relief pitcher has 2:30 to make his way from the bullpen to the mound, get cranked up and be ready to go.
And a 20-second pitch clock is on the way. The MLB Players Association agreed not to object to such a monumental move after this season.
These changes are an unfortunate but necessary evil.
One of the best things about baseball used to be its timeless, unhurried pace. The game wasn’t over until the last out — whenever that time came.
But too many hurlers working at a glacial pace and OCD-afflicted batters like Nomar Garciaparra stepping out of the box after every pitch and fixing their gloves, resetting their feet or adjusting their protective cups spoiled that wonderful element.
Hitters must now keep one foot in the batter’s box.
Thus, tick-tock replaces serene silence.
• Limits placed on mound visits (six per nine-inning game) — Manager or pitching coach/pitcher or catcher/pitcher confabs used to be an integral part of baseball strategy.
Until such chit-chats began to occur far too frequently and led to over-strategization (if that’s not a word, it is now) and the 4½- hour games the New York Yankees and Boston became infamous for.
Ex-Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia, who once earned the moniker “Mike Sociable” for his innumerable mound trips, now has tons of company in the excessive visitation department.
Groundskeepers, though, are happy with the new rule — there will now be no need to constantly re-sod the grass pathways from plate and dugout to mound.
• Debut of numerous analytics-emphasizing managers — These days new skippers must have a lot of sabermetric stat geek in them.
In ’16, Joe Girardi came within a game of the World Series at helm of the Yanks but was replaced by Aaron Boone.
Former Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway is now the New York Mets manager. And former Yomiuri Giant outfielder/bodybuilder Gabe Kapler takes over as Philadelphia Phillies dugout chief.
NOT coincidentally, these and all the other new rookie hires replaced “traditional thinking” skippers.
The newbies landed their managerial posts, at least in part, because their beliefs in number-crunching were in line with the Ivy League-type thinkers that now proliferate in MLB front offices.
• The art of the stolen base and sacrifice bunt face extinction — They are going the route of the dodo bird because those who pledge allegiance to analytics are vehemently opposed to wasting precious outs.
Only the occasional speed merchant like Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton, who can turn a walk into a triple, is now permitted to swipe bases.
“There were less pitchouts last year than any time in the history of the game,” Showalter told MAS. “That shows you nobody uses the hit-and-run anymore.
“I worry about that from a fan’s standpoint,” Buck lamented.
Meanwhile, the sight of hapless pitchers who couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a banjo laying down a sac bunt may soon vaporize as well.
The hurlers’ resultant futile flailing will not be a pretty sight.
• Bye-bye level swing — The classic line-drive single — and double-producing swat has been replaced by a home run-seeking uppercut.
Creating a “launch angle” they call it.
MAS remembers when such a hack was a serious no-no because it produced harmless pop-ups. Apparently, with today’s baseballers being bigger and stronger, those pop-ups are now carrying over the fence.
The high-average hitter is no longer as highly valued a commodity. The home run masher, even if he strikes out half the time, has become much more preferable.
So, even when the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton whiffs five times in a game, which he has done TWICE this season, no biggie.
Guy blasted 59 roundtrippers in ’17.
At least a K avoids hitting into a double play, say sabermetricians.
• Six-man starting pitcher rotations — The Los Angeles Angels introduced this switch from time-honored five-man rotation this season, with more teams announcing they’ll do likewise in some way, shape or form.
The Angels did it in part to accommodate their new hurler/hitter Shohei Ohtani — “The Japanese Babe Ruth.”
Ohtani will pitch for the Halos with the same rest he did in Japan and he’ll also be used appropriately in between starts as a designated hitter, as he was with Nippon Ham.
As for other ballclubs making the switch, chalk it up to arm injuries reaching epidemic proportions because of the increased emphasis on velocity.
Teams are hoping larger starting pitcher rotations will mean more rest and fewer Tommy John surgeries, which are now commonplace.
Get yer peanuts and Cracker Jack here. And, if you’re an old school baseball fan, some eye wash to make sure you believe what your seeing.
The game of baseball is becoming THAT unrecognizable.
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