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MLB Hitters' Preparation Obsession Creating Paralysis by Analysis

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 25, 2015

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One-time hitting savant turned manager Clint Hurdle noticed something a few years back in Pittsburgh that alarmed him.

As a result, he removed computers from the area just behind the Pirates dugout during games.

Now, if a Pittsburgh hitter wants to review footage of his swing from the plate appearance he just finished, he has to hoof it all the way back to the clubhouse, and there is little time for that with the next half-inning about to start.

"There comes a point in time when you need to watch the game," Hurdle says. "I think you need to be engaged in the game.

"It really got my attention a number of years ago, just watching Yankees telecasts and never not seeing Derek Jeter in the dugout. He was a poster child for a lot of good things. I share with the players that you can't have a safety net for everything in life. You can't have a Band-Aid or a fix-it. Some things you've just gotta look at, figure out, put a foot down, ask a buddy.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

"Seriously, how do you think the game was played 20 years ago? We would talk in the dugout to one another about how we were getting pitched."

When he played for the Yankees in the late 1960s, Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox says, players would arrive at the ballpark at 5 p.m. for night games.

In today's world of luxury ballparks with all of the modern amenities, including plenty of video stations for study, players sometimes arrive at the park as early as 1 or 2 p.m. for a 7:05 p.m. game.

They take early batting practice in comfortable indoor cages that didn't exist in the old stadiums. They study their swings on video until their eyes glaze over. Then, they take more swings outdoors during their team's formal batting practice just before game time.

But despite the hours and hours of extra work, today's hitters are scoring an average of 4.14 runs per game, barely up from 4.07 last year—which, outside of the strike-shortened 1981 season, was the lowest per-game average since the 3.99 in 1976, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

They are producing an average of 8.59 hits per game, imperceptibly up from last year's 8.56—which was the lowest per-game average since 1972.

2015's MLB-average .315 on-base percentage? Up just a tick from last year's .314, which, yes, was also the lowest since 1972.

Everybody loves a good work ethic and elbow grease.

But there are many in today's game who wonder whether hitters are swinging themselves into knots and obsessing too much over their craft, simply because in today's 24/7 information world, you can.

"When I played in the big leagues, there were no indoor cages," Royals manager Ned Yost says, taking us back to what seems like baseball's Stone Age. "If you wanted early BP, once in a while, they'd let you come on the field early. There were no flips, there was no tee work, there was no nothing. There was no place to do it.

"We just took batting practice. We didn't watch video. We didn't have all the numbers they have now. That's why guys kept their own books on pitchers. Guys would write down everything about the opposing pitcher after the game: 'this is what he did to me.' 'This is what his slider did to me.'

"Nowadays, I don't think anybody has a book because it's right there on the computer."

You know how you are sometimes away from your computer or smartphone for a mere 15 or 20 minutes and you feel completely lost?

It's become that way in modern baseball too.

"We have some...guys who like to come to the park very early, [because] with the new system and all the food, they can eat their meals here and all that," Hall of Famer Paul Molitor told B/R last summer, before his promotion from Twins hitting coach to manager. "But there's a time to give yourself a mental break too.

"You can come in and prepare, but you don't have to be here seven hours before the first pitch to do that."

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

It's a fine line, Molitor says.

"I will never knock a guy who wants to be out here," he says. "But the hitting and all the drills and the cages and facilities we have now, guys swing a ton.

"Some guys, it's like a security blanket. They feel like if they don't take X amount of swings, do X amount of drills...if they go 0-for-4, it was because they didn't do their drills. It wasn't because they didn't have a good night or whatever. Guys get a little caught up in the fact that they have to do [something], even if it's just more of a routine than actually getting something out of a drill."

This isn't true for everyone. Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters of this or any other time, doesn't obsess over video and reports.

"All he wants to know is, what is this pitcher's out pitch, a slider or a splitter?" says Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, a former hitting coach of Cabrera's in Detroit. "Magglio Ordonez too."

Jun 22, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) singles in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It's worked pretty well so far for Cabrera, who, in 2012, became baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and is a close second in the AL this year with 52 RBI.

Not that every hitter is blessed with Cabrera's skills. But there's a middle ground between simply wanting to know the basics and stepping to the plate armed with so much information that both the mind and the reflexes are dulled.

Molitor says you can sometimes see the wheels of a hitter's mind spinning while he's at the plate from miles away.

"You can see the smoke coming out," Molitor says. "Guys forget that they were able to just go up and hit. They didn't have to have all of this to be successful. In some ways you've got to trust that.

"There are definitely things you can use, but it's going to be different for different people. People who can slow the game down can probably apply it a little better. Guys who have a tendency when the game speeds up and emotions are going and the game gets tight and the closer comes in, or whatever it might be, then you just have to trust [your instincts] more than be thinking about 'I'm ahead in the count and I'm going to get this [particular] pitch.'

"You do...get paralyzed a little bit."

For skippers, this is where managing players and not simply the game comes in. The best managers can see when caution lights appear with certain players.

In Kansas City last summer, for example, Yost had to put the brakes on Alex Gordon. The outfielder always wanted to hit in the third group during batting practice because, during the first two groups, Yost says, "He would shag like it was a World Series game. He'd be running everywhere trying to catch every single ball."

Finally, Yost issued an ultimatum: Gordon was either going to move into the second group of hitters during BP and then conclude his pregame work, or Yost was going to force him to take days off.

"You're going to have to cut back," Yost told him. "You're working too hard."

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Gordon finally agreed to move into the second group because he blanched at the thought of not being in a given night's lineup.

Just like a good boss in the corporate world taking care of their employees, the best managers must sometimes protect today's players from themselves.

"We've encouraged them to figure some things out in the dugout," Hurdle says. "Or help them find what they're looking for because sometimes they're not hunting the right stuff. They look at everything versus the right thing."

Sound like yourself, perhaps, getting sucked into excess computer time when you started by searching for one thing?

"When you see a lot, you see a little," Hurdle says. "When you see a little and take your focus down, you see what you really need to see."

It's like studying for a test in school. Sometimes an hour of solid focus beats five or six hours of wild cramming.

"Or you weren't listening or the right points weren't made in class by the teacher," Hurdle says. "We always take them back to how are they getting help. Matter of fact, the first question we ask them is, 'Are you swinging at strikes?' More often than not, that ends the conversation right there.

"There are not many programs involved. Maybe Yogi Berra had one. Maybe Manny Sanguillen had one, where they are really good hitters outside the strike zone.

"You try and help them. You want them to learn to do things on their own.

"But this generation of millennials, if they're left to themselves, they isolate. They self-absorb that social-networking angle and can go on it forever and ever. They're not having fun enough times. We find ways to help them produce fun, opportunities."

For anybody with teenagers in possession of a smartphone, laptop and whatever else, Hurdle's assessment surely resonates: They isolate. Whoever would have thought that baseball, among other professions, would reach the point where those in charge would be looking to help the kids have fun?

ZSSD/ Minden Pictures/Associated Press

"We've gotta help them," Hurdle says. "We've got guys going to zoos now in visiting cities. San Diego's is one of the best. Pittsburgh has a great zoo.

"People laugh, but the duck [bus] tours they have in cities is a great thing. In San Diego, you can go to Coronado, we can make a call over there and go visit the battleships, the Maritime museum. We encourage guys to go for sightseeing opportunities when they're in a city.

"And guys are starting to pick up on it more and more."

It's all in the name of guarding against diminishing returns.

"Young guys, especially," Molitor says. "They're trying to get established and they're trying to take the information that's available, but they're not sure how to process it. Especially when the game starts speeding up and they get in the box."

Not only is hitting major league pitching incredibly difficult, it also is an incredibly difficult thing to practice. As Molitor notes, there are many ways for a hitter to get his swing where he wants it: tee work, soft toss, drills to slow a swing down or speed it up.

"When you get in the box, the mental aspect becomes more of a factor," Molitor says. "Learning how to use counts, your knowledge as a hitter. That becomes more important than the repetition of drills.

"Hopefully, when you recognize pitches, your muscle memory kicks in and it gives you a chance. When you're in the box, the mental side of hitting is a lot more important than the mechanical."

Learning how to think in the moment becomes so much more important than simply putting in time.

"I like everybody to work, I like everybody to show up at the appropriate time," Hurdle says. "But we don't need eyewash. We don't need just to be there to say we were there. What are you doing with your time?

"As John Wooden said, there's a great difference between activity and achievement. I know in our clubhouse we have a relaxation room where the guys can actually go and nap. We've got timers. It makes sense. There's documentation out there for it.

"You want to talk about a crazy evolution of the game? If you fell asleep in the locker room before, you'd get beaten. Now you've got a place where you can go."

All in the name of progress, ostensibly. Yet at the plate, in so many ways, the game continues to look much the same as it did in 1972.

Even when viewed on an iPad.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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