Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.

Some baseball strategies never go out of style

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In the 1990s and early 2000s, the teams which were thought to have a clear advantage were the teams that learned to take a lot of pitches, learned to only swing at the pitches they were looking for and, if they never got those nice fat pitches, were quite happy to take their walks. Take-and-Rake baseball was the order of the day and teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Athletics all pulled the rest of baseball into a “Moneyball”-driven era in which plate discipline ruled.

Baseball strategy is a cyclical thing, of course, and in recent years teams have found other means of finding an edge. As much of the league filled its rosters with big, lumbering pitch-taking sluggers, new inefficiencies were created, giving way to a period in which clubs with deep pitching staffs, highly-specialized bullpens and good defense had an advantage. A brief era in which run scoring plummeted to the lowest level seen since the 1980s ensued and putting the ball in play and winning close games was seen as the key to advancing in the playoffs. The Kansas City Royals and their famous Relentlessness of 2014-15 was considered by many to be a repudiation of plate discipline and OBP uber alles, and were considered a new model of winning team. Last winter multiple clubs were said to be trying to do what they do in terms of collecting hitters who put wood on the ball and ran like mad and collecting an array of top relievers to shorten games.

Last night’s Game 4 between the Cubs and the Giants was evidence, however, that claiming any given strategy passe and another ascendent is kind of a sucker’s game. Better players win games and better players can do it in any number of ways, regardless of the fashionability of the strategies employed. The ninth inning was a microcosm of that.

Kris Bryant worked himself into a 2-1 count and then led off the ninth with a single. Then Javier Lopez came on to face Anthony Rizzo. Lopez is a lefty-killer, and a prime example of the sort of bullpen specialization people talk about so much. Rizzo worked a six-pitch walk off of him, steadfastly refusing to chase four pitches which were not in his sweet spot. Then came Sergio Romo to face Ben Zobrist who, like Rizzo, took four pitches that were off the outside corner and got himself into a 3-1 count before hitting a double which plated the Cubs’ third run. By this point the Cubs had seen 15 pitches from Giants pitchers. Only five of them were strikes and two of those were smacked hard. If you squinted, you might’ve thought that the Cubs were the 2001 Yankees or something. The game unraveled for the Giants after that. Put enough men on base and a lot of those men are going to score.

The Giants’ downfall was, quite obviously, their historically unreliable bullpen. If you’re not going to bash your opponents into submission by hitting a lot of bombs, and the Giants didn’t this year, you had at least better be able to win the close games which inevitably ensue. That sort of an approach worked just fine for the Royals, but not having Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera — or anything close to them — makes that a lot harder. Meanwhile the Cubs, at least in the ninth inning were taking pitches they didn’t like and squaring up solidly once they got the pitch they were looking for, even if that’s not something you hear a lot about in the baseball press these days.

The next time you hear someone saying that there’s a clearly ascendant strategy in baseball or arguing that doing it the way this team or that team does it is necessary, pay them no mind. You can’t win with the latest state-of-the-art strategies if you don’t have players who can execute them well. And you can win with strategies some claim to be out of date as long as you have great baseball players. The Giants didn’t have the personnel to be the 2015 Royals. The Cubs have players who can do basically everything. It’s really that simple.

Good riddance to Tal’s Hill

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For the past few years, the Astros have discussed getting rid of Tal’s Hill, that little rise of grass on the warning track in center field. It was supposed to happen last offseason but the Astros’ playoff run went later than the people planning the renovation anticipated (i.e. a postseason run happened at all) but, as we noted recently, it is going forward this offseason.

In fact, this very day the equipment is on the field in Minute Maid Park, getting rid of one of baseball’s weirdest park features:

I’m fine with this. Tal’s Hill was kind of dumb. It was a forced quirk that came at a time when ballpark designers went with faux-retro designs. It seemed fun and unique when first revealed, but it was totally inorganic, like so many other distinctive features of ballparks built in the 1990s and early 2000s were. Pointless overhangs and jutting outfield walls. Friezes. Things that, in old parks, were necessitated by real estate constraints (e.g. Fenway Park has odd dimensions and the Green Monster because they literally did not have the land to build the park in a different way). The new ballpark designers were trying to force history and charm on people from day one. Thus, Tal’s Hill.

We’ve mostly gotten out of that retro-era and form is starting to at least attempt to do a better job of following function. Thank goodness. In that spirit, good riddance, Tal’s Hill. A design feature people liked because the Astros told them it was fun and meaningful, even if there was no purpose for it whatsoever.

Carlos Beltran plans to play in 2017

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MLB.com’s TR Sullivan reports that Carlos Beltran plans to keep playing in 2017. He hopes for the Rangers, but if not, he’ll enter the free agent market.

Beltran will turn 40 next April, but he still hit .295/.337/.513 with 29 homers and 93 RBI over 151 games between the Yankees and the Rangers, splitting time between the outfield and DH.

Someone will sign him, likely pretty quickly after he formally files for free agency as he is highly unlikely to receive a qualifying offer.