I admit. As a tennis fan, I am a proud member of Team Roger Federer. The GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) debates are dicey these days. Novak. Rafa. Roger. Even Sampras (If I had to choose one pro to win a match Running Man style, I might select him). Yet, the greatest tennis season in history belongs to Johnny Mac in 1984. The American lefty compiled a record of 82-3. Won two grand slam titles—only losing the French Open after being up two sets. Finished the year at Number 1.
But then, a funny thing happened. Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985 using a graphite racquet. By 1987, nobody played with wood anymore, and McEnroe never won a Grandslam title again. The game evolved. Equipment is funny with tennis players.
Federer basically had McEnroe-like seasons from 2004 to 2008. What I find unique about the argument for Roger is that he spanned different eras. He competed against the likes of Agassi and Sampras. And as part of the vaunted Big Tree with Nadal and Novak. For style points alone, I find the Swiss Maestro more fun to watch than his competitors. Putting my blinders on, I used to ignore Nadal.
But what cannot be denied is finding a means to best Nadal on the clay courts of Roland Garros is, without argument, one of the most challenging feats in sports. Running the Barklay Marathons is easier. So is climbing Mount Everest. The Spaniard’s record? 112-3. 15 titles. Only two people have beaten him.
What do I love most about the way he competes?
He plays every ball like it will be his last. Never gives up. Passion in all moments. I think he plays like he’s going to blow out his Achilles tendon on each point, never to return to the sport again.
“I am a guy who likes to do what I am doing with passion.” Nadal
And who would want to leave the court thinking he could have chased down that one last ball? This drive is hard to replicate, even at the upper echelon of sports.
Switching gears, I try to rewatch two historic baseball games during the offseason:
First, I always rewatch the greatest baseball game ever played—Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. For the uninitiated, it’s an up-and-down game with wild swings. The Rangers were up 7-4 when the game went crazy, only to finish with David Freese’s epic home run. I cherish the finish. This year, I also found Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Braves. This is my vote for the best-pitched ball game in post-season history. I remember watching with my dad, a habit to this day even if it’s on the phone, and I asked, “Do you think he has anything left in the tank?” And his response went something like this, “I don’t think it matters; he’s not coming out of the game.”
And I think that’s true. Now, Kelly did broach the subject, apparently. Morris might have beaten his manager to death in the dugout if he tried. The entire game is on YouTube, and this confrontation doesn’t show in the broadcast. Maybe our memories are fallible.
Still, the game is a throwback. The Metrodome roared in a deafening and beautiful kaleidoscope of cheers, an impossible home-field advantage that vexed the Cardinals in 1982. I’m surprised the Twins gave this up for an outdoor ballpark. For Morris to pitch ten innings of scoreless baseball on that stage. Well, you won’t see that again in the current specialist approach to pitching (average innings pitched by starting pitchers have steadily declined). The right-hander should have been enthralled in Cooperstown for this game alone. And if you’re a homer Cards fan, David Freese should be too. I jest here … maybe.
After reading more about the ten-inning pitcher’s duel, I came across this quote from Jack Morris, which paraphrases many of all Nadal’s same points. Hence, the tie-in:
“Well, I never wanted to give up a run. Every inning, every pitch meant something. That’s your approach. It doesn’t always work out that way. I came in here knowing I can’t do anything about how many runs we score but I sure as heck can have something to do with how many they score.”
I almost had to read this twice. Why? Because Jack Morris is the epicenter of the pitching to the scoreboard theorem. What does that mean? For years, the pitcher was kept out of the Baseball’s Hall of Fame for borderline statistics. A high earned run average, mostly. And so, the line was that the earned run average didn’t matter. If the Twins scored five, Jack would give up four. Two-run lead? He’d hold the team to one. Basically, he focused when it mattered. And this ethos played out on the biggest stage of all. The World Series. It’s a talk track.
But this is silly.
Morris finished with a 254-186 record, won more games in the 80s ball era than any other pitcher, and completed 175 of his 527 career starts. Also, he never failed to show up for work, starting 515 games straight. An American league record at the time.
I was going to analyze all of his starts to see if the statistics bore this pitch to the scoreboard ethos out. But many people have gone through Jack’s stats in detail. There isn’t statistical evidence he does. Grant, his ERA is slightly better with the game on the line but not noticeably different.
Does anyone in today’s game fit this profile?
Using stat cast statistics, I pulled data for the 2022 season and looked at how pitchers performed with the tying run on deck, tying run at the plate, and tying and go-ahead runs on base. Now, you can pull this apart and argue outliers. There are many. And when I started this endeavor, I tried to streamline the data and asked the world’s favorite chatbot to break down the queries. I won’t go into the details, but I tried every way possible to get an accurate query. Spent an hour asking detailed questions. With the confidence of a teenager, the bot spit out fifteen possibilities. None of them functioned. All bombed. The so-called Artificial Intelligence (AI) didn’t even know who John Smoltz was either, claiming its dataset was only good through 2021 or some other such nonsense. Perhaps it will argue with me about the year next.
I’m not going to rant about AI. These neural engines are more prediction engines based on patterns than true intelligence. A parlor trick I’ve argued in the past.
What does the data say?
Logic dictates the pressure mounts with the go-ahead runner at the plate. For further homework, I should see if the early innings skew the data as the game’s first batter is lumped into the statistics. But doesn’t every pitch count? And the statistics do bear this out if you take the average and review the standard deviation. Across the board, opponents batting average increases with the tying run at the plate, moving from .258 to .268.
Where the standard deviation jumps is with runners on base, increasing to .279. That’s over twenty points. And why shouldn’t it? Playing baseball, it’s not only the stress of losing the lead that comes into play. For the pitcher, the entire game changes. For me, as a kid, I hated it because I had to pitch out of the stretch. No running starts or leaps off the rubber. Just going into the set position alters the rhythm. Not to mention, you have to pay attention to the runner, change pitch sequences, and adjust signs. Also, the book on the batter is thrown out the window. Yes, the shift still exists, but the positioning is tweaked. The first basemen is in motion. Short-stop and second base too. An immense amount of leverage swings to the batter. Yeah, I understand these folks are pros, but the moving parts are hard to ignore.
When you consider the numbers, I often wonder why this pitching to the scoreboard was an argument. Unfortunately, the talk bleeds into game calling too. We’re bringing in our lights-out reliever, but he’s only truly great with runners on base? This is absurd!
But … there might be something to this logic.
The outliers tell a different tale. Oddly, some closers do pitch better with runners on base. Looking closer, they follow the opposite pattern. If the tying run is on deck, the opponent’s batting averages are higher. And the averages drop substantially with runners on base. Hader. Helsley. Diaz—the trumpets do blare when he emerges from the dugout.
At first, I found the data perplexing. But thinking about it more, the game morphs in the final inning. And some of this has to do with focusing on the situation at hand and the batter at the plate. Also, some of the variables matter less. Almost all closers pitch from the stretch. With starters going fewer innings, as an aside, I’d be curious if the wind-up should be eliminated entirely. As a proponent of Roger Clemens, Juan Marichal, and Jack Morris, I find this blasphemous. If there was a meaningful sample size among starting pitchers solely pitching from the stretch, it would be interesting to review the data. For now, I suppose go with what makes you comfortable. Strasburg was one of the first to switch. But now, he’s going back.
Too often, in the early innings, one wonders if the manager plays to the macro statistics instead of managing to the game on the field. Maybe we could use a little more Nadal in the early parts of the game. Pull the starter earlier. Steal bases. Pinch-hit for the lead before the fourth inning. Instead of playing for the win tomorrow, win today. Considering the standings are often decided by one game, every pitch matters.
- Yes, those are the rookie cards of both Jack Morris and the Bulldog, Orel Hershiser, in the title picture.
- Detailed analysis of the Jack Morris myth.
- And, oh boy, Game 7 between the Twins and Braves is an all-time great pitching duel.
- Sadly, I will miss the trumpets blaring this season—a casualty from the WBC.