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May 08

Danger on the Basepaths

pic nicked from here

In baseball, safety is separated by ninety feet of danger.

Touching the base, you are safe. The moment you lose contact with it, you are in peril. To score a run, you must navigate these ninety foot sections four times. If unsuccessful, you either get out or are stranded. If successful, you arrive back where you started.

Home.

In this, baseball is very different from many other sports. It’s not about getting deep into the enemy territory and doing something there. It’s not a counting coup. It’s about putting your men in danger and bringing them home.

Polyphemos tries to gun down a runner.

The odyssey home is a dangerous one. Full of gambles, sacrifices, heroism, thieving and mistakes by both sides. Sirens, cyclops and all that sort of shit. When you can take that extra ninety feet, you must. When you cannot, you must not. Knowing when to run and when to hold is of the essence.

The last Blue Jays manager, Cito Gaston, preferred to swing for the fences and jog around the bases, believing there was no defense against the long-ball. The new manager, John Farrell, has taken the opposite approach. Aggression on the base-paths and small ball. Manufacturing runs.

Aggression means failure will occur when trying to take a base rather than in trying to hold one. It means failure will be outlandish and public. It will be an obvious out rather than a theoretical ‘what could’ve been.’ This is the risk of being aggressive. Not just in baseball but in everything.

And the Blue Jays have run into some trouble with this new approach. Literally. Run right into it.

Baseball has no clock. It has outs. Every time you give an out away, you do not have it returned. And they’ve given away plenty of outs on the basepaths. Most of these have been reasonable. Aggression has its consequences. Men will get picked off. They will get thrown out. Shit happens.

Shit happening.

But there’s a not so thin line between aggression and stupidity. And this team has crossed that line a few too many times for my liking.

Aggression is taking that extra ninety feet when it is of equal or greater importance than the runner.  Stupidity is taking it when the runner is more valuable than the extra ninety feet. Everyone who has watched the Jays this season can point to an incident or ten where this line was crossed. Where even if the strategy was successful, it still would’ve been useless. But it wasn’t successful anyway because aside from being useless, it was also ridiculous.

The incident that springs to my mind is when the turtle in a tarpit  slow Juan Rivera tried to steal third against the Yankees in a one run ballgame and ended the inning with a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play. A moment where the Jays had much more to lose than to gain from that far-fetched tactic and lost it all. And for what? Ninety irrelevant feet.

Yet, if the cost of aggression is obvious failure, the method is thievery, duplicity and sacrifice. For aggression to work, the line between it and stupidity must be crossed. It must sometimes be irrational. There must be an element of “Don’t you know I’m loco?”

If that line is never crossed, even aggression becomes predictable and the predictable is easily defended against.

The old manager was fond of saying “Lose one today to win two later.” I sometimes wonder if Farrell is thinking “Give up an out now to gain a run later.”

I think of the Rivera’s attempted steal of third above all other base-running errors because it gives the lie to that.  It shows that Farrell is either unaware of what it means to make the defense uncomfortable or does not know when he has.

The irrational had already worked. It was time to capitalize.

Juan had (somehow) stolen a base earlier in the game. The Yankees knew Farrell was loco. They positioned Cano right behind the bag to hold him on second, thus opening up a hole in the infield and showing they were defending against the running game. Just making them fortify third against the slow-footed Juan Rivera was success. It might even have kept AJ Burnett from using his curveball in the dirt thus giving Edwin something to hit.  That’s when you reap the benefits of aggression.

Instead, Farrell ran right into the trap.

And this is just one incident out of many. It’s the one that sticks with me because it reminds me of another aggressive commander and his failures.

Nelson with both arms and eyes.

Most people know Horatio Nelson for the Battle of Trafalgar. Fewer know that his importance and success as a commander was due to his aggression.

Before Nelson, naval battles were fought in a highly conservative fashion. Commanders were typically happy to sink a couple of ships then let their enemy’s fleet retreat. Having scored a point victory, they saw no sense in risking damage to their own ships by forcing the issue.

Nelson saw things differently.

He fought to extinction. After he sank a few of your ships and you started your retreat, he did not see it as victory. He saw you as weak. He pursued and risked all to destroy or take every last one of your ships.

He often did not wait for scouting or perfect positioning, preferring to attack immediately. A strategy that met with great success during the Battle of the Nile, when his enemy assumed he was sane and would not start fighting at dusk in waters he had just arrived in. His enemy was wrong. They were caught with many of their sailors on shore.

And their fleet was destroyed.

The Battle of the Nile. Fought by night.

Most people know that Nelson only had one arm but fewer know that he lost it during a failure. And that the source of his success was the source of his failure. His aggression undid him. Badly.

He attacked a well fortified position at Teneriffe without having enough men and, really, for nothing. Because of other events, the place had lost its strategic meaning and was not worth the risk of attack. Yet Nelson took this bad gamble, losing the battle and his arm in the process. He completely failed to learn anything from this blunder.

But, by that point in his career, Nelson had a record well above .500.

John Farrell with both arms and eyes.

John Farrell is no Nelson. He just has the same problems. (I have the same vices as many great men and none of their virtues. For example, I might be even lazier than Einstein but I’m not exactly jotting up a theory of relativity in my spare time.) At the time of writing this, Farrell has a losing record as manager.

He would do well to remember what St. Vincent said to Nelson before and after this ill-thought-out piece of aggression.

In the first instance, before the squadron left, he told Nelson:

I am sure you will deserve success, to mortals is not given the power of commanding it.

In the second, when Nelson returned in failure:

Mortals cannot command success.

Translated into baseball, you’ve gotta have the horses. If you don’t have the fucking horses, telling them to run isn’t going to do very much.

Nelson usually had the horses. He made sure of it. Most of his work was done before the battle. His men were exceptionally well trained and disciplined. He put most of his effort into preparation. His faith in his horses is what allowed him to be so aggressive. Nelson more often deserved victory than tried to command it. When he tried to command it, even he failed. Outlandishly, as aggression must.

Now Rajai is a horse. A fast one.

I can accept the errors of aggression that this team is going to make. They are dealing with a new philosophy. I can even accept the errors of plain stupidity that are inspired by the same aggressive philosophy. That’s just the nature of the beast. One has to accept that passivity can be just as stupid as aggression but that its failures are often invisible.

Contrary to public opinion, you are very rarely damned if you don’t. Not by the public at least.

What concerns me about Farrell is not that the team is running into outs nor that they do it when there is nothing to be gained, but that, when there is something to be gained from all of that, he still seems to be making the wrong call. When he succeeds in making the defense uncomfortable, he seems incapable of changing gears and taking advantage. That his aggression created what looked like the start of an AJ Burnett meltdown and created a bad defense. Then he interrupted that by running again.

It is not enough to force the defense to make errors. Like Napoleon said, you must also “never interrupt your enemy when he is making an error.”

A bad chess player plays for pieces. A good one plays for checkmate. John Farrell’s obsession with that extra ninety feet is not only playing for pieces, it is too often trading good ones for bad. That he does this is not the concern. That he does it all the time, with fingers crossed and without strategy is.

He’s playing checkers when other managers are playing chess.

The results are speaking for themselves.

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2 comments

  1. Andy

    I just got home from watching the Blue Jays’ strategy in action at Target Field. Something went right for them today, so at least they can beat out our sad and struggling Minnesota Twins.

    1. Ryan Oakley

      It’s pretty hard to make any mistakes on the base-paths when Nick Blackburn retires, what was it, 17 in a row?

      Bautista went right. Again. That guy is something else.

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