Joe Maddon loves a good hit-and-run play, a timely stolen base, a well-executed sacrifice bunt, a choke-up-on-the-bat, two-strike bloop hit to shallow right field.
The Angels manager may have gained notoriety for his new-age motivational techniques and early embrace of analytics, but when it comes to baseball's on-field product, he is old school to the core.
That's why Maddon, 67, welcomed recent news reports that Major League Baseball had slightly deadened the ball this season amid a six-year surge of home runs.
The changes are so subtle that they may result in fly balls traveling only one to two feet shorter when hit more than 375 feet, but if that pushes baseball one small step toward its more traditional roots, it would be one giant leap for the game, in Maddon's eyes.
"I'm hoping it impacts the game a lot," Maddon said. "We'll see how it works out this year, but if, in fact, the ball doesn't travel as far, it will change the analytics of the game, and a lot of things will change off that.
"Strategically speaking, it will put more emphasis on speed, on hitting the ball the other way, especially with two strikes, on contact. Strikeouts will be more disdained, like they were in the past. Pitchers might challenge hitters more because they want the ball in play, and they won't walk as many guys."
A (fastball-down-the) pipe dream? Perhaps, but Maddon, who has spent more than four decades in a sport that has fallen behind the NFL in popularity and television ratings and suffers from a lack of action, thinks it's worth pursuing.
"You never know until you actually try something," he said. "I think part of the disinterest in the game today is that it's been reduced to small patterns of striking people out, accepting walks and trying to hit home runs. When you change the ball, we can go back in time to where we had a better brand of baseball."
Many think the preponderance of baseball's three true outcomes — the home run, the walk and the strikeout — is harming the sport.
A major league record 6,776 homers were hit during the 2019 regular season, and the rate of homers fell only slightly in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, from 1.39 per team a game in 2019 to 1.28 per team a game last season.
The current home run surge began in 2015, when homers jumped to 4,909 from the 4,186 hit the previous season. There were 5,610 homers hit in 2016, 6,105 homers hit in 2017, and 5,585 homers hit in 2018.
Batters also set strikeout records in the past three full seasons, with 40,104 whiffs in 2017, 41,207 whiffs in 2018 and 42,823 whiffs in 2019. Through 1997, baseball had never seen more than 30,000 strikeouts in a season. Walks jumped from 15,088 in 2016 to an average of 15,803 from 2017 to 2019.
"The overall feeling I've gotten from friends and family and fans that I've talked to is that, yeah, seeing home runs is almost like watching the NBA and guys throwing up three-pointers all the time," said Rich Hill, a 40-year-old pitcher who recently signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
"It understandably has a point to it, but strategically, if we want to continue to grow the health of the game, we might want to rethink where we are right now. And I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way."
Hitters are bigger and stronger and have a more discerning batting eye, and the dramatic increase in defensive shifts in the last six years pushed many to alter the launch angles of their swings to generate more loft. Their logic is sound: A home run beats the shift every time.
With balls jumping off bats and so many hitter-friendly parks throughout the league, home runs were bound to increase. Slight variations in the ball also affected slugging. Many pitchers complained in 2019 that flatter seams forced them to change grips and reduced the drag on the ball in flight.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recalled the frustration his pitchers would have when they'd execute a two-strike down-and-away fastball, only to have the hitter flick his bat at the ball and hit an opposite-field homer.
"I haven't dug too much into it, but there have been many pitchers in our camp who have expressed their feelings as far as last year's baseball being a lot harder and the strings wound a lot tighter than they potentially will be this year," Roberts said. "So it's a welcome thing for pitchers."
Baseball's attempts to bring uniformity to the construction of official Rawlings baseballs, which are hand-sewn in a factory in Costa Rica, could reduce the year-to-year swings in home run rates and level the playing field between pitchers and hitters.
A Feb. 5 memo sent from MLB to general managers, assistant GMs and equipment managers outlined the changes that could reduce slugging slightly in 2021. The memo's contents were first reported by the Athletic and confirmed to The Times by a person familiar with the matter.
Rawlings has loosened the tension of the first of three wool windings around the center of the ball, which reduced the weight of the ball, by less than one-tenth of an ounce — or 2.8 grams — as well as the bounciness of the ball.
"MLB has engaged a committee of scientific experts over the last couple of years to study the baseball," a league official said, "and one of the recommendations of the committee was to narrow the manufacturing specifications of the ball in order to improve the consistency of performance."
Five teams also plan to add humidors this season, bringing to 10 the number of stadiums that will store baseballs in humidity-controlled cabinets. The Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox already have humidors.
The memo did not identify the five teams adding humidors, but officials with the Angels and Dodgers both confirmed they were not adding them.
"I'm pretty stoked for it — I think it's awesome news," Rays ace Tyler Glasnow said of the changes to the ball. "It's funny. Every pitcher knew that the balls got tighter. I don't know if 'juiced' is the word ... but it was just weird that everybody denied the ball was juiced, and now they're like, 'Well, they're dead again.' Well, what happened before?
"It's just a weird scenario, but personally, it's great. I'd love to not have more home runs hit off me. So be it. I don't care. Make them dead."
Veteran right-hander Yu Darvish, traded from the Chicago Cubs to the San Diego Padres this winter, noticed in his first bullpen workout of spring training that the baseball felt "a little bigger. I don't know how much less it's going to fly, but as a pitcher, you don't want the ball to fly that much."
Hitters will likely wait to see how the new ball carries before altering their approach. It will take weeks, probably months, to determine whether a slightly deader baseball will have an appreciable effect on how the game is played.
"Until we spend some time with the baseball and really get to know it, we're not going to be able to answer that question," Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "I think it's interesting that, to me, the fact we've made a change means that something was different. It's almost an acknowledgement that there was something different."
Counsell doesn't believe livelier baseballs have given hitters an advantage, not with so many starters and relievers throwing 95 mph or harder and filling out their repertoires with an assortment of nasty sliders, curveballs, cut-fastballs and changeups.
If anything, the all-or-nothing approach of so many hitters, who rarely shorten their swings with two strikes, plays right into the pitchers' hands.
But like Maddon, Counsell thinks the game will benefit from more balls in play.
"I think the game is skewed toward the pitchers right now, and by a lot, actually," Counsell said. "I think the question is, would I like the game to skew toward more action? And that would be yes."
Here's everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
Here's everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
WHO'S ON THIRD
After Keston Hiura moved to first base to make way for Kolten Wong, third base remained the only position without an obvious starting candidate.
The Brewers brought Travis Shaw back on a minor-league contract, hoping he can return to the form in 2017-18, when he hit 63 home runs with 187 RBI. While Luis Urias (above) and former top-prospect Daniel Robertson are likely to get a shot at winning the job, too.
Acquired last winter in a trade with Seattle, Omar Narváez (above) was supposed to give the Brewers a much-needed offensive boost while admittedly being a work-in-progress behind the plate. Instead, Narvaez was one of many Brewers hitters to struggle last season but surprised the Brewers’ coaching staff and front office with his defensive improvements. He’s back again in 2021 but will have to battle for a job with the likes of Manny Piña, Jacob Nottingham and Luke Maile.
With Brett Anderson returning on a one-year deal, the Brewers will open camp with all five spots of their starting rotation seemingly filled. But as history has shown, it’s rare to get through an entire season with just five starters. So who’s waiting in the wings if and when the Brewers need a replacement? Eric Lauer (above) and Freddy Peralta will try to earn spots in the rotation this spring, as will former UW-Stevens Point standout Jordan Zimmermann, who is in camp on a minor league deal.
PLAYERS TO BE NAMED LATER
It was a quiet offseason for the Brewers, but they weren’t unique in that regard. Across baseball, trades and signings seemed to be few and far between as players and teams both waited out a winter of uncertainty. Now that camps are open, there’s a greater likelihood of trades and with more than 100 free agents still unsigned, the Brewers’ roster could have a new face or two before the season gets underway.
WILL IT LAST?
Baseball is back, but for how long? That might be the single biggest question this spring, not just for the Brewers but baseball as a whole. The pandemic still rages on and though vaccinations are on the rise, one infection can quickly become an outbreak that leaves an entire team sidelined indefinitely. Players resisted requests and suggestions to delay the start of spring training, and the regular season, by a month believing they proved last year they can complete a season safely. But the margin for error is still slim and another full-blown shutdown of spring training, which would ultimately impact the regular season, remains one large outbreak away.
SPRING TRAINING ROSTER
Teams are allowed to have up to 75 players in major league camp at any given time and the Brewers go into camp with all 40 of their roster spots filled along with 20 non-roster invitees. Once the regular season begins, active rosters will revert to the original 26-player limit that was planned for 2020 before the pandemic suspended operations. Teams still are allowed to add an additional player to the active roster for doubleheaders and can have a taxi squad of up to five players — including one catcher — on all road trips. Rosters will expand again in September, but only by two spots for a total of 28.
Pitchers (31): Brett Anderson, Clayton Andrews*, Aaron Ashby*, Alec Bettinger, Phil Bickford, Ray Black, Zach Brown*, Corbin Burnes, Jake Cousins*, J.P. Feyereisen, Dylan File, Josh Hader, Blaine Hardy*, Adrian Houser, Thomas Jankins*, Eric Lauer, Josh Lindblom, Hoby Milner*, Freddy Peralta, Angel Perdomo, Drew Rasmussen, Miguel Sanchez*, Ethan Small*, Brent Suter, Justin Topa, Quintin Torres-Costa*, Bobby Wahl, Devin Williams, Brandon Woodruff, Eric Yardley, Jordan Zimmermann*.
Catchers (6): Mario Feliciano, Payton Henry*, Luke Maile, Omar Narvaez, Jacob Nottingham, Manny Pina.
Infielders (11): Orlando Arcia, Zach Green*, Keston Hiura, Tim Lopes, Mark Mathias, Jace Peterson*, Daniel Robertson, Travis Shaw*, Brice Turang*, Luis Urias, Daniel Vogelbach, Kolten Wong.
Outfielders (11): Lorenzo Cain, Dylan Cozens*, Derek Fisher, Avisail Garcia, Tristen Lutz*, Billy McKinney, Garrett Mitchell*, Corey Ray, Pablo Reyes*, Tyrone Taylor, Christian Yelich.
* — Non-roster invitee
Manager Craig Counsell’s coaching staff will have a different look in 2021. Third-base coach Ed Sedar has transitioned into a new, advisory role while longtime bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel’s contract was not renewed by the team after last season.
Sedar will be replaced on the staff by Quintin Berry, who had been the Brewers' minor-league outfield and base-running coordinator for the last two seasons after concluding his 13-year playing career serving as a player/coach with Class AAA Colorado Springs in 2018.
Néstor Corredor and Adam Weisenburger will replace Hanel and Robinson Diaz as the team's bullpen catchers.
The rest of Counsell's staff will remain intact moving forward, including hitting coaches Andy Haines (above left) and Jacob Cruz. Chris Hook and Steve Karsay will handle Milwaukee’s pitchers and bullpen, respectively, and Pat Murphy returns for a sixth season as Counsell’s bench coach.
Jason Lane, the Brewers’ first base coach last season, returns, too, though Counsell planned to decide during spring training where Lane and Berry would be used in games this season.
Manager — Craig Counsell (7th season). Bases — Quintin Berry (1st season), Jason Lane (5th season); Bullpen — Steve Karasy (3rd season); Bench — Pat Murphy (6th season); Hitting — Jacob Cruz (2nd season); Andy Haines (3rd season); Bullpen catchers — Néstor Corredor (1st season); Adam Weisenburger (1st season).
CACTUS LEAGUE SCHEDULE
The Cactus League schedule underwent a last-minute adjustment earlier this month with the elimination of split-squad games. The Brewers will play 27 games in Arizona — 14 at American Family Fields and 13 on the road — and wrap up their exhibition slate with a pair of contests against the Rangers at Globe Life Park on March 29 and 30 before returning to Milwaukee ahead of their April 1 regular-season opener against the Twins at American Family Field.
February: 28 — @ Chicago White Sox. March: 1 — at Diamondbacks; 2 — vs. Athletics.; 3 — at Padres; 4 — vs. Cleveland.; 5 — at Rockies; 6 — vs Cubs; 7 — OFF; 8 — vs. Angels; 9 — vs. Giants; 10 — at Athletics; 11 — vs. Royals; 12 — at Cubs; 13 — vs. Rangers; 14 — at Mariners; 15 — vs. Padres; 16 — at Dodgers; 17 — OFF DAY; 18 — at Angels; 19 — vs. Diamondbacks; 20 — at Reds (7 p.m.); 21 — vs. Mariners; 22 — vs Cleveland; 23 — vs. Dodgers; 25 — at Giants (8 p.m.); 26 — vs. White Sox; 27 — at Royals; 28 — at Reds; 29 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas); 30 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas).
(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all games start at 2:10 p.m. local time prior to March 14 and 3:10 p.m. after, due to Arizona not observing Daylight Savings Time)
IF YOU GO
Unlike previous seasons, fans will not be able to watch the team’s workouts, which take place on the complex’s ancillary fields. That means no opportunities for kids — little and big alike — to get autographs and pictures. The team store at American Family Fields will be open and the team announced last week that a limited number of fans — up to 23% of capacity at the 10,000-seat stadium — will be allowed to attend games when Cactus League play gets underway.