Getting to First Base

The New York Times

September 20, 2009

By Doug Glanville

The other week, my former manager, the current Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, was discussing his ...

For most of my career, I was a leadoff hitter, particularly during the five years I was a starter with the Philadelphia Phillies. I can appreciate the quantitative aspect of evaluating what makes a leadoff hitter effective, but I think there are also many qualitative attributes than can spark an offense.

As a leadoff hitter, your primary job is to get on base, but it also matters what you do when you get there: if you wreak havoc on your opponent, that adds to your effectiveness. A base-stealing threat, for instance, can cause pitchers to rush, or make catchers a little jumpy, or force middle infielders to rely on their peripheral vision—all of which can lead to mistakes.

More specifically, rushed pitchers tend to throw more pitches that can really hurt them. If Ellsbury is on base and his league-leading 61 (and counting) stolen bases are a concern (which they no doubt are), then maybe a pitcher has to throw a few more fastballs to get the ball home more quickly — and fastballs are what hitters like Ramirez, Ortiz, Youkilis and Pedroia eat for breakfast. The first baseman also has to hold Ellsbury close, leaving a nice big hole where he would be playing if Ellsbury were not on base.

I respect the power of numbers, but I know their shortcomings. Yes, 40 percent is a great on-base percentage, but there are ways you can get on base without statistically being “on base.” There’s a fielder’s choice, which you can force with your speed (or maybe the infielders didn’t quite make a clean play); or you can reach by error, and errors often result from the pressure you put on the infield by running well. So you may have gotten on base a few more times than the stats show, and with that comes more potential for scoring runs.

It is, in any case, a relentless job. By the time you sit down after yet another game with five plate appearances, another one is coming at you. Your legs are barking at you most of the year from dancing around the bases. You can’t ease into the game or watch for a couple of pitches to see what the pitcher is throwing. You are first, and foremost, a game-time trailblazer with nothing but past experience, instincts and a scouting report to create a plan for that first at-bat.

When you’re on the road — whether it’s at Dodger Stadium during twilight when you can’t see much of anything for the first few at-bats, or at an extra-muddy Pro Player Park (now “Land Shark Stadium”) in Florida — you find out how play is affected by conditions before anyone else on either team does. You are the scout, responsible for relaying information back to your teammates and, maybe, calming their nerves: “Hey man, what’s he throwing out there?”

Well, on one occasion Kevin Brown was throwing darts, and from the first pitch I said to myself, “We are in trouble.” I saw all of Brown’s pitches in the first at-bat — that’s part of what I was supposed to do: make him use his entire repertoire in that first plate appearance — and I realized that, based on my previous experience against him, he was extra nasty on this particular day. But I kept my opinion to myself, even though in the end his five-hit complete game shutout didn’t come as a shock.

Why didn’t I alert my teammates? Early in my career I’d once made the mistake of being totally honest. We were in Dodger Stadium facing Chan Ho Park, then at the top of his game. It was a twilight start and I could hardly see the ball. He struck me out on a three-two slider. Out of the strike zone, but I chased it.

When I got back to the dugout I told my teammates, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You can’t see anything up there.”

Maybe that was a bad choice. Even major leaguers can have a little bit of doubt that maybe today they won’t have it anymore, that maybe staying out late last night will catch up to them this time, that maybe this game could be their last before getting traded or sent back to Triple-A.

They are looking to the leadoff hitter to remind them that it’s going to be all right.

Every game is like the dial being reset to zero, and it is the leadoff hitter’s job to help remind everyone: We can beat this guy, after all I just led off the game with a home run onto Waveland Avenue, so exhale and let me turn up the dial for you. Or as one of my former teammates, Mike Hubbard, used to say, “You go. We go.”

Ellsbury is running teams out of their house and home. As of this writing: 61 stolen bases, 81 runs, 169 hits in 138 games, but an on-base percentage of “only” .352, or 35 percent. Just 41 walks this year. But it’s about more than Jacoby, or it should be: he does have eight other players in the lineup who can complement and support his particular style of play.

Maybe their two-hole hitter can pick up any slack, or maybe when he actually does get on, he uses that time more efficiently than a guy who is on base more frequently. Anyone have Bill James’ phone number?

By the time you enter the game professionally, you have a history; you have had success somewhere being just who you are. But then things change, the competition gets more intense, and what used to work might not work any longer. Or maybe someone just decides that you need to be different. And so, all along the way, there are people making suggestions or telling you how to get better, and a huge part of what makes you a professional is being able to sift through the millions of opinions and know what to use. (And what not to use: I was told in the minor leagues that I chased too many high pitches and that I could “get away with it in the minors, but face Roger Clemens and you will never get on top of that pitch.” In fact, I actually lived on high pitches my entire career.)

In the end, you are responsible for your performance and if you don’t produce, you don’t play. As Francona said recently, “You put a guy in the leadoff spot and tell him to be patient — we did that with Doug Glanville in Philadelphia. He went from having 200-and-something hits to about 150 hits and he ended up with 13 more walks. It just didn’t work.” As both a player and a manager, you have to weigh any adjustments against statistical absolutes. It is the process by which you work on your weaknesses without losing your strengths. Managers who understand this difficult balance will be able to see other ways a player is contributing to his team beyond the numbers, and that contribution may be just what the team ordered.

I listened and made a genuine effort to get better at my role, and for the most part it went well enough, although there were diminishing returns, too. I had a couple of seasons where I scored more than 100 runs. But I would never be that quintessential leadoff hitter. My career on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter ended up a non-leadoff-impressive .326. I got on base with my bat (.287 lifetime from the “one-hole”), and only my bat.

I can’t help cheering on a Jacoby Ellsbury because I understand his struggle. He does well when he swings the bat (he’s now hitting over .300), but the more you swing, the more outs you make in play — even if you’re a great hitter. He will have to balance that act for the rest of his career: when to swing, when not to swing. I hope he doesn’t sacrifice his aggressiveness to try to meet this arbitrary measure of leadoff success. He will hear phrases like “work the count” and “patience,” or maybe “see more pitches.” But there is nothing worse than forcing yourself to “see” pitches. Because when you try to see something, usually you don’t see a thing.

New York Times 09/20/2009


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