Wednesday, February 28, 2007

About Schmidt

Baseball geek post!

1. People are horrible judges of their own strengths and weaknesses.
2. Especially professional athletes.
3. Especially retired professional athletes.

Exhibit 4,378: Michael Jack Schmidt.
[He] hit 548 home runs and won three National League MVP awards. He later said he never really learned to hit until late in his career...

"I literally became a really good hitter in '86 and '87," said Schmidt, whose 18-year career ended in 1989. "I was a dangerous hitter my whole career. Do you know anything about dangerous? They feared me. I accumulated a lot of league leading stats. But I always felt the other team wanted me up there. Does that make sense? And I didn't like that feeling. I just didn't feel complete. I wanted to be a complete hitter."

Schmidt only wishes he had listened to what instructors were telling him in Year 1 of his career instead of waiting until Year 15. That's when those long walks back to the dugout having left the runner stranded with another "K" became less frequent, and so did the catcalls and boos.

"Good hitters can be stubborn. At some point, down the road... [you] realize the game can be a lot more fun if you figure out a way to make more contact."

That way, for Schmidt, was swinging down on the first hard pitch he saw; literally trying to hit the ball into the ground instead of trying to lift it out of the stadium.

Schmidt adopted that method before the 1986 season and hit a combined .291 with 72 homers, 232 RBI and just 164 strikeouts... In 1986, Schmidt was 36 when he won his third National League MVP award.
It's true, he did win the MVP in 1986. It's also true that he had a higher batting average and drove in a few more runs in 1986 than he did in the years immediately prior to that. For all I know, it's true that he had more fun, too. But it's not true that he became a better hitter.

Here's a quick rundown of his career:

1972-1973: Overmatched rookie; forget about it.
1974-1977: Tremendous player building a Hall of Fame career for a rapidly improving team while leading the league in all kinds of important stuff, playing in the All Star Game every year and getting some MVP votes.
1978: Inexplicable off year.
1979: Same as 1974-1977, except the team tanked.
1980-1981: MVP both years, the first year unanimously, the second damn close, while leading the best team in the league.
1982-1985: Back to the level of 1974-1977, except the team began to fall apart around him.
1986-1987: No real change, except that 20 years later, he says he suddenly got better. Hold that thought.
1988-1989: Finished.

In short, a perfect bell curve.

Striking out always bothered Schmidt, but the truth is, his strikeouts never really hurt his game. In fact, contrary to what he's peddling now, he was a just as good when he was leading the league in strikeouts in 1974, 1975 and 1976 as he was in his supposed glory days of 1986-1987. His Adjusted OPS+ for 1974, 1975 and 1976 was 158, 142 and 151; in 1986 and 1987 it was 152 and 142. No difference at all. In fact, with three notable exceptions, he was around 150 every year from 1974 through 1987, which is amazing consistency at that level of production. The exceptions were his off year of 1978, when he dropped down to 122 (which is still pretty good), and his first two MVP years, when he peaked at 170 and 199.

Schmidt still struck out a lot in those first two MVP years, but I take it he's not complaining -- at least, I haven't read anywhere that he's giving the hardware back.

But according to Schmidt, something was wrong with his game from 1982 through 1985, whether it was that he should have been a better hitter, or he just wasn't having enough fun:
"When I was able to cut my strikeouts from 160 to 80, there became a middle ground. I wasn't walking back to the dugout as much," Schmidt said. "If you're running out a ground ball or running out a fly ball or lining out to somebody, slowly but surely the fans start to understand: This guy gave us a tough at-bat. It doesn't look like you're giving a tough at-bat when you strike out."
I can't quantify how much fun he was having. But he didn't change, at all, as a hitter from 1982 through 1987, even as his strikeouts dropped.

1982: 131, 162
1983: 148, 156
1984: 115, 155
1985: 117, 149
1986: 84, 152
1987: 80, 142

First number is strikeouts, second is Adjusted OPS+. (He had roughly the same amount of playing time in each year, making for a handy comparison.) The strikeouts dropped, just as Schmidt described, but his production didn't change.

The other number that dropped, in direct correlation to his strikeouts, was his walks: 107, 128, 92, 87, 89, 83. This seems to coincide with what he now describes as his new approach at the time.

So it's possible that he made a conscious decision to swing earlier in the count, leading to fewer strikeouts and fewer walks. The benefit was that he picked up a few more singles, nudging his batting average over .290. But his on base percentage and slugging percentage didn't change at all, so it's hard to see how that really constitutes improvement. And anyway, he led the league in Adjusted OPS+ every year from 1980 through 1986, except 1985 (he was 5th), so what's the problem?

And maybe this isn't fair, but the Phillies kind of muddled along during those years, except their flukey 1983, beginning their long wandering in the desert which continues to this day. It's funny how they were hanging flags over Veterans Stadium through the whole latter half of the 1970s when Schmidt was striking out all the time and not having any fun.

Now if Schmidt wanted to argue that he had to make adjustments as a hitter as he got older, just to maintain his established level of production, that would be different. That might be true, and he would know best. But he didn't say that; he said he became a better, more complete hitter. He doesn't know his own strength.

And really, who cares what a retired baseball player has to say about his own career? I don't, except that he's trying to give Pat Burrell the "benefit" of his "experience." Leave him alone!

Stop The War.

No comments: