April 11, 2002

To Err Is Unacceptable

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2002 is the year of the slugger. In baseball recently, more and more emphasis has been placed on hitting while another discipline has been grossly neglected.

The question a few decades ago was, “can you hit 30-plus homers a season?”

The question is now, “can you hit 50-plus?”

Each season, the number of players rounding the bases more than 50 times has increased.

In 1961, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees set the record for home runs in a single season. He cleared the wall 61 times that year; a feat that many thought would remain steadfast for many seasons to come.

But America will never forget that day in 1998 when Mark McGwire, notorious for his bombs, golfed a pitch over the left field wall in Busch Stadium to set a new record. When the dust settled on that season, the Cardinal had tallied an unprecedented 70 homers.

Last season, however, San Francisco Giants’ star Barry Bonds laughed at that record and belted 73 homers. Maris’ record stood for 37 years; McGwire’s was broken in three.

It is unreasonable to expect that the single season home run tally will continue to rise every third season, but big hitters still remain on everyone’s mind these days because homers are so much fun to watch. Teams are concerned with homers because they are what draw the fans to the stadiums.

There is a saying we must remember, however, and it is that good pitching beats good hitting.

Perhaps this is the reason why we don’t see seasons in which players hit 100+ home runs with .400 averages. Pitchers aren’t on the mound to keep streaks alive and as such, won’t leave balls hanging over the plate to be launched into the center field stands.

But there is another adage that applies to the national pastime. Bad defense beats good pitching.

It’s like shooting yourself in the foot, and more teams have been doing it more frequently this season.

There is a simple explanation for the corresponding increase in errors and home runs.

Teams want guys who can hit the ball and run fast. To fit this bill, players must spend hours upon hours in the batting cage and take time away from working on their defense.

Ultimately, their hitting will get better but their fielding will get worse.

The reason bad defense beats good pitching is because it leads to unearned runs. There have been many games lost already this season that were a direct result of errors and unearned runs.

Defense should not be an issue at the major league level. Most players should have used their time in the farm system to work out their kinks and tighten up their skills.

Alas, this is not how the farm system works. Players that hit over .300 are moved rapidly up the ranks and are rarely held back unless their defense is terrible. We find guys in the majors who have made the jump from single A and double A who can hit fairly well but just get by with mediocre defense.

This trend should be stopped. Players should put in a solid season or four before graduating from the farm system to prove that they are big league material both offensively and defensively. There will always be exceptions to this rule, of course, but defense needs to be emphasized more than it is at present.

In the majors, you would be hard pressed to name more than 10 exceptionally good fielders, but I’m sure you could rattle off 25 players you would like to have in your line-up and on the bench when your team is batting.

There will always be errors because no one is perfect in this game, but if you have survived the numerous levels throughout your life in which lesser players are weeded out left and right, you should be no more than a hair shy of flawless.

Since money is a big factor in the players’ drive to hit better and become less disposable, perhaps if they had to pay a fine to their team for each error they make they would be more committed to maintaining their defensive skills.

Ridiculous, maybe, but what is even more ridiculous is watching game after game and seeing the same people make the same errors over and over again.

Letting the other team beat you is expected, but beating yourself is inexcusable.

Archived article by Katherine Granish