National League-style baseball: "Wow. So exciting."
I have heard and seen the expression so many times from announcers and in print, referring to a small handful of American League teams that seemingly exploit an opponent's weaknesses in a different manner than the typical A.L. team.
But to me, there isn't a clear distinction between so-called league “styles.” The leagues are more alike than the average fan realizes.
“It’s just downright a more alert way of playing the game from the offensive side: Execution to the max,” Rays manager Joe Maddon told me, and I couldn’t agree more.
It's no coincidence that the Rays have been near the top of the A.L. East all season. Look at how they play, moving runners along, flying around the bases aggressively and focusing on fundamentally sound defense.
I understand where the stereotypes come from, and there’s history involved – the powerful 1927 New York Yankees come to mind, as do Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles throughout the 1970s and their allegiance to the three-run homer.
And there's the other extreme, best exemplified by the so-called rabbits burning the basepaths for Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals in the 1980s.
I know exactly what they’re pointing to. Traditional National League style means a manager not sitting with arms crossed and waiting on the homer to win ballgames. It’s a strategy that means constantly having players, no matter their speed, looking to take the extra base, figuring out a pitcher’s delivery to steal a base, charging from first to third on singles, and bunting for base hits to pull infielders out of their comfort zone. It's the type of baseball that creates major distractions for opponents.
I also know that it is a thrilling way of playing the game, of gaining a mental edge by forcing defenders to think more and make plays. Defending against a team that goes station-to-station is much easier. As a former middle infielder, trust me, it is not an easy task to defend against a team that puts runners in motion and keeps them that way. So many things can happen even without the swing of the bat.
However, that kind of offense is risky. Managers leave themselves open to second-guessing when a runner is thrown out trying to steal a base at a crucial time, or is gunned down by an outfielder. That's about the time that the same folks who encourage aggressiveness are asking, “Why did they have to do that? They just ran themselves out of the inning."
Aggressiveness is not a style, but the right way to play the game, and it is the right way to teach the game. We can go back to our Little League days when our best coaches encouraged us to be aggressive and to have fun on the basepaths, to move a buddy over with a bunt so he can get closer to scoring that big run, to be unafraid of taking a chance on a wild pitch, to choke up on the bat with two strikes and make contact. Most of us can remember the coach who said, "I won't be upset if you get thrown out as long as you are being aggressive and smart."
What changes in the professional game? Personnel, and organizational philosophies. Personnel is a key element, obviously, since a manager must play the cards he is dealt. A manager loaded with a bunch of sluggers cannot afford to employ a fast-paced offense; just like a manager loaded with a bunch of speedsters can’t be asking them to go hit home runs.
I played with seven organizations during my 12-year career, including big league stints with the Padres and Royals, and I can tell you that every one of them emphasized what they thought were the key components to winning. During spring training, we spent countless hours not talking about hitting three-run homers, but on how to maximize opportunities when it was our turn to hit.
Many lessons had to do with playing the game with a high level of awareness. Every morning during spring training the routines were similar when talking about creating runs: bunt runners over, execute the hit-and-run, move the runner over from second to third with nobody out by hitting the ball to the right side. And when baserunning, recognize where the outfielders are positioned and know their arm strength. Tag the bases and slide properly. The ways to gain an edge are endless.
To translate these fundamentals into victories, a manager often has to loosen the reins and not be afraid to make a mistake or be second-guessed. If that's the definition of National League baseball, so be it. I just call it good baseball, and so would Mike Scioscia and Joe Maddon, among others who are firmly entrenched in the American League.
Not every lineup is blessed with the powerful bats of Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz or Chase Utley. But you know what? Every offense would benefit from the sound execution of the little things that go into a speed-based, “distracting” offense.
And will the hitters get more fastballs? Believe it.