Boston Strongman

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday—  senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.

Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)

Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.

Writes Verducci, Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)

Gone Crazy

This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.

Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)

Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.

Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)

In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the platelong pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)

Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.

Clutch Much?

Clutch HittingWhile postseason baseball won’t settle the debate of whether the clutch gene exists, SI’s Albert Chen says in this week’s issue that there’s no denying that October has brought out some familiar heroes. Chen writes that “few things in sports are more alluring than the idea of a clutch gene—the notion that some athletes are wired differently, with an innate ability to perform their best when the pressure is the greatest.” (PAGE 32)

This October has already produced a highlight reel of clutch moments, from the Marlon Byrd home run in the NL wild-card game, to David Ortiz’s two homers in the Red Sox’ ALDS Game 2 win, to Stephen Vogt’s walk-off single for the A’s in Game 2 of their ALDS against the Tigers, to the stellar outings by rookie pitchers (the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha).

In the playoffs David Ortiz has a .538 OBP and 1.282 OPS in 52 career late-and-close plate appearances. And Carlos Beltran’s two home runs in the NLDS have brought his career postseason total to 16. Miguel Cabrera hit .348 with a 1.078 OPS this season, but those numbers jumped to .397 and 1.311 with runners in scoring position. “Miguel is a great hitter all the time, no matter the situation,” says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. “But with men in scoring position you just see the intensity. Can you measure this? Maybe not.  But if you watch him on a daily basis, you see it.” (PAGE 33)

Sabermetricians largely view clutch hitters as a myth. “Clutch hits exist, clutch hitters do not,” James Click, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and now the head of the Rays’ analytics department, wrote in 2005. “There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that some hitters consistently perform better in situations defined as ‘clutch’ as compared to normal situations. Good hitters are good clutch hitters; bad hitters are bad clutch hitters.” However, in a 2006 study Nate Silver said “clutch hitting ability exists more than previous research would indicate.” (PAGE 33)

Bill James, the godfather of baseball statistics, has even questioned the arguments against clutch hitting. James recently wrote that the discussion in the sabermetric community “has been fouled up for a long time,” and that he no longer had faith in the data that had backed up the arguments against clutch hitting. (PAGE 34) Chen clarifies that this was James saying that clutch hitting could exist.

Chen finds that “much of what think of as clutch hitting could be considered smart situational hitting.” The 2013 Cardinals hit .330 in 1,621 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, good for the highest in baseball history.  The team worked on improving their approach at the plate in spring training. “Their approach is impressive,” says Dombrowski. “You’d see them all the time getting the big hit, and where do they get most of their hits? The opposite field.” (PAGE 34)

The debate won’t end this October, but Chen says “little about baseball at this time of year is fair. A hit, you’re a hero. An out, and you’re the goat. That’s the beauty and the cruelty of October.” (PAGE 34)

Pirates Star Andrew McCutchen on Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

37COVv18_PIR_PromoTo a generation of Pittsburgh fans, September has always been about school, football and the irrelevance of the Pirates. But with the franchise’s 20-season losing streak ending last night, senior writer Lee Jenkins says in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,  on newsstands now, that a reawakened baseball town is asking: Are yinz ready for October? Pirates’ All-Star centerfielder and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. His first SI cover appearance marks the second time this season the Pirates have been featured on the cover.

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, the son of former Pirates pitcher Tom Walker, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia and is part of what locals call the Lost Generation – anyone born in Pittsburgh after 1984. “It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates,” he says. “Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost.” (PAGE 61)

Jenkins takes readers through the heart of Pittsburgh and its diverse fans, all of whom are ready for fall baseball. “Meaningful baseball after Labor Day,” says local pastor Scott Stevens. “That’s all I ever really wanted.” (PAGE 59) Linda McGary, whose family has had season tickets since the 1940s, will finally count all the way down to a winning season. Seeing her playoff invoice made her “realize that we’re getting close.” (PAGE 60) Jim Coen’s sports merchandise store once carried no Pirates jerseys—and no one complained. Now the Bucs and the Steelers split his sales 50-50.

“The Pirates were something you never thought about,” says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. “You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I’m on the bandwagon. I’ll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door.” (PAGE 61)

Since 2008 the Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any other team, and after some growing pains, the Pirates’ investment, says Jenkins, has paid off. In 2010 the Bucs lost 105 games, 90 in ’11, and last season they were a respectable 79–83. TV ratings jumped 20% last year; this year they’re up another 15%; and the Pirates are on pace for the second-highest attendance in club history.

Jenkins caught up with former Pirate Sid Bream, who is best known for his years as an Atlanta Braves first baseman and the player who scored the winning run for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pirates. That year was not only the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, it was also their last winning season. “The agent for 20 years of losing,” says Bream, who lives just outside Pittsburgh, about his score. “I want more than anyone for them to break the Bream Curse. I pray that they’re the ones celebrating this time.” (PAGE 58)

The Swing

The SwingThree years after batting .192 with one home run and receiving two demotions to the minors for the Texas Rangers, Chris Davis has developed into an All-Star first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and one of baseball’s most devastating power hitters. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tom Verducci takes a look at the struggles Davis faced as a member of the Rangers’ organization and how advice from Yankees star Robinson Cano would change his hitting style all together. Verducci also breaks down the stages of Davis’ rebuilt swing.  Davis is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI.

After torturous 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Rangers that included advice from coaches, instructors and teammates, Davis finally said, “I’m going to have to figure this out for myself.” (PAGE 28) While playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Davis ran into Cano who had only one thought for the struggling first baseman. “For you to handicap your power the way you’ve done it the past two years, that’s just wrong,” Cano told Davis. “Here in the Dominican people talk about your power and how they don’t see that kind of power very often. You’re a power hitter, not a contact hitter.” (PAGE 29)

It was at that point that Davis began to ignore all of the old-school training he had become accustomed to hearing from the Rangers’ staff and made his swing his own. He began to pump his hands lower while pulling them inside of the ball and what resulted is a swing that embodies MLB elite caliber power. “What [Cano] said,” recalls Davis, “was like a revelation in my life.” (PAGE 29)

After being traded to the Orioles and working with hitting coach Jim Presley, Davis hit 33 home runs last season and leads the majors this year with 45. “Learning my swing last year was a huge foundation,” Davis says. “Last year set up this year. I found something that I could repeat on a daily basis and have success and relax and play the game.” (PAGE 33)


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