Before we raise this question for debate, a couple preambles...One is that clearly we are being mocked first by the calendar and then by nature. Leap Day delays Opening Day by One Day (I may have gotten carried away with the whole capitalization thing, sorry), and now rain — something that as a Northern Californian I have heard much about but have not actually experienced in person — has pushed back the starting time for Oakland’s Cactus League opener. Baseball will now finally return today either at 5:10pm PST, or later, or not at all.
Also, I do want to go on front page record as agreeing with those who are calling out the A’s on their “innovative” and “exciting” move of becoming the first baseball team unwilling or unable to land a radio home. I won’t belabor the point because it has been successfully belabored here and elsewhere, but put me in the camp that wishes the A’s would either act with honesty (“OK, not our first choice but we couldn’t land a deal this year so here’s our best plan B...”) or intelligence (“It would be stupid to deter fans who prefer the time-honored tradition of radio, who are smart enough to avoid smart phones, or who hang out in areas not conducive to cellular coverage, so we are committed to finding a landing spot on the radio dial...”)
One reason I don’t need to elaborate on the “why” is that others are already doing an excellent job. A tip of the cap to Bruce Jenkins of the Chronicle, whose article today speaks well for me and I’m sure for many, many others. Take a look if you haven’t seen it already.
OK, on to the question at hand: Are players overpreparing these days? News out of Rob Manfred’s office comes down that in the wake of the various technology based scandals, in game video access may be limited for teams in 2020. Cited as a potential casualty is the common practice of a batter popping into the clubhouse between at bats in order to review video of his most recent plate appearance.
I am not a professional athlete nor do I play one on TV, so I am not in the best position to argue the relative pros and cons of this kind of practice. But let me anyway because internet. As technology has offered increasing “opportunities” for players to analyze, over-analyze, and review the same pitch, or at bat, in dozens of ways, I have increasingly wondered if this is doing athletes more harm than good.
Without question, a strong work ethic, and in particular “more reps,” are essential components of success. Players need the muscle memory of repeating their delivery, fielding 1,000 ground balls, but these are on field hours. Nowadays, countless additional hours are devoted to pitcher-catcher meetings to prepare based on every known data point around the leadoff hitter’s spray chart and the cleanup hitter’s tendency around sliders on 1-2 counts. Batters relive their at bats from every angle, pitchers dissect each pitch they threw (an exaggeration, but I will bet sometimes it feels this way), with little regard for all that you give up when you devote this much time to analyzing the craft nonstop.
For one thing, it must be mentally exhausting and if you are not in the camp who believes baseball is a highly mental game then you probably at least agree that sleep, or even just “getting away from your work,” is important. Self-reflection and meta-analysis may be good things, but there is such a phenomenon as “too much of a good thing”.
For another, you wonder if athletes are trusting themselves as much these days. Are you throwing a slider because you know the batter has historically chased it 5% more often in this count, or are you throwing a fastball because you trust your stuff and you are feeling your fastball today? For many hitters, is a “trust your hands, see ball, hit ball” approach not often their best one?
This is not a knock on video or pre-game preparation, nor on the personnel who tirelessly and heroically piece it all together. It is a knock, perhaps, on the scope of the practice as it has evolved in this techno-era. If hitters can no longer sit during a game reviewing plate appearance #2 before plate appearance #3, I suspect players will be forced to do what I would have recommended all along: work on your game between games, largely on the field, and during the game just play it. Spend strategic time preparing strategy and analyzing your craft, but not endless time to where you are mentally drained before first pitch. If you are a catcher, review basic opponent tendencies with your pitchers, but during the game watch the batter and your own pitcher more than the tiny pamphlet on your wrist.
It’s just an area where I think teams may be outsmarting themselves and forgetting how human beings actually function best. Less is more, and the new rules around video coming down from the Commissioner’s office may wind up being a blessing that helps to save athletes from themselves. There is a time to “just play ball”.