For some young hitters, knowledge is power

Originally Published: January 31, 2007
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

In a Hall of Fame of incessant baseball beefs, three complaints would make up the inaugural class: The players make too much money, teams spend too much money and fundamentals are as dead as the dodo. Scour baseball's 150 years of history and you'll discover that Wee Willie Keeler was in fact the last major league player to lay down a sacrifice bunt -- and he paid $3,000 for the privilege.

But crowbar open your mind and listen to several of today's top young stars talk about hitting, and you'll realize that the pendulum is swinging right along with them. The hottest trend in baseball? Young batters with brains.

Cold Plate Special: New ballparks
For the past two decades, you couldn't drive 10 miles without slamming into a spanking-new baseball stadium or a legislative fight over who was going to pay for one. But those days are coming to a close.

Seventeen ballparks opened from 1989-2004, and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis made it 18 last year. Five more are on the horizon: the Yankees, Mets, Twins, A's and Nationals have all cleared almost every municipal hurdle and expect to move into new facilities by the end of this decade.

When they're done, the third-oldest stadium in baseball will be Dodger Stadium, opened in 1962. (Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, thank goodness, ain't going nowhere.) With the Royals and Angels in perfectly suitable stadiums and the Devil Rays quarantined in the Trop, the only ballpark wrangling left belongs to South Florida, which started sometime in the Darrell Whitmore era and is roughly as compelling.

R.I.P., ballpark brouhahas. And by the way, good riddance.

Prince Fielder, last year's rookie leader with 28 jacks: "I've got to try to go up there and swing like a Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs-type guy. If I think home run, I'm all over the place."

Ryan Howard, who just slammed a downright obscene 58 homers and drove in 149 runs in his first full season: "Everybody from the outside looks at us like power hitters, and I think we look at ourselves as contact hitters with power."

Joe Mauer, who just hit .347 to become the first catching batting champion in more than 60 years: "When I get in trouble is when I try to use my body to catch up with the pitcher. The pitcher will supply the power."

As Tony Gwynn enters the Hall of Fame, his disciples are taking over the majors. From lefties like Howard, Fielder and Mauer to righties like Albert Pujols and David Wright, they all practice and preach hitting to the opposite field; they aren't just the big, pull-happy galoots of generations past. Howard smacked 25 of his home runs to left field, and just 14 to right. And the 6-foot-6 Mauer not only stroked a stunning number of hits to left but also laid down six bunt singles, for crying out loud, two more than water-bug teammate Luis Castillo.

These guys aren't aberrations; they are the product of a baseball culture that gets more studious and scientific every year, thanks in large part to video libraries (another Gwynn innovation, incidentally) that encourage players to examine the molecular complexities of their swings and opponents. They will soon be joined by top prospects such as Delmon Young and Alex Gordon, youngsters already praised for their hitting discipline. As teams deploy defensive shifts to help neutralize one-dimensional hitters like Adam Dunn and Jason Giambi, it's clear that the younger generation plans to be much more difficult to defend.

"Less is more," Howard says. Given that Wee Willie Keeler could fit inside one of Howard's uniform legs, let's just take his word for it.

Five more trends

  1. Sayonara, stars. Hmmm, the Seibu Lions just pocketed $51 million by letting Daisuke Matsuzaka leave, soon before he'd be lost to free agency anyway. The Hanshin Tigers got $26 million for Kei Igawa, and the Yakult Swallows got $4.55 million for Akinori Iwamura. Both the MLB clubs and players union want to see the posting system adjusted to divert money away from Japanese teams -- but until it is, let the exodus begin.

  2. Pitch counts in the minors. Every team has its own particular method of developing pitchers -- and most have differing opinions even within the organization -- but every club, from the new age to Neanderthal, has come to understand that young arms must be monitored far more closely than in the past.

  3. BAM! Frankly, it was obvious as early as 1999 that baseball's online business, if run properly, could help change the game's economics. Major League Baseball Advanced Media is now in the early stages of printing money that will be shared among all 30 clubs and dampen the revenue disparities fueled by (cough) cable.

  4. Buy now, pay later. Clearly related to No. 2 as well as the rosy labor horizon, teams signed long-term, backloaded deals this offseason more eagerly than if their scrip was about to be recalled. Now airing on MLB.com: Scott Boras hosts the new game show, "Deal or Deal?"

  5. Come fly with me. In baseball's never-ending quest to cover the world like replacement ozone, as you read this, the Yankees have delegates in China investigating the possibility of an academy there, while the Mets and other baseball notables are roaming none other than Ghana to see how baseball can grow in Africa. What's next, an Israeli baseball league? (Oh yeah, they're starting that, too.)

Alan Schwarz is the host of ESPN.com's Baseball Today and the senior writer of Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on Alan's Web site.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.