Although the season is still young, we’ve already been through some ups and downs with this Cubs team. We had an outstanding April, but May has been a little less kind (at least results-wise…you still have to love the offensive approach and development of the young guys). I’ve thought a lot in the past about how baseball is truly unique among the “big four” sports, and I think this rollercoaster type season is a good illustration of that.
In basketball, although players can have cold shooting nights or games in which they lack their usual mental focus, good players rarely go through prolonged slumps (short of injury). This is because an elite player’s athleticism can take over in this sport. If LeBron is having a cold shooting night, he can always muscle up and drive to the basket, overwhelming his opponent with athleticism, size, and aggressiveness. His height-weight-speed ratio stays the same and is relatively “slump proof.” Also in basketball, good players can make the players around them better. A good point guard can set up his teammates with effective passing and dribble-drives. An elite offensive player can facilitate easy baskets for his teammates by drawing double teams. So, even a player who would be having an off shooting night can still produce if his teammates put him in a favorable position by their play.
In football, the “system” can put players in a position to succeed. In this sport, teammates rely on working together as a cohesive whole to make plays successful. So, a player can often thrive in a particular system and be much less effective in another. Also, a great quarterback can make his receivers much more productive than they would be with an average QB, turning mediocre receivers into borderline Pro Bowlers. Almost any receiver playing with Peyton Manning is going to put up huge numbers. Receivers can also help their teammates by drawing double teams, and a good running game can help receivers get open by forcing single coverage (and an effective passing game can open up running lanes for backs).
Baseball, however, is inherently different. Athleticism, to some degree, is a prerequisite to success in baseball, but great athleticism never guarantees success in this sport. Baseball is a game of discreet skills, and these skills must be developed within their own domains. This is why you rarely, if ever, see an 18-year old drafted right out of high school who immediately starts for the big league club and finds success–much less becomes a star. On the other hand, early draft picks in football and basketball are expected–even counted on–to start for the major league team right away and become not only contributors, but the centerpiece of the team from day one. This just can’t happen in baseball. The skills required to play the game must be developed over time–they are not just the result of raw athleticism.
Another major factor that separates baseball from those other sports is the fact that baseball players take turns on offense. There are no offensive assists, ability to draw double teams, or complex systems that can highlight the batter’s strengths while obscuring his weaknesses. The batter is alone in that box, and his success or lack thereof is unrelated to those around him. Sure, the approach of teammates can be inspiring and a good model for others, but it’s still up to that individual player to produce without any direct help from others…and he must do this facing a pitcher who is pitching to him based on a personalized plan of attack.
To me, the current player who highlights baseball’s uniqueness to the highest degree is Javier Baez. Since he entered professional baseball, scouts have raved about his natural ability, labeling his bat speed best in a generation. He has all the tools you look for in a big-time prospect. However, those athletic tools, which would allow for instant success in other sports–don’t guarantee success in baseball because baseball is skill-based. The skill that Baez still needs to improve upon a great deal is pitch recognition. All the bat speed in the world will do no good if a player can’t recognize the pitch being thrown to him when it leaves the pitcher’s hand. This is why Baez can kill minor-league pitchers who don’t have developed secondary pitches, but he struggles to hit major-league pitchers who have command of their secondary offerings. Some claim that pitch recognition can’t be developed past a certain point, so there is reason to worry that Baez may never produce anywhere near the level that his athletic gifts might otherwise allow.
Baseball is also a game of adjustments. Even when players establish themselves in the major leagues, it’s not enough for them to “keep doing what they’re doing.” Pitchers will make adjustments as a scouting book is established on a player, and the hitter must make adjustments to those adjustments. We’re seeing this process now with Jorge Soler. He’s established that he can hit big-league pitching, but now the league has adjusted to him, and it’s up to him to make the adjustment in return. I have no doubt that he will make the necessary adjustments (we’ve seen some glimpses of an improved approach the last few games)–it’s just a matter of how long it will take. Of course, the best example of a player who has gone through a few adjustment periods and is now one of the best hitters in baseball is Anthony Rizzo. Let’s hope the other young guys can make adjustments as well as he did.
All of these tendencies–adjustment periods, the gap between athleticism and skill–are magnified with a young team. Joe Maddon was brought in as a steadying influence, since he has a reputation for being able keep everyone on an even keel as they make these adjustments and develop skills that allow them to play consistently at high levels. This mental approach to development may be one of the most important factors in overall team success. If the young 2015 season is any indicator–recent tough losses not withstanding–the future looks bright.