With PEDs gone, it's the old ballgame again

With PEDs gone, it's the old ballgame again
March 27, 2014, 1:45 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball in 2014 is getting back to basics.

Gone are the cartoonish body types, mashing homers at a record-setting pace, and regularly producing 9-8 scores.

No more 20-homer seasons from previously scrawny infielders. No more softball-like home run derbies lighting up scoreboards.

That isn't to suggest that baseball has completely expunged PED use from the game. But what is clear is that steroid use, which produced bigger bodies, longer homers and re-wrote the record books, is virtually gone.

Think otherwise? Last season, the total runs (combined for both teams) per game sat at 4.17, the lowest since 1992.

In 2013, the Red Sox led all of Major League Baseball with 853 runs and were the only team to crack the 800-run threshold. By contrast, in 2004, there were nine teams with 800 or more runs scored, including the Red Sox, who totaled an astounding 961.

And lower scoring means more close games, often decided by a run or two. In 2013, of the 2,430 regular season games played, 754 -- or 31 percent, nearly one in three  -- were decided by a single run.

The margin for error is smaller than it's been a long time. No longer can teams bank on a three-run homer to catapault them to a win.

Instead, teams focus in on the so-called little things: baserunning, defense, and proper fundamentals. Rather than seek out the 50-homer player who doesn't exist, more teams are looking for sound, well-rounded players who can win games in a number of ways.

"The complete player, the guy who can do a lot of things, is in much more demand, rather than the one-dimensional guy,'' said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "You regain an appreciation for the way the game is supposed to be played. The importance of defense, the importance of baserunning -- every phase of the game takes on a greater role, rather than (focusing) on the type of player who can hit the ball into the seats."

"I think we've all had to re-adjust our eyes,'' said Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo. "This game got a little out of control (during the steroid era) and we all understand why. We're through that dark time. But I think it's led everyone to fundamentally break down your game and understand that one run might make a difference.

"We talk about winning a pitch, winning an out, winning an inning -- and that makes sense. It used to be that you could lose an inning or two and come back and score seven runs and end up winning a game. But not anymore."

With more variables and more detail, the manager's in-game job has become all-encompassing. Beyond the traditional decisions -- when to lift a pitcher? when to pinch-hit? -- there's now a renewed focus on other bits of strategy.

Farrell spoke openly about how draining the postseason was, given the stakes and the closeness of the games. But more and more, regular-season games are taking on the same intensity, when one move -- or non-move -- could make a big difference.

"The decisions we make, I think a lot more hinges on each one," said Farrell. "If you make the wrong one, there's less chance than there used to be that you can make up for with a big homer. And of the decisions we do make, they're going to become a little more scrutinized because of the margin for error is less."

Instead of waiting for the game-changing big blow, teams frequently boil their focus down to, literally, one base at a time, with an emphasis on converting balls into play into outs while a controlled aggression results on the bases.

"Anything that might lead to 90 feet -- advancing it if you're on offense or preventing it if you on defense -- there's where a lot of the game is going be center on,'' said Farrell/

"All the while, there's an irony at work as teams look to emphasize the little things: players arriving to the big leagues, many of whom were learning the game and playing in high school when tape-measure homers were the rage, have less instruction and less knowledge of fundamentals than they ever have.

"Look around at the number of guys who can get a bunt down,'' said a National League advance scout. "That used to be a pretty basic thing. Not anymore. A lot of guys can't do it. A lot of guys have never been asked to do it.''

The same goes for good baserunning technique, or strong outfield arms. What used to be commonplace is now a rarity.

"Teaching and player development never really ends,'' contended Farrell. "That's where it's essential to have a good (coaching staff). You're looking to find a way to create a competitive advantage wherever you can - whether that's using data or teaching the game at the major league level and never assuming that when a player comes to the big leagues he's well-versed in every area of the game."

Farrell relies greatly on two of his coaches, Lovullo and third-base coach Brian Butterfield, to whom he delegates much of the preparation, instruction and strategic suggestions.

Butterfield arrives at Jet Blue Park often before 4 a.m. to get a head start on his day, sorting through video, scouting reports and spray charts to help with pitch location and defensive positioning.

It's Lovullo's job, in-game, to keep Farrell aware of potential moves, often an inning ahead of time. He has the same type of conversations he has with his manager as he often has with the players prior to the game.

"We talk about, 'What are we going to do in case Plan A happens? And what do we do if Plan B happens?' '' said Lovullo. "I try to forecast. I love that part of it. I think we're all strategists at heart."

With teams looking for every potential edge, there's an avalanche of data and scouting reports to help teams gain the advantage that could make the difference between a win and a loss.

Five or so years ago, Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon was virtually the only major league manager deploying defensive shifts based on hitter's tendencies. It seemed a quirky bit of a strategy from an innovative manager trying to do more with less.

Now, such shifts are commonplace, the rule rather than the exception.

"You see technology really starting to filter in,'' said Farrell. "Any way you can get that edge, rather than something artificial (at the height of the steroid era) prior, is kind of the norm right now.''

With the shifts come spray charts, hitter's tendencies and every bit of minutiae possible.

"The way our guys thirst for information and thirst for detail is definitely a difference-marker,'' said Farrell. "Did it mean 'x' number of additional wins? I can't pinpoint that. But I can say that we got the most out of our roster and the ability our players possess."

And in era when every little thing counts and a slight edge could mean the difference between winning and losing, the Red Sox -- and virtually every other team -- are eager to try.