TACOMA — Good crowd, warm sun, big flies. It wasn’t quite the big time, but it was a good time.
The Pacific Coast League prevailed 6-4 in the Minor League All-Star Game against the modestly hated rivals from International League. It was the first time Tacoma hosted the event since its 1960 entry to Class AAA minor league baseball. It felt as if the Rainiers ownership and staff should do it once a year with no problem. Maybe twice a year.
The game outcome was secondary to the party in 77-degree weather for 7,024 at Cheney Stadium that featured atmospheric clarity for the club’s namesake mountain for viewers on MLB Network. The event also featured a view to the next-gen world of pro baseball — four home runs and 16 strikeouts. Just like their older brothers.
After the MLB All-Star Game Tuesday in Miami featured two home runs and 23 strikeouts in a 2-1 American League victory, it seemed like a good time to talk with the guys who are growing the game in the minors about baseball’s makeover.
In charge of the PCL’s team was Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco, the league’s winningest modern-day manager, after seven years with the Astros AAA affiliate and seven earlier seasons with the Athletics AAA team. He’s won eight division titles and four PCL championships.
He took a few minutes before the game to answer some questions about the change, analyzed well here by Tom Verducci of si.com.
“It’s the game now,” he said. “Home runs are driving interest. It’s carrying the game, people watching 95 mph fastballs that are hit 115 mph.”
The power play is also reducing the game primarily to pitcher-catcher-batter, making the other players uniformly dressed spectators.
Well-chronicled have been MLB’s dramatic spikes in home runs, strikeouts and walks. Much of it is traced to the advent of multiple power arms in the bullpen. Coupled with metrics that inspire defensive shifts, offenses have responded by abandoning the long-held custom of hitting atop the ball to drive grounders between fielders.
General manager Jerry Dipoto recently discussed how Mariners youngsters at their first practices are instructed to swing under the ball to create a steeper launch angle that will send balls between outfielders or, better yet, among fans, where defensive shifts are non-existent.
The trend has been underway for several years, but the potential for 2017 to set single-season records in homers and strikeouts, as well as creating what many believe are duller games absent sustained rallies, has driven the conversation to the forefront.
“There’s so much pitching velocity, if the hitter can get that launch angle, the exit velocity of the swing will take the ball out of the park,” DeFrancesco said. “With the shift on, there’s no more hits on the ground if you swing down.”
DeFrancesco and other organizational coaches have to break habits young players developed in high school and college where the old conventions are still in play.
“We teach launch angles and exit velocity — it’s a part of every team’s preparations,” he said. “They have to be trained at a young age. Once they get into pro ball, there’s so many repetitions and repeated motions that most get it eventually.”
A key to batters making the transition is to eliminate any part of the swing motion that lets the bat drift back.
“Any extra movement by the batter that takes the bat away from the pitch doesn’t work,” DeFrancesco said. “If he tilts the bat away, it takes longer to get through the zone. You stay in a slot for a quick in-and-out of the zone.
“If you can barrel up a mid-90s fastball, that means your swing is short.”
The game ends up qualitatively different, almost irresistibly, partly because of economics.
“Small-ball changes, hit-and-run changes, moving runners changes,” he said. “The stolen base is becoming obsolete. The game has become such a power game that the players know where they get paid. If you get 500 at-bats and connect 30 times, you get paid.
“Keep everything tight and short, with no extra movement.”
The primary way to counter the changes is an old one: Him ’em where they ain’t. So far, most hitters in MLB keep swinging to their power sides, resisting the temptation to take an easy base by hitting to the side devoid of defenders.
DeFrancesco’s counterpart, International League manager and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre skipper Al Pedrique of the Yankees organization, said he thinks the change will come, but not yet.
“We haven’t had anybody try to bunt for a base hit, or even hit to the opposite side,” he said. “But hitters will adapt to hitting the other way, or bunting. As a manager against a power hitter, I hope he bunts or hits the other way and just gets to first.
“Let him bunt. That’s fine. I’ve been burned, but it’s part of the game.”
Standing next to Pedrique in the IL coaches room was a familiar face: pitching coach Jeff Fassero, a Mariners starter from 1997-99 who had a 33-35 record and 4.62 ERA in his Seattle tenure. He was listening to the conversation.
“If I’m a hitter, and I see the shift on, I’m hitting it the other way,” he said, sneering. “Come on.”
Spoken like a guy who gave up 88 homers while a Mariner, a majority likely in the Kingdome bandbox. Singles, he likes.