Plate discipline

guilfordI’m forced inside by illness and watching the Bulls play on TV, which you can now do easily this season. I can’t imagine there are more than 100 people watching this game; does anyone really watch minor-league baseball on television? But there it is, on channel 323, just a few clicks up from ESPN.

It’s the third time in less than a week that I’ve watched a ballgame from somewhere other than my usual spot behind home plate at the DBAP. Plate discipline is sometimes about relaxing that very discipline, in order to strengthen it (as by letting muscles recover) or in order to interrogate it. Why do I sit here watching these games and recording the pitch-by-pitch action? I’m not covering the Bulls anymore. I no longer have a reason to sit behind home plate and make my obsessively detailed score sheet annotations. Discipline has to be organic; it has to belong to something beyond and above it; otherwise it’s just bureaucracy of sorts–rote, factitious, indulgent, empty. Maybe the best way to kick this game-reporting habit, which is at this point like the ghost of a limb, is to watch the games differently: from a different place, with a different set of tools–or without them.

Last Sunday, we took our nephew and niece to a Greensboro Grasshoppers game. We stayed in our seats behind the first-base dugout for just an inning or two, then got some crappy food and ate at a table on the concourse from where we could not see the game except to make sure no foul balls came flying at us. After that, we moved to the sloping lawn area down by the right-field bullpen and halfheartedly watched from there.

It was a Class A, South Atlantic League game. I didn’t keep score, and I refrained from trying very hard to know anything about the players. Actually, I barely even needed to “refrain”; I genuinely didn’t need to know who the players were. I looked up one or two of the players on my phone. Was the one who blasted the three-run homer to right field a prospect? No, he was just some guy whose name I’ve already forgotten, Kevitt McDentron, or something like that. I got curious about a guy with a Hawaiian name like Kawika Ensley-Pai or close to it, but he turned out to be yet another A-baller who isn’t likely to have a job in affiliated baseball within three years. Basically he’s Kyle Holloway, except that Kyle Holloway will be able to tell his grandkids that he reached Triple-A; it’s doubtful that the Hawaiian will be able to make the same claim.

The late afternoon was beautiful and it was mostly just fun to be with the kids, who both did and did not care about the game, depending on the moment. Your nephew didn’t know much about baseball, so his attention was vague; of course it was your niece, who is always engaged to the fullest, who wanted to go back to our seats with you so she could actually see the game for a while, even though she doesn’t follow baseball. But there it was, so she wanted to be close to it

I was pretty interested in observing the degree to which the kids were responsible for themselves. Quite a bit, as it turned out: they toted their suntan lotion in their bags and patiently let us apply it. They didn’t mind walking a few blocks from the car to the gate, and actually asked to hold hands when we crossed the street. They were quite clear on what they wanted to eat. I also discovered that I didn’t have to ask your nephew if he needed to go to the bathroom; he told me when he needed to go. He spotted the kid-height urinal himself and waited for that one to become available. He washed his own hands, unprompted. In the car on the way home, your allergy-ridden niece didn’t complain about her runny nose; she just said, with perfectly adult poise, “Can I have another tissue, please?”

Did I behave that way when I was their age, I wonder? I can’t imagine that I did. I carp even now when I’m sick. How comfortable and canny and practiced the youngsters were with their own needs and responsibilities.

Plate discipline: I’m working on this idea that home plate in baseball–that is to say, the strike zone–offers us a metaphor for the tiny but essential airspace (wheelhouse!), different for everybody, often unstable, susceptible to danger and subject to argument, for which each of us is responsible. Over and over again, countless times a day, we’re tasked with either putting our efforts into the proper quadrant, with life and movement, or with judging and reacting to what comes hurtling into those quadrants of our awareness. (Being sick increases my awareness of this, because every decision I make is associated with how it will affect my health.)

The other night, I did my usual thing behind home plate at the DBAP for six and a half innings, cluttering up my score sheet and paying really close attention to everything, like always, with the intent (if not the act) of having something to say about it afterwards. Then you went home during the seventh-inning stretch, and I went down the right-field line to hang out with my friend’s birthday party group. Chatting with them at this remove from the strike zone, which I couldn’t even really see anymore, suddenly became far more interesting than watching the game the way I normally watch it. We were right behind the Durham bullpen, and I tried not to make eye contact with the relievers so they wouldn’t think I was spying on them or something.

I stopped scoring the game just in time to watch Pawsox reliever Alex Wilson wet the bed and give up six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. I’d look up from my conversation every now and then to regard the action from a serene distance: Oh, another hit; another run; a bad fielding play by a Pawtucket infielder, pity (they’ve made a lot of those in this series–glovework is not their strength). It was pleasant to witness this onslaught of runs from such a detached perspective, both physically and mentally. I’ve preached detachment at my readers for five years; it was salutary to practice what I preach, especially during a time when detachment has not been easy to practice in our lives.

Jeff Beliveau had an easy eighth inning with a three-run lead, but in the ninth, looking for a two-inning save, he had a total meltdown. He walked two hitters, gave up a single, and then got really lucky when Mookie Betts’s hot grounder went right to second base for a run-scoring double play. Beliveau was on the verge of getting out of it and locking up a 7-5 win.

But then he walked another hitter. Beliveau was up around 40 pitches (I later learned), and obviously struggling, so Charlie Montoyo took him out of the game. He went to the platoon advantage, if I recall (see, I wasn’t watching closely). He called on righty Jake Thompson to face another righty, and Thompson promptly gave up a game-tying hit. Pawtucket won in extra innings when Betts, the diminutive phenom–who A) was given the initials M.L.B. by his parents, and not by accident; B) is a professional-caliber bowler; and C) is the nephew of former big-leaguer Terry Shumpert (the things you learn)–hit one of Braulio Lara’s lame breaking balls for a long homer. (And I should add that I could not tell from right field that it was a breaking ball; I learned that from the article linked above. I should also add that in this case “diminutive” is 5-foot-9, 156 pounds, which are approximately my measurements. We operate on a different scale with athletes.)

Every now and then, one of these prospects comes along and shakes up the hypothesis I like to advance at times: that most Triple-A players are basically just as good as most major-leaguers, and that the only things keeping many of them out of the bigs are luck and circumstance. Then Mookie Betts, a baby, is promoted from Double-A and starts changing the game immediately upon touching down in Durham. And it’s his poise, for a guy his age, that jumps out at you. He’s like your nephew and niece, possessing uncommon command of his strike zone–which includes the expanded zone of Triple-A itself. Betts started in Class A last year; we’d have seen him in Greensboro had we gone to a game there last year against the Greenville Drive. In about a year, he went from the Sally League to playing with the bigger kids in Double-A  to rubbing wrinkled elbows with Triple-A vets; his ageless teammate Rich Hill, who first reached Triple-A when Betts was twelve years old, was pitching for Pawtucket by the time Betts hit his game-winning homer. Yet Betts wasn’t cowed or cautious. He just applied himself to his task. Discipline.

It was a good game to watch the end of from way down the right-field line, because I hate lack of plate discipline more than anything, and Beliveau and Lara were horrifically guilty of it. We know all  about Lara, of course. The Rays exposed him in the 2012 Rule 5 draft because he couldn’t throw strikes, and it was no surprise that he was returned to Tampa Bay by the claiming team, like a puppy that couldn’t be potty trained. Against Pawtucket, he threw balls, he threw wild pitches; barely half his 40 pitches were strikes. He hung breaking balls. He was hard to watch.

Beliveau, on the other hand, has been masking his control problems with an outrageous strikeout rate this year: 42%, which is even higher than last year’s 38%. But he walks nearly 15% of batters he faces. He has historically been wild, and this year is no different: he has more than half as many walks as innings pitched.

In other words, he was due for a disaster. No one maintains a 0.00 ERA this long without lots of luck, especially not with a high walk rate. Beliveau has a weird delivery, long and loopy, and those mechanics are asking for trouble. They’re also what generate all those strikeouts, of course; the flaw is built into the strength, or perhaps better to say that they come from the same source. Plate discipline: how to reduce one while maintaining the other. Look at Kirby Yates, who has cut the walks down while still striking out more than a third of the batters he faces.

I was glad not to have watch Beliveau’s struggles very closely. No one wants to see a guy lose it like that. Nathan Karns fell victim to it earlier this week. He have up a leadoff homer in the fifth inning; next thing you knew, he was walking the bases loaded and looking totally unhinged. He barely made it through the fifth inning, and did not return. A scout near me told me Karns “comes with baggage,” in an insinuating voice. Plate discipline is mental discipline. The strike zone is in the mind. It is what you make of it.

This being also a food blog (that kind of plate discipline), I should preface Friday night’s televised baseball experience by saying that although I was sick, I was not too sick to make dinner. A couple of days ago, before I got sick, I started marinating some split chicken breasts–oddly, my favorite cut lately–in a mixture of ginger, garlic, citrus, hot chilies… some other stuff. This is basic cooking, deliberately light-handed and even a touch imprecise. The seasoning is only there loosely, in order to highlight the chicken we like to buy from Sharon at the market.

Roasted the breasts tonight, sauteed some gai-lan with tons of garlic and more ginger (for the health benefits while under the weather). Easy and good. The trick is not to overcook the chicken, which too many people do, afraid of salmonella. The thing to add to the gai-lan, which I had quickly blanched first while the chicken was cooking, is mirin. For whatever reason, Chinese cooking wine mixed with sugar does not produce the same taste.

Then we switched on the television. The Bulls’ TV broadcast was kind of hilarious, but what was happening to Enny Romero was not. That guy is a mess. His mechanics are erratic, he jerks the ball across his body or lets it fly too early and it winds up in lefty batter’s box when a right-hander is at bat. Romero lasted only three innings, and we left to go for a walk and undo a little of our plate discipline at the table with a trip to [REDACTED] for [REDACTED]. Sometimes you just have to do that. Discipline has to be broken, especially when you’ve been working so hard to maintain it for an intense stretch of time.

The salient problem was not Romero’s bad mechanics, really. Those can be fixed, probably, if he’s humble and dedicated enough to fix them (also matters of discipline). What stuck with me was the last out he got in the third inning–which was the last out he got, period. (Merrill Kelly calmly threw six innings of one-run relief. He’s an even-tempered guy, but inside it must drive him nuts that he’s the team’s best starter but doesn’t even rate a spot in the rotation; instead, he bails out “prospects” who can’t make it to the fourth inning.)

Romero had already allowed three runs, the last two on a two-out double, as I recall–maximizing damage, as it were. The final batter hit a soft tapper back to the mound. Romero is big, soft and ungainly, and he had trouble fielding the ball, partly because he didn’t go down for it with much alacrity. He bobbled it for a moment; then he, yes, lollygagged the ball to first and it just barely beat the runner there for the third out.

So that’s discipline, then, or the lack of it. The damage was done, but you have to keep combating it, soothing it, with just as much purpose as you show when you throw a baseball as hard as you can, or when you try to keep your head down and your swing level and drive the ball evenly and powerfully, with all the body and mind working in instantaneous and total harmony. The work doesn’t end when the ball leaves the strike zone. Needless to say, it has just begun.


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