Sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball, is all the rage. It puts nerds who never got picked on the playground on equal footing with jocks.
Those who can add, subtract, multiply and divide can pass themselves off as baseball experts capable of building teams, even if they never exhibited the ability to run, throw, hit, hit with power or field.
Baseball box scores do reveal plenty, more than most sports, but they are no substitute for a pair of eyes. The Moneyball approach isn’t worth much in predicting performance. It only speaks to the past.
The baseball game played Thursday night at Hoglund Ballpark stands as a perfect example of why franchises employ scouts to watch high school baseball games, instead of just reading the numbers free of charge on the Internet.
The objective data: Free State junior Cody Kukuk walked five batters and threw 78 pitches in 31⁄3 innings. In the first three innings of his five-inning start, Lawrence High senior Albert Minnis walked five batters and hit three batters in the foot.
The score — Free State won 7-5 — would suggest neither pitcher showed anything that portends a bright future in baseball.
Late great Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, the father of the player development system, would have seen it much differently.
“Branch Rickey used to say if you watch a guy throw 50 curveballs in the bullpen, and he throws one great one and 49 lousy ones, he’s got a great curveball,” Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once told me. “He’d say it’s up to you to get that great curveball out of him more often.”
Sandy Koufax, so wild as a youngster, proved Rickey right.
Minnis, who struck out the final three batters he faced in the second inning, all on 89 mph fastballs, showed potential by breaking off some wicked sliders. Kukuk, who wriggled from a second-and-third, one-out jam in the first by striking out one batter on a 70 mph breaking ball and the next on a 93 mph fastball, showed an even higher ceiling. His delivery is so quiet he seems as if he’s just warming up, and the ball zips past the swinging bat at 91 mph consistently.
Minnis’ maximum-effort delivery sharply contrasts that of Kukuk, but the Lions lefty bound for Wichita State showed a quality that will serve him well. His mean streak on the mound surfaced when he buzzed Kukuk on his first pitch to him.
It wasn’t either pitcher’s night, but some good baseball was played. With nobody out and teammate Connor Stremel standing on second, Free State’s No. 2 hitter, Nick Hassig, put a beautiful inside-out swing to send the pitch to the right side, ensuring the runner would advance, and was rewarded when the baseball found a big hole and gave him an RBI. LHS pinch runner Cody Jones used his quick feet and sharp mind to give Firebird fielders fits.
And Free State’s Bo Schneider, who moved to short when Colin Toalson (yet another great all-around game) went to the mound, looked ever so graceful in scooping a grounder, fluidly stepping on second and firing a pea to first for the game-ending double play. No way to quantify just how smooth and athletic that looked.