Don’t be surprised if the Giants-Royals World Series is decided by 90 feet. After all, baseball is a series of contests for 90 feet—the distance from home to first, first to second, second to third, and third to home again. The two teams are bidding for the same property for nine innings, both when they’re at bat and in the field. The club that wins more of those 90 feet skirmishes, says George Washington University head baseball coach Gregg Ritchie, puts itself in position to win ball games.
Ritchie came back to GW after a career in professional baseball that lasted nearly 30 years, with his most recent stop in Pittsburgh as the Pirates’ hitting coach. We were teammates at GW and I hadn’t seen him since, and then he returned to take over at our alma mater in 2013. With the postseason upon us, I asked him if he’d share some of his insights into the game.
We’re sitting in his office in Foggy Bottom, decorated with mementoes from GW baseball history. One of Ritchie’s predecessors as head coach here is Mike Toomey, now an assistant general manager with the Kansas City Royals. Toomey’s late father scouted for the Royals, too. With two other former Colonials employed as Royals’ executives, GW baseball is leaning heavily toward the Royals in the World Series. On the other hand, Ritchie himself was drafted by the San Francisco Giants back in 1987—after he was scouted by Toomey, who was then working for the Giants. In any case, I get the feeling that Ritchie’s investment in professional baseball at this point is not in particular clubs, but in the game itself. I think he just wants to see baseball played at its highest level succeed, which it surely will. The game has its own stark beauty.
“I want to show you something really cool,” Ritchie says, as he moves to the chalkboard and draws a line down the middle.
“Oh, this is cool,” says one of his assistant coaches, Jon Tatum. “Since I’ve been here, this is one of the most important things I learned from coach.”
On the left side of the line, Ritchie writes +90, and -90 on the right.
“Sacrifice bunt,” says Ritchie. “Plus 90,” says Tatum, meaning it moves the runner another 90 feet closer to home and scoring a run. Ritchie writes it out in the left-hand column. “Double play,” he says next. “Another plus 90,” says Tatum, meaning the team in the field has won this skirmish by taking 90 feet away from the team at bat. That, too, goes in the left-hand column.
Minus 90s are failures to execute, in the field, at the plate, or on the mound. For instance, a throw from the outfield that misses the cutoff man and allows the runner to take an extra base forfeits 90 feet. On the offensive side, failure to lay down a sacrifice bunt and move a runner closer to home is a minus 90. Bad at bats are those that make the job of the next hitter harder not easier. Those, too, are minus 90s on the offensive side.
There are dozens of possible plus and minus 90s, all of them the function of either executing team fundamentals properly, or failing to. He’s not loading up the left side of the margin with home runs for the offense and strike outs for the defense, but what lots of baseball commentators call—mistakenly, from Ritchie’s perspective—the “small things.” The way he sees it, this is baseball skill and it’s what decides outcomes. “The higher the ratio of plus 90s to minus 90s,” says Ritchie, “the more likely you are to win ballgames.”
That seems especially so in the postseason when superior pitching leaves little room for error. The 90-feet paradigm helps illuminate the playoffs to date. As I argued yesterday, the Royals advanced to the World Series by properly executing team fundamentals, but let’s break that down into a few 90 feet segments. In Tuesday night’s game, KC twice scored runners from third with less than two outs, on a sacrifice fly (+90) and a fielder’s choice (+90). From this perspective, the decisive margin then wasn’t the 2-1 final score, but +180 feet for the Royals. Same on Wednesday when in the first inning Lorenzo Cain bunted to advance two runners (+90) and Eric Hosmer then pulled a batted ball to the right side of the infield to advance the runners safely (+90).