With the World Series opening tonight in Kansas City, the Giants are no doubt feeling their oats. They’re coming off of a three-homerun performance in their game five win over the St. Louis Cardinals, which landed them their third World Series appearance in five years. However, the Giants should be wary, for power is a fickle friend.
“Game-changers in baseball are power, speed, velocity, and defense,” says George Washington University head baseball coach Gregg Ritchie. “Then there’s also the intangible stuff—the total willingness to do anything it takes to win. It’s drive. A mentality. You see Josh Harrison play and you just know this guy has it.”
Ritchie was Harrison’s batting coach with the Pirates in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2013, Ritchie took the job at GW, returning to his alma mater after more than two decades in professional baseball. We played together at GW, and with the postseason upon us, I asked to get some of his thoughts on the state of the game and how it’s played at the highest level, the major leagues.
“Of all these game-changers,” says Ritchie, “the inconsistent one is power. If you have speed, you’re not losing it from at bat to at bat. If you throw 97-100, it’s the same thing. If you play good defense, it won’t go away. But you can’t hit home runs every at bat. Power is something you want, but it’s not something you can always bank on, like pitching and defense. It can’t be counted on like team fundamentals.”
It’s not that Ritchie doesn’t like power—who doesn’t like a three-run homer, like the Travis Ishikawa shot Thursday night that won it for the Giants? Power gives you an edge, but it’s unpredictable. What about the game-changers that you can actually coach, like how many times you strike out during the course of a game? According to Ritchie, it’s one of the keys to winning baseball, at any level.
“Let’s say your team strikes out on the average of four times a game,” says Ritchie, “and the opposing team strikes out seven times a game. That means you have one more inning to put the ball in play and force them to field the ball. Now imagine that over the course of a three-game series—you have three full innings more than the other team to put the ball in play and make something happen. Now let’s imagine this over the course of a season, so that the opposing team will have to play 162 more innings of defense than you.”
And what happens when you make the other team makes plays in the field? “Let’s say a team makes an error every 15 times it has to make a play,” says Ritchie. “That’s once every five innings. The more times it has to make plays because you’re putting the ball in play instead of striking out, the more errors the opposing team will make. Over 162 games, they might make ten to twelve more errors a year, which might decide three to four games. Just by putting the ball in play more often and not striking out, you might find yourself on the winning side three to four more times a year.”
To look further into Ritchie’s theory, I checked the stats on some of the recent playoff games, like game two of the National League Division Series which the Giants won 2-1 over the Nationals in 18 innings. On the face of things, the Giants won the longest game in playoff history with power, a Brandon Belt homer in the top of the last. But if you look closer, you can make an argument that the Nats lost that game by striking out so much. The Washington club struck out 20 times in 18 innings, to the San Francisco nine’s 14 Ks. In other words, the Nats struck out a full two innings’ worth of outs more than the Giants. To strike out 20 times means that for nearly seven innings the Giants only needed to put their pitcher and catcher in the field because the Nats failed to put the ball in play.
“It’s amazing how the amount of times a team strikes out affects its winning percentage,” says Ritchie. “Once you start reaching seven strikeouts in a game, your winning percentage starts to decline, more than seven times and it declines even more dramatically.”
This was one of the team fundamentals Ritchie drilled into his GW club. “The team I took over averaged 10.2 strike outs a game,” says Ritchie. “That gives the other team almost four innings to sit in the dugout. And it gives you only a little more than five innings on offense. Good luck trying to win.”