A game of…sixteenths of an inch

“I missed it by a sixteenth of an inch” Hall of Famer Eddie
Mathews told Joe Morgan several times during their playing days.

Mathews’ comment was to illustrate how close he was to
hitting a home run on occasions when the ball fell not into the stands but into
a fielder’s glove near the outfield wall. In the ESPN booth on Sunday Orel
Hershiser endorsed the accuracy of that statement – that a sixteenth of an inch
lower on the bat would have made the difference to send the ball out for a home
run.

To put it in some perspective, the total margin for error –
accumulated over an entire season – between breaking Barry Bonds’ home run
record of 73, and failing to hit a single home run all season could be as small
as…5 inches. That’s the total distance of missed swing separating a man from
unemployment and the Hall of Fame. I can miss a slow-pitch softball by five
inches on a single swing, never mind over the course of 500 or more at-bats.

This helps explain why some hitters, as they age, seem to
fall off a skills cliff so precipitous you wonder whether they’re injured or
seriously ill. For example, in 2007 David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox had a
career-year in batting average at .332. In 2008 that slipped to .264, then .238
and this season he averages a paltry .149 through May 4th. And it’s not as
though he’s upped his power game in the mean time, with home run totals over
the past three years of 35, 23 and 28 after a steady ascent throughout his
career to a peak of 54 in 2006.

david-ortiz-ap2.jpg

The speed of muscle-response times has only to dip very
slightly to make a huge difference to a player’s productivity. Many times you
will hear commentators speak of how hitters can no longer “get around” on a
fastball – i.e. their response time isn’t quick enough for them to be able to
put a good swing on it.

38-year-old Raul Ibanez of the Phillies has been in a slump
since last June, when the lights seemed to go off after he blazed a trail
through the first two months of the season. Thereafter he has been said to
“cheat” – that is, in anticipation of a fastball he would start to swing before
he knew exactly where it was going, knowing that if he waited to see the
direction he wouldn’t be able to swing in time to make decent contact.

Ortiz and Ibanez play in highly pressurized environments in
Boston and Philadelphia respectively and when Ortiz, who has helped carry the
Red Sox offense for much of the last seven years, started to hear reporters use
the word “decline” in their questions earlier this season, he nearly blew his
stack. He must know that something is wrong but may not feel any different
physically which can only add to his frustration at not being able to produce
the results of previous years.

Whispers around Ibanez had been similar, but revelations of
his carrying an injury offered some explanation. Further, while Ibanez’s
batting average this season (.232) is almost as low as some of the pitches he’s
been swinging and missing at, his on base percentage matches his career mark so
hope remains that his problems are fixable.

Never the less, both men have taken a peek into the
professional abyss and history shows that when a power hitter in his mid-30’s
(Ortiz) has their performance drop over a year or more, it doesn’t tend to come
back.

Most of us measure our physical decline in decades. For
example, I could play a full 90 minutes of football when I was 22 and not worry
about being too tired. Ten years later, after a succession of injuries and
putting on weight, 90 minutes was about 80 too long, Being a salesman for much
of that time and not a professional sports person, the impact on my life was
minimal.

For Ortiz and others in his position they don’t have that
luxury. They know that if their response time slows enough to make a sixteenth
of an inch difference to their swing, that their whole career is in jeopardy. 

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