Scout’s corner: Bob Johnson tells us when the season is no longer “too early”
MO2 contributor Bob Johnson, a former big league scout for four decades, talks key MLB “benchmark dates,” and the pitch he recommended to get Derek Jeter out, and more.
By Joe Frisaro @ManOn2nd
Six weeks into the MLB schedule, and we are still hearing managers, players and team executives talking about: “It’s still early.”
Of course, it is. The Miami Marlins enter Wednesday having played 35 games, and they’re facing the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have played 36 before the first pitch.
When you’re talking about a 162-game season, playing less than 40 of them is still deemed early. Still, the Trade Deadline is at the end of July, and we’re getting to a point where clubs have a pretty good indication of what they are.
To help offer some perspective and insights into how the teams approach the season, we asked former big league scout, Bob Johnson, who spent four decades scouting for clubs.
Johnson is an MO2 contributor, and here’s what he had to say.
“I don’t want to look at the standings until Memorial Day, and the All-Star Break,” Johnson said. “Those are the two markers for me. Where are we then?”
Memorial Day is quickly approaching, even if it is later this year. It’s Monday, May 31. The All-Star Break is July 12-15, with the Trade Deadline a little more than two weeks afterwards.
Memorial Day is the initial benchmark, because it is roughly at the two-month point into the season.
“The schedule allows some teams to get hot early,” Johnson explains. “Other teams will struggle early. Sometimes, it’s the pitching rotation. Sometimes you’d miss [Max] Scherzer and [Jacob] deGrom on the same trip. Sometimes you’ll get them on the same trip. Those types of things tend to work their way through the system, through the month of May.”
Around Memorial Day, each team should have played more than 50 games.
Johnson’s point about when you play teams has plenty of merit. As he noted, if you’re playing the Nationals, and Scherzer is scheduled to pitch in the series, that pitching matchup alone could swing a series. Same with deGrom with the New York Mets. You like your chances more when you don’t have to deal with deGrom.
Over the course of a longer sample size, those pitching matchups tend to even out. You’re also not always catching a team at full strength, or players may be hot or cold.
“We’re at six weeks now,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s until another two weeks that you really get a feel for what’s going on.”
Game plan for Jeter: According to Johnson, one of the most underused pitches being thrown today is the “down-and-in” fastball. Or more broadly, any pitch that is located down and in the zone.
During his days as an advance scout, Johnson recommended the down-and-in fastball as the best way to attack Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter, the Marlins chief executive officer.
“It took me years of scouting the American League to trying to figure out how to get Derek Jeter out,” Johnson said. “That was the spot that I could get him out. Because he always wanted to go the other way. He wanted to stay inside the baseball. It’s very difficult to stay inside a down-and-in pitch, and hit it with authority.”
Johnson says he’d like to see more pitchers today pitch to that part of the zone.
How hitters will catch up to the pitchers: Much is being made over the fact MLB pitching, across the board, is ahead of hitting. Strikeouts are up, and batting averages are down.
Actually, this shouldn’t be that surprising, mainly for the fact pitchers generally tend to be ahead of hitters early in the season. Why that’s even more pronounced this season is the fact, the 2020 season was shortened to 60-games, plus there was no Minor League season.
So hitters, in general, have not had the consistent at-bats to improve their timing at the plate. Look for that to shift as the season progresses.
Johnson also feels many hitters will start using the entire field in ways to beat infield shifting.
“A lot of guys who are hitting .200 are not going to hit .200,” Johnson said. “Eventually, you’re going to see those really low averages creep up, because hitters have pride. They’re going to get tired of just striking out all the time, and not putting the ball in play. I’ve seen more bunts in the last couple of days than I’ve seen in a while.”
Right now, many hitters are committed to doing damage to their pull side. Eventually, Johnson feels the good hitters, will start to use the middle of the field more.
“When the power goes from the pull side to center field, you’ll know that there is a shift starting to go on,” Johnson said. “When they start to go up the middle more, with power, there will all be homers, over the center field fence instead of the pull-side fence. That’s when you’ll start to see the hitting pick up.”