In 2018 and 2019, Red Sox hitters approached their craft with the precision of lab scientists. But this year, there’s distress from some members of the team about the ransacking of the instruments for calibrating their swings.
“There’s no computers,” J.D. Martinez lamented on Tuesday night. “They’re all gone — disappeared.”
Who took them away?
“The man upstairs is the one running the show and makes the rules,” Martinez noted cryptically.
Presumably, Martinez was referring — somewhat inaccurately — to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. MLB and the MLB Players Association, in their jointly agreed-upon 113-page baseball operations manual for conducting a 2020 season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, included eight words that fundamentally altered how hitters prepare before, during, and after games.
“Use of any communal video terminals is prohibited.”
That regulation had significant implications for some hitters. Over the last decade, and particularly over the last few years, players have congregated in growing numbers around BATS (Baseball Analysis and Tracking System) consoles to review video of their at-bats and swings.
The system offers four synchronized angles of a hitter — most importantly, a front view and two side views — to dissect not only how opponents are attacking them but also their own swings. It also permits side-by-side comparisons of swings at different points in the players’ careers to detect changes.
Many hitters have become somewhere between reliant and dependent on video to dissect their own swings or those of their teammates. While some of that work occurs before and after games, players also have become accustomed to retreating to a video terminal in the clubhouse during games to examine the mechanics of their swing, sometimes in search of a fix.
The prohibition of communal video terminals — which often happened to be in close proximity to live video replay feeds — has taken away those options.
“In the past I probably already would have been able to get in the video room, break [struggling teammate Andrew Benintendi’s] swing down, look at it, do some comparisons. It’s kind of what I do for most of the guys on the team,” said Martinez. “We don’t have access to any of that stuff anymore. It’s kind of everyone on their own. Survivor.”
Getting rid of communal video terminals for the 2020 season serves a rational health and safety interest for the sport as it tries to minimize the likelihood of coronavirus infection and spread. A convention of players by a computer to review video in an indoor space runs counter to the effort to keep players and staffers outside and separated. Player traffic in and out of the clubhouse to review video during games likewise would run counter to those goals.
That said, the restriction — and some additional ones on the use of video — also represent a response to MLB’s investigations into the sign- and sign-sequence-stealing practices of the 2017-18 Astros and 2018 Red Sox.
Review of in-game footage is not possible in 2020 — MLB and the MLBPA will discuss future policy in the offseason, particularly if there might be technology that would allow in-game review of at-bats while hiding catcher signals — and players don’t have access to BATS consoles. Clubhouse TVs (including in the trainer’s room) are off during games.
League-issued personal iPads are used by players and staff members during games. But instead of permitting the sort of in-game video historically available at a BATS terminal, the iPads are restricted to video of opposing pitchers that’s uploaded before games without any additional video and remain offline during games. They are useful for scouting opponents but offer hitters no in-game feedback about their own swings.
Away from the park, players can access the BATS system individually — but the variety of synchronized angles that had typically been available to players in real time are now available only on a delayed basis, if at all. One major league source said his team was getting front views of swings the day after games, and side views of hitters two days after the conclusion of contests — and even then, only if a network broadcasting the game provided them.
The absence of in-game video is one of several elements that have challenged hitters this year. Nightly gatherings of position players to discuss offensive gameplans and exchange notes about their swings — a hallmark of the 2018 Red Sox — are no longer possible. Teammates can no longer hang out in batting cages while discussing the nuances of their approaches.
Sox outfielder Kevin Pillar noted that the lack of crowds could be impacting the energy levels of players in the batter’s box, while also suggesting that players might feel atypical pressure in a compressed, 60-game schedule. Or perhaps the timing of hitters is simply off following the game’s lengthy shutdown and condensed spring training ramp-up.
“There’s just a lot of different factors to what goes on to individuals getting off to a slow start,” said Pillar.
Whatever the cause, offense is down. MLB hitters entered Tuesday with a combined .232/.314/.394 line while teams averaged 4.44 runs per game. In the first 13 full days of 2019, MLB hitters (which included pitchers hitting in N.L. ballparks) forged a .244/.322/.418 line with teams producing 4.66 runs per game.
Even with a designated hitter on all 30 teams, scoring is down about 5 percent from the start of last season, and about 8 percent from the entire 2019 season (4.83 runs per game). Even so, that offensive outage is occurring league-wide rather than being limited to the Red Sox. Ultimately, while there are numerous elements — including the lack of access to video — that are challenging hitters, the Red Sox have the same challenge as every other team to overcome those obstacles.
“Everything is a little bit off. I don’t think in a 60-game season that you’ll get totally comfortable with all of that,” said Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “It’s just an odd season, but everyone is dealing with it. It’s not just us. Other teams have been playing great in the same circumstances. We have to figure out a way to get this going, to get that offense going like we know we can.”