Phightin' Words: Has Sandberg done enough?
Chase Utely and the Phillies are 18-13 under interim manager Ryne Sandberg. (USA Today Images)
Back when Ryne Sandberg was playing for the Cubs, he used to keep a small reporter’s notebook in the dugout with him so he could write down things that caught his eye.
Sometimes it would be as simple as a pitchers’ repertoire. Other times it was about positioning, an umpire’s tendencies and all sorts of minutiae about the game.
“As I’d face somebody new, I wrote down what he had first of all,” Sandberg said. “What his velocity was, his action on the fastball. I think that’s the first thing that hitters look at, is what’s the velocity of the fastball and what’s the action on the balls. Is it cutting away? Is it tailing in? Is it both? Because that’s just a reaction and less time to see and think about it. That’s the first thing, and then what his breaking pitches are and what his out pitch is for a strikeout.”
These days, Sandberg doesn’t see any players with notebooks on the bench. Instead, after a plate appearance Sandberg sees players like Chase Utley disappear down the corridor from the dugout to the video room to pour over his last at-bat. If one had to guess, there probably isn’t a pitcher who has thrown a pitch in the big leagues that Utley hasn’t broken down a thousand times.
For that matter, Utley has probably watched every swing and every twitch he’s taken at the plate throughout his career. He can have it all burned onto a disc or uploaded onto an iPad to watch whenever or wherever he wants, but chances are if someone is looking for Utley, he’s most likely watching digital images over and over again.
So that’s where the notebooks in the dugout have gone.
When Sandberg retired after the 1997 season, there wasn’t a whole lot of video analysis going on. As Sandberg said, “We didn’t even have cell phones.” But if it were possible, Sandberg says he probably would have prepared for games a lot like Utley.
“I would have been all over that,” Sandberg said.
With a team that has gotten much younger as the season progressed, Sandberg says he has noticed players like Darin Ruf and Cody Asche rush toward the video room. Maybe they aren’t as obsessive as Utley, but there is a pretty big influence.
And it’s not just copying Utley’s approach to video. Sandberg says he’s noticed Utley explaining the game to some of the younger players, too.
“I’ve seen more guys in there doing that,” Sandberg said. “With his information, you also see him sharing some of that with the younger players during the game. Any time there’s a pitching change, I’ll see a bunch of guys who gravitate toward Chase to see what the guy throws and to see what approach they need. That’s very good in-game stuff that is utilized by the younger players and veteran players are very happy about sharing that and talking about that. I’ve seen better swings and results from that situation.”
That goes for Utley, too, who is on something of a hot streak lately. With a pair of three-run homers on back-to-back nights, Utley is having his best season since 2009. Perhaps only an oblique strain early in the season that cost him a month of games has kept Utley from approaching 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Those are numbers rarely seen from second basemen not named Sandberg or Utley.
In Monday’s and Tuesday’s games, Utley has bashed long homers off the advertisements lining the façade in right field. He’s 5 for 9 with two four-RBI games in the series against the Marlins, and since going 0 for 8 in two straight games in New York at the end of August, Utley is 23 for 66 (.349) with seven extra-base hits and 16 RBIs.
Yes, Utley pulled those homers, but Sandberg has noticed a subtle change in where the hits are landing.
“He’s gotten a few more hits to left-center field,” Sandberg said. “He’s gotten some hits on the left field line. I think that’s key for him with those pitches, to take them the other way. It also prevents the defense from playing a complete pull shift. I’ve seen the batting average go up in the last three weeks. A lot of it is because of that.”
Utley is up to .280 with a .346 on-base percentage and after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, it’s a good sign. Meanwhile, Utley isn’t so deep into studying the video that he hasn’t heard Sandberg talk about going the other way at the plate.
Utley is taking it all down.
“He’s always talking the game, talking in positives. I know that (using the whole field) something you need to do to be successful as a hitter -- sometimes you do it, sometimes you don’t,” Utley said about Sandberg. “We’re all in here trying to improve and finish on a strong note.”