Catchers, it is said, make the best baseball managers because the whole game is in front of them, giving them the best view and the best sense of events as they unfold. Plus, their role in pitch selection confers a strategic responsibility no other position player shares.
Thus it’s not coincidence that 12 of the 30 managers running major-league dugouts this past season — 40 percent — were former catchers.
The best analysts, meanwhile, seem to come from the ranks of starting pitchers. Working every fifth day, they have little to do but watch the game on days they don’t pitch. The dugout offers a prime vantage point, and they’re surrounded by knowledgeable observers.
Jim Palmer was terrific when ABC was in the baseball business, even while sharing the airwaves with Howard Cosell, a loquacious know-nothing. Steve Stone has been a source of enlightenment from TV booths on both sides of this town. Pedro Martinez is smart, opinionated and funny as a TBS studio presence. Jim Deshaies has settled in as an easy, entertaining complement to Len Kasper on Cubs telecasts.
But, with apologies to Javy Baez, Francisco Lindor and Kyle Schwarber, the breakout performer of the 2016 postseason is Fox Sports’ John Smoltz.
A Hall of Famer and the premier big-game pitcher for the Atlanta Braves’ dynasty teams over 21 seasons, Smoltz is in his third year with Fox; thus he’s not a breakout performer by strict definition. But he’s completing his first year as Fox’s lead analyst, and every time he speaks, it becomes more obvious why the network moved overmatched Harold Reynolds aside for him.
Some of Reynolds’ observations were head-scratchers, as if he were trying too hard to go deep. Smoltz, by contrast, never reaches to make a point. He relies on what he sees and what he knows, from experience and thorough preparation. He’s as technically savvy as Jon Gruden, without the breathless hyperbole. He’s as conscious of the little things as Tim McCarver, without the annoying verbosity. He can dissect pitching as thoroughly as Stone, without the smartest-guy-in-the-room self-assurance.
Smoltz never suggested that the Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber reminded him of anyone — himself, say — but his insights into Kluber’s mastery of the Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series were as sharp as the break on Kluber’s slider . . . and typical of his work throughout the playoffs.
“The key to pitching is owning one part of the plate — that’s where you work,” Smoltz said as Kluber carved up right- and left-handed hitters with aplomb. “If you can own both sides, you’re Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet.”
Upon replacing Kluber, Andrew Miller struck out Addison Russell with “the left-handed version of Kluber’s slider,” one of 15 K’s Indians pitchers had in Game 1.
“This Cubs lineup can hit a fastball,” Smoltz said, “but if you can spin it up there, you can pitch to them.”
Unless it’s Schwarber. Smoltz was skeptical of his role as the Cubs’ designated hitter, lamenting the “monumental task” the rusty slugger faced after six months on the disabled list with a shattered knee. In the midst of Smoltz’s soliloquy, Schwarber whacked a delivery from Kluber off the right-field wall. “Incredible,” Smoltz said. “I’m not wearing a hat, but if I were, I’d take it off to him.”
Later, Schwarber drew a walk from Miller, ball four whizzing past the outside corner by the width of a fingernail.
“There’s no way to explain how he laid off that pitch, other than he did,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz’s partner, play-by-play dandy Joe Buck, shouldn’t hear his objectivity questioned, having managed to irritate followers of both World Series teams. His effusive praise of Kershaw throughout the NLCS struck Cubs fans as an anti-Cubs bias, for some odd reason. Meanwhile, Indians fans have been resentful of Buck’s attempts to turn Schwarber into a modern-day Babe Ruth, which, come to think of it . ..
Fox’s pre- and postgame shows are pretty much empty calories: Three guys with checkered pasts but undeniable baseball bona fides trying hard to be likeable and/or funny. And what’s with the carnival barker get-up on Pete Rose?
“When the Series is over, the story line is going to be ‘Now that’s how you use a bullpen’ if it’s Cleveland, or ‘You’ve got to have studs in the rotation’ if it’s Chicago.’’
That was Smoltz’s summation of a Series that has been entertaining enough to make you hope it goes seven.