Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith has been watching the game of baseball evolve since his career began in 1978. He stopped by The Ringer MLB Show to chat with Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann about how the game has evolved, his favorite up-and-coming players, and more.
Listen to the full podcast, which is exclusive to TuneIn for this month, here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Why Batters Strike Out More Now
Ozzie Smith struck out in just 5.5 percent of his plate appearances during his career, and in just 3.4 percent in 1996, his final season before retirement. No baseball players even come close to that number now, and Smith shared why he thinks batters strike out so much more often now:
"The game is a little bit different," Smith explained. "[Batters] are taking the same swing 0 and 2 that they’re taking [at] 1 and 0, so from that standpoint is the reason that you have guys striking out more, along with the fact that [pitchers] are throwing over 100 miles per hour. Those two things coupled together means that you’re gonna have a lot more strikeouts, but when balls are hit now, they certainly go a lot further."
Why the change? Smith sees the game as more offense-oriented now.
"I see it as a generational thing. For us, when we were growing up, the only way you could put pressure on the defense is to put the ball in play, and when you had two strikes on you you were always told to choke up and put the ball in play because that gave you the best chance at getting on base. Today, I think it’s all about being able to hit that ball out of the ballpark. It’s always been an offensive-oriented game, but we know the importance of defense. I came up at a time when we knew that if we caught and threw the ball better and more consistently than the other team over the long haul of a 162-game schedule, we were gonna win more games, and that was a philosophy that I think was held by our generation of players."
"Look at the shortstop position, same thing. The kids are much bigger, much stronger, and expected to present a lot more offense than we did as prototypical shortstops back in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s an evolution of the game. I think that the thought process is a little bit different. They’re willing to forgo defense for a guy being able to hit the ball out of the ballpark. I don’t know if it’s ever gonna change back."
But of course, defense hasn’t been thrown out completely:
"I think the importance of good defense is always there. That’s the thing that’s gonna put your offense in position to win, so that’s always gonna be needed, and I think that over the long haul the team that does that more consistently is the team that’s gonna probably win a world championship."
How Shifts Change the Game
One emphasis on defense that is new to this era, though, is shifts. Smith was well known for his defensive range. How does he feel about the shift era?
"We never played that way. But I think it speaks more to the offense than it does to the defense, because, as an offensive player, to look up and see all of the players on one side of the field, which leaves the other side of the field open, then I’ve gotta do everything that I possibly can to get the ball to [the open] side of the field. If I can hit a ball that way or learn to hit a ball that way, it makes the game much easier for me. But we don’t seem to have players that are willing to make the commitment to learn to hit the ball the other way when they do that. Because the only way that [the strategy of shifting] is gonna change is that you gotta show them that you can hit the ball the other way, and I haven’t seen anybody that’s done that consistently."
As far as defense goes, Smith can’t see himself worrying too much about shifting if he were still playing today:
"We had scouting reports, but there’s no substitute for great instincts. And if you play a team 12, 13 times a year, then you should have an idea of what the hitters’ tendencies are, and that’s really what we played on. We didn’t have all those statistics. Statistics sometimes get in the way of you being able to go out and do what comes natural for you to do. We never worried about those things. We had scouting reports, you relied on the scouting reports, but then still you had to rely on your instincts as well, and so it was a totally different game and I think that that’s where the game has really changed."
The Little Things Haven’t Changed
Some things about baseball are still the same.
"You sit down and you look for the little things that you did when you played. You know whether or not a guy’s turning his foot in or whether he’s got it turned out, whether or not he’s going home, whether or not guys are making the adjustments at home plate with two strikes, making sure they cut down on it. When you see those things, those are the players you know that are gonna have longevity and are high-IQ baseball players. That’s what I’m in search of when I’m sitting down watching a game. Watching a guy who doesn’t necessarily have to be coached, but has an idea of the things that he has to do that’s gonna make him successful and, in return, help the team become more successful."
His favorite shortstops who do those things?
"I think that you see Alcides Escobar, you see Francisco Lindor, Brandon Crawford is certainly one of those players that does that, and Andrelton Simmons, I think he’s still a little green as far as offense is concerned, but defensively, he’s making those adjustments. You can see that these guys also study their scouting reports, and their positioning is very, very good. That has a lot to do with their scouting too, you know, as to how they position themselves, but you still have to have some athletic ability and some ability to improvise to still be effective out there in the field."