SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Inside the Rockies’ Cactus League clubhouse, with teammates bouncing between couches and practice fields, catcher Chris Iannetta sits quietly in front of his locker.
Iannetta, 35, is preparing for his thirteenth season in the big leagues, with more than 1,100 games and 4,000 plate appearances to his name. He first broke into MLB in 2006, three short years after Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” hit bookshelves and changed the sport forever.
He has spent his entire professional career in an environment increasingly bent toward data. He’s also kind of sick of data.
“I think the art of the game is going away and I think the human element is the art of the game,” Iannetta said. “It’s the human element, it’s the passion, it’s the drive, it’s things you can’t find in an Excel spreadsheet.”
When Iannetta entered the league, followers of baseball were only just starting to learn statistics outside of what you’d find on the back of a Topps card. Now the sport’s greatest minds are — to Iannetta’s point — knee-deep in spreadsheets. They ruminate on player value and the absolute best way to hit a baseball and whatever else might bring them closer to cracking one of the world’s most intricate games.
Iannetta prefers a simpler approach.
“I’m trying to track the ball with my eyes, I’m trying to bring the barrel to it no matter where I am,” he said. “You can’t control where you hit it.”
“When you’re up there hitting, thinking ‘I’m gonna hit this at nine degrees, I’m gonna hit this at 20 degrees,’ you know, this game’s hard enough,” Iannetta said, referencing baseball’s newest buzz, launch angle. “There’s no one doing that.”
Iannetta represents a not-small contingent of baseball players frustrated by the trajectory of the game they grew up with. But on the other side of the clubhouse sits Rockies newcomer Daniel Murphy, a 33-year-old infielder with a reputation of a studious, professional hitter.
Murphy famously remade his swing in 2015 with the New York Mets and is a vocal supporter of the nerdier elements of the game.
As he told FanGraphs’ David Laurila last week, Murphy uses a device called Rapsodo, which can, among other things, tell a hitter the exact angle bat met baseball.
“When you’re hitting in the cage, it can give you verification of, like, ‘OK, that was 14 degrees,’” Murphy said. “If I’m pretty certain that 10 degrees gets me over the infielders’ heads, and I hit that at 14, at 95 [mph], then I should get rewarded for that swing.”
Situated squarely between the lockers of Iannetta and Murphy, two veterans with very different approaches to hitting, is that of rookie Garrett Hampson.
At 24, Hampson has a promising future ahead of him and has exceeded already high expectations with a .286/.348/.643 slash line in 42 spring at-bats.
Listed at 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 188 pounds, Hampson is a self-proclaimed “speed guy” and is reticent to join the fly ball revolution, even in friendly Coors Field.
But he has recently begun experimenting with one of Murphy’s favorite toys, Rapsodo.
“I’m using it to learn my swing, knowing what I’m kind of deficient at,” Hampson said before hedging slightly. “It doesn’t mean I’m fully committed to changing my swing or changing my swing how Rapsodo wants me to change it. But I definitely want to learn about it.”
In the great battle over baseball, Hampson hasn’t chosen a side. But maybe there are no sides.
Maybe, as Iannetta said, “baseball’s hard enough” and you do whatever allows you to hit that 88 mph slider cutting through the zone. Maybe, as Hampson said, it’s “about finding something that clicks” to make it — to succeed in an impossible kid’s game.