Q&A: Ryne Sandberg

Ryne Sandberg spent 15-plus seasons in the big leagues, which means that he faced a generation’s worth of great pitchers. The Cubs Hall of Famer hit .285/.344/.452 overall, but how did he do against the likes of Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Bruce Sutter? And how did the pitchers’ respective repertoires and approaches influence those results? Sandberg delved into his memory bank to analyze those match-ups, and several more.

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David Laurila: What was your approach as a hitter?

Ryne Sandberg: When I went up there, I was basically looking to dominate middle away and react inside, just naturally. I covered 70 percent of the plate with that approach. When I first came up, I was a hitter that hit up the middle and to right center, and one thing I had to learn was to react on the inside fastball, to be able to get the head out and pull that pitch. It took me until my third year in the major leagues to accomplish that. That’s when the power numbers came and I was able to turn on a fastball with some pop.

DL: Did your approach change based on who was on the mound?

RS: Basically not, but I wanted to know what his fastball did, what his out pitch was, and what kind of a breaking pitch he had. I kept a little log of how the pitcher faced me, rather than just any right-handed hitter. I kept that in mind and looked at that before the game. I did my own scouting report on the pitchers as they faced me. I kept track of what the pitches were, what type of movement they had, and what his out pitch was with two strikes.

DL: Was there a specific type of pitcher that gave you trouble?

RS: A guy that had everything running away from me. Larry Andersen [4 for 38, 8 strikeouts] had a real good cut fastball, a slider and a curve. Everything was moving away, and I couldn’t recognize his fastball cutting away, even though I knew it was going to do that. He was one guy I had to go up there and really battle against. My numbers weren’t the best off of him.

Other than that, I think I adjusted to pitching as I saw it, whether it was to crowd the plate a little bit, or move off the plate a little bit. Whatever adjustment I had to make, I would. I’d try to take away the pitch that was giving me problems. I’d try to force them to come back to something I could handle.

DL: Why did you have so much success against Bruce Sutter [8 for 20, 4 home runs]?

RS: His split-finger fastball came into my hot spot. I was able to recognize that pitch, and also anticipate it, coming down and hard into me. With him, I would swing where the ball would end up, which is very unnatural. That’s what made him so tough; if you swung at the pitch where it was, by the time your bat head got there it was too late. The ball would have disappeared. I was able to anticipate where the pitch went, which was in my hot spot.

DL: You faced Sutter a relatively small number of times. Would you have had the same level of success with a larger sample size?

RS: Yes, unless he came up with a different location or came at me with something other than his split-finger fastball, which is what he threw 85-90 percent of the time. I took away his best pitch, so unless he invented something different, that ended up in a different zone, he wouldn’t have been more effective against me.

DL: The pitchers who logged the most strikeouts against you were Dwight Gooden [23] and Ron Darling [21]. Going beyond the strikeouts, you hit Gooden relatively well [35 for 112], but not Darling [19 for 82]. Why?

RS: I faced them both a lot, and Darling mixed his pitches up. He was effective against an aggressive hitter, an aggressive fastball hitter, because he’d throw his split-finger fastball — a forkball is what he had — which to me appeared to be a fastball. I considered myself a fastball hitter, and when I was ahead in the count I was aggressive on the fastball. I tried to put those balls in play hard somewhere. He knew me as a hitter and would pitch me backwards a bit. He was a guy I had to battle, so I’d take a single up the middle if I could, or a single to right field.

DL: Was it easier to hit against lefthanders?

RS: I think it depended on the guy. It took me three years to get a hit off of Steve Carlton [6 for 36]. I couldn’t pick up either one of his pitches, which was obviously trouble for me. I was late on his fastball and early on his slider. Often times I couldn’t keep his pitches between the white lines. I’d hit his fastball over the first base dugout and his slider over the third base dugout. He was a guy that really worked both sides of the plate and I had a hard time picking him up my first two years in the big leagues.

DL: You faced Tom Browning [29 for 77, 3 home runs] and Terry Mulholland [18 for 54, 7 home runs] a lot, and had success against both.

RS: they were aggressive pitchers that came right at you. They were two lefties that actually pitched inside to right-handed hitters, and that was my hot spot. I could sit on an at bat and get a pitch like that to hit. When I got a fastball in my hot zone, I didn’t miss it too often. Their strategy, and what they threw, kind of matched up with what I was as a hitter. Both of them had cut fastballs, in, and I’d look for that the whole at bat.

DL: Was Nolan Ryan [10 for 41, 11 strikeouts] intimidating to hit against, or just another guy with outstanding stuff?

RS: He was intimidating. He was a guy that I would know a week to ten days in advance that we were going to be facing. That was especially true at the Astrodome, where it was very tough to see. He was intimidating. You didn’t know if you were going to get no hit that night. You knew it would be a little bit uncomfortable, seeing 100 mph and an 88-mph breaking pitch that started behind you. Once a game, I’d get a pitch that would just barely brush the hairs of my arm, that I took, and didn’t even see.

DL: What was it like to hit against Pedro Martinez [4 for 17, 10 strikeouts]?

RS: I faced him when he was with the Expos — I don’t know how many at bats — but I do remember a bases-loaded double or triple. But he was uncomfortable. He was effectively wild. If a hitter was going good against him, he’d throw one underneath his chin just to let him know that he had the baseball. He was an aggressive pitcher and it wasn’t too comfortable standing in the box against him. He was a guy with real good stuff who would throw a little on the wild side just to get hitters uncomfortable in the box.

DL: Are there any pitchers I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to address?

RS: Fernando Valenzuela [20 for 68, 4 home runs, 15 strikeouts]. I used to push bunt off of him at least once a game and try to get a hit against him that way, especially with Steve Garvey playing first base. Fernando would fall off quite a bit toward third, so I’d push bunt. His screwball was pretty incredible my first couple of years in the big leagues. You didn’t see another screwball like that in the entire league. As he became a little older, he came up with a cut fastball, which, once again, came into my hot zone. That allowed me to get some hits off of him, with some power, a little bit later in my career. I faced a lot of good pitchers, and he was one of them.



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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wallywojo
Member
wallywojo
5 years 1 month ago

excellent interview. These are the kind of details many fans are looking for. Most of the time, especially from the big networks, we just receive fluff. I would compare ESPN and Fox’s questions to those asked in “The Baseball Bunch”.

Redsauce
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Redsauce
5 years 1 month ago

I love this series of interviews and the questions you ask. It really provides an insightful look into baseball at the professional level. Great stuff!

John DiFool
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John DiFool
5 years 1 month ago

If Ryno continues to get frustrated in his search for a major league managing job, he could probably be a very good color man. Color men are usually pretty worthless because they rarely delve into the deepest aspects of the game they’re covering, preferring to spout cliches and note the obvious.

Jamie
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Jamie
5 years 1 month ago

He knows his baseball, but Sandberg has never been known as the most articulate or charismatic fellow. Andre Dawson joked that he didn’t know Sandberg could talk until he heard his Hall of Fame speech.

The Dude
Member
The Dude
5 years 1 month ago

that’s true – we all thought he was an idiot savant.

CSJ
Member
5 years 1 month ago

This is a great interview. I love the questions and the answers. But looking up chasers is too much fun:

“but I do remember a bases-loaded double or triple [against Pedro Martinez]”

Here’s the matchup b-ref page: http://www.baseball-reference.com/play-index/batter_vs_pitcher.cgi?batter=sandbry01&pitcher=martipe02#gotresults&batter=sandbry01&pitcher=martipe02&min_year_game=1993&max_year_game=1997&post=1&ajax=1&submitter=1

No plate appearances with the bases loaded. I’m assuming he’s talking about his last appearance vs. Pedro: single with runners on 2nd and 3rd.

Austin Brancheau
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Austin Brancheau
5 years 1 month ago

I checked to see if he might’ve confused Pedro for Ramon in this instance, but no such plate appearance (Ryne never even hit a double or triple off Ramon).

Dave S
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Dave S
5 years 1 month ago

great great stuff… thank you for posting it.

Matt
Guest
Matt
5 years 1 month ago

His memory for that stuff is unusually good, no?

Ree
Member
Ree
5 years 1 month ago

It’s surprisingly common for baseball players to remember details and such.

Jonathan C. Mitchell
Guest
5 years 1 month ago

Good interview!

The Dude
Member
The Dude
5 years 1 month ago

Thanks – this is really far out.

As a Cub fan back in the day (since my town had no team but we did have WGN) I was able watch Sandberg almost every day. We also had him in town when he was in the Phillie organization (AAA – OKC).

Watching daily, you developed a feel for players and “gut instincts” that ultimately became objective rather than subjective due to SABR and the insightful data created later. I always describe Sandberg as a guy who could look terrible on a swing (usually a breaking ball away) and then like the HOF he is on the next pitch…your first questions helped me understand why.

That is really cool and much appreciated. The Dude is grateful for you and Ryne-O.

ToddM
Guest
ToddM
5 years 1 month ago

I didn’t really gain any respect for Laurila here (only because these interviews are consistently good, so the respect level was already high), but wow… I didn’t know Ryno had it in him.

Good stuff. Just goes to show you that leadership positions need charisma. Sandberg’s a good-looking dude, a HOFer type, and is clearly articulate, but can’t get the job he wants. Compare that to Kirk Gibson, currently the poster boy for young, ex-big leaguers. Gibby is uglier, dumber, and was less of a player, but he has that FIRE, I tell ya!

bstar
Member
bstar
5 years 1 month ago

Excellent interview. Brings back memories of the ’84 Cubs, with Sandberg in his prime. That Cubs team was just tooooo much fun to watch. I probably saw almost every single game and inning they played, especially once school let out in the summer, because I was 16 and just infatuated with them. Dernier, Sandberg, Bowa, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, Ron Cey, Jody Davis……..what a team. Then when they traded for Sutcliffe in midseason and he went 16-1 the rest of the way………wow those were the days indeed.

Dwezilwoffa
Guest
Dwezilwoffa
5 years 29 days ago

Add my thanks to the others for these interviews. I love the stories and memories they give/evoke.

WGN managed to bring baseball to lots of fans that had no other access. Everyone has an announcer that they grew up with and for me its Harry Carey. Watching the late 80’s Cub games with Ryno, Dawson, and Grace, just thinking about it makes me smile. Beer showers for out of town outfielders.

Not a cub fan even, watched for the games against the Mets. :)

Frank Manikowski
Guest
Frank Manikowski
4 years 9 months ago

Mr. Sandberg,
I want you to be manager of the Cubs. I think you would be a good manager.
Thanks, Frank

Richard Bergstrom
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Very nice interview, David. Sandberg isn’t the cure for the Cubs woes, but it’s nice to see he was doing things like keeping his own scouting reports.

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