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Lunch Room Talk: Featuring Mark Grace

Jack Sommers and edbigghead ask Gracie for his take on a variety of baseball topics. 

I have always enjoyed and admired Mark Grace’s ability to be candid, offer constructive criticism, and just flat out tell you like it is without coming off as a complete ass. So when I was presented with an opportunity to meet with him, along with Jack Sommers in the press level lunch room before a game, I took it. The sitting area was smaller than I had pictured in my mind, and very quiet. As soon as Grace walked in I could hear his distinctive voice approach behind me.

Once the introductions were completed Grace admitted he was surprised that we wanted his opinion on things, but was ready to be heard none the less. [Note: the following includes some NSFW language. Anyone who has been around Mark will not be at all surprised by this!]

On the shift

My 1st question to Gracie was related to his response in a 2018 interview which he stated, “if they shifted me like they do today I would have hit four hundred.” Grace looked down at the table in mock anger that I had brought it up, then stared me straight in the eyes “No, no, no... I would have hit FOUR SEVENTY!” He continued to explain, “With my ability to spread (the ball), it would not be wise to shift on me.” As a lefty, Mark Grace certainly understand the impact the modern shift has had on left handed batters but recalls not seeing much of this defensive strategy in his time, or even before. ”I remember they shifted on Stargell, the Stargell-shift....and we shifted Bonds but that was it.”

Bunting on the shift

Of course, I wanted to know if Mark Grace would have bunted on the shift, and if that is the right offensive strategy to approach with the modern shift. “A lot of players in my day would bunt” to beat the modern shift, especially the guys who were known for bunting regardless. Guys like Cliff Floyd who Gracie labeled a “scary bunter.” He went on to tell me that the “bunt is slowly but surely a forgotten play, much like the hit and run.” Don Baylor, who Gracie explained “fucking hated double plays,” would put on a hit and run five times a game, much like Don Zimmer.

Perspective on launch angle.

”Until 2 or 3 years ago I had never heard of it.” Grace explained after Jack asked for his opinion on the new swing craze sweeping every team’s analytics departments. As for his opinion on J.D. Martinez’s successes with launch angle Grace has this to say: “There are very few guys who can get into their late 20’s and revamp their swing.” He adds, “if you’re in the majors you’re probably a good hitter... They don’t bring up shitty hitters.”

Grace briefly shifted the topic to Nick Ahmed. “Nick got here with his glove... He is very stubborn, but that’s OKL he was convinced his swing was right, and you were wrong.” He then reminisced how he felt working with Nick in the minors after watching him take BP. Paraphrasing a bit: “This is going to be a challenge!” Mark estimated Nick was batting .135 in AA when Gracie first saw him, Ahmed then went on a hot streak and ended the season around .211, so it was decided he would be promoted to Reno the next season. There, Ahmed played with Didi Gregorious and it was decided that Ahmed would play 2b and Didi would play SS. According to Grace, after five days Didi Gregorious was so impressed with Ahmed’s glove, he went to management and said he would play second so Nick could play short. Laughing, Gracie exclaimed, “And Didi Gregorious is a pretty fucking good short stop!”

Back on launch angles, Grace said: “I don’t agree with cloning hitters. Your swing is your swing by the time you get here”. J.D. being the exception once again mentioned by Grace. For every J.D. Martinez he says, there are at least 300 guys who cannot change their swing. So, we asked, was former hitting strategist Robert Van Scoyoc trying to clone hitters in AZ? ”I don’t know,” Grace quickly responded. Bringing up both fists toward each other in front of his chest, he explained that Magadan and Van Scoyoc “were like this” and that his friend Magadan was more a “get on top of the ball, hit line drives” hitting coach.

St. Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

On offensive advanced stats.

During his time as an MLB hitting coach the scouting reports were thicc. We are taking phone-book size manuals - holding his fingers apart to show how big the scouting reports were - on everything the opposing pitchers would throw in every count, to every type of hitter, in any and all situations. According to Grace, the hitters want it. He shared a story about a time when a player followed the phone book and assumed on a 3-2 count the pitcher was absolutely going to throw a slider - even though there was still a 27% chance he would not. The player struck out looking at a fastball straight down the middle. The player returned to the dugout fuming and cursing. Once the player calmed down, Mark explained to him that “You have to be in the dugout watching this shit... These are tendencies not guarantees.”

During his time as an MLB broadcaster Mark Grace had this to say, “High WAR means he is a really good player and low war means he is not really good. I set the advance stats off to the side when they hand them to me in the booth”. He went on to say how the “metrics have passed me by...there is so much extreme’s grueling”.

Late in his career he admitted to watching video along with Tony Gwynn who “was a big video guy,” but guys like “Larry Walker never watched any video”. He says players now a days can’t wait to get into the video room to watch their swings. When he played with Schilling he explained the only advance stats Curt would use was the lineup card. “He would look for guys in the lineup who did not walk.” Those where the guys Curt could throw anything to, because those guys were free swingers. However, the guys in the lineup who took walks Curt knew he had to throw strikes to in order to get those guys out. This was the extent of advance stats to Mark Grace 13 years into his career - and that was all guys like Curt Schilling needed.

What makes a good at bat?

He asked Jack and I this question, and tells us there is no right or wrong answer to it. Jack responds with “Going up there with a plan and executing it by not swinging at the pitches you don’t want to swing at,” while I went with, “running up the pitch count, being productive by either getting on base or moving the runner.” For Grace it’s simpler than that. “Were my swings on strikes and were my takes balls? If so, then I had a good at bat; if not, then it was not a good at bat, no matter the outcome.” He threw the result part out of the equation, entirely - no matter if he blooped a single, flied out to right, or drove a runner home.

On pitch recognition, and experience vs ability

Having been blessed with excellent vision, even in the minors Gracie felt like his pitch recognition was good and that “It’s a very important part of being a hitter, seeing the pitch for what it is.” He relied on his instincts most of the time and explains “You either have them or not....I was a feel-type player, I watched the pitcher.” He went on to say, “A pitcher will tell you what pitch he is feeling sexy about, watch what he throws early in the game on a 2-2 count.” He added, “On a 2-2 he will throw his feel good pitch, if it’s a fastball he is feeling strong. If it’s a slider.....that’s what I would throw.”

If you don’t have experience or ability Grace suggests watching a comparable hitter. Watch how the league pitches to that hitter because “they will pitch to you the same way.” Andy Van Slyke was Grace’s comparable hitter, “I’d watch Tom Browning or John Smoltz pitch to Van Slyke and I’ll be dipped in shit, they pitched me the same way.” Hitting is simple, according to Gracie you just have to watch. But even if that was not enough he learned more from pitchers about hitting, than he did from other hitters - who he explained “are dumb as fuck”!

On un-written rules.

We jumped right into the Madison Bumgarner/Max Muncy dust-up that occurred recently when MadBum took exception to his perception that Muncy had pimped the home run. “That’s bullshit on Bumgarner. Muncy did not do anything wrong.” I followed up by asking if he felt MadBum was being over-sensitive to which he responded with, “Did you see Mad Bum hitting that home run a few years ago in the playoffs? Pimped the shit out of it.“ Grace went onto explain that he respects MadBum as a player and he makes Grace happy to be retired. But he feels like MadBum is a throw back to “guys in my era... Where this is part of his persona, like he’s a big bully.”

On his superstitions.

In the batter’s box the routine was the same: three over the shoulder swings with each hand, then donut on - five normal swings, donut off - five more swings. Then take a knee and watch. Defensively, throwing to infielders before innings would go 3rd base, short stop, and 2nd base. If they gave up a run or more he would start with someone else before the next inning. There are a million ways to get to Wrigley so if they won, Gracie would take the same way to the ballpark the next day. If they lost he would never take that way again. If it was a bad loss he would walk home with the masses, “I’m leaving my car here.”

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

On Diamondbacks fans - then and now.

”When I got here (in 01) baseball was still new. It started in 98 and they were bad, 99 they won, 2000 they had a good run then in 2001 I came on. Overall it was a good 3-4 year run.” Things were still new, fresh and the team was good. “The place was poppin’ if you can remember. The establishments outside of Chase field were doing good.” What about now? “Or even 2-3 years ago. By mid-August fans will decide if the team is good... then they show up.” Are the fans too scared to get loud? “They do when the ‘make some noise’ sign says to.” We erupt in laughter. Grace went on to say that here there is ”a core of hardcore fans, the rest...the rest of the people need to be convinced.”

How do you put butts in the seats?

Grace said he doesn’t feel the team is not trying with public relations, cheap tickets and cheaper concessions to get bigger crowds. But if you ask him the team could start with more billboards and commercials that feature players. Other teams in the league do; for example, “Colorado has great commercials.” Fans in other cities go because “It’s a party - ugh, is there a baseball game going on?. One thing you see in Wrigley, Fenway, Yankee stadium, Giants, Dodger stadium is more female fans. Here at Chase they are wearing the other team’s jersey.” General Manager Mark Grace suggested reaching out to the female fans base, perhaps with player commercials and more billboards. He stated a need to market the players and besides, “players like seeing themselves on TV... But if I knew the answer, I’d be making more money.”

On the condition of Chase Field.

Is it a problem? “Not for me, and as a player I loved it.” He said he understood the reasoning for removing the BOBsod and adding the turf - the team could not keep the grass healthy. The ballpark he said is “much better with the roof and panels open. Domes are stale.” He estimates that if the team were to stay they would need to cut capacity down to 35-40 thousand seats. With regard to the new turf, he said, ”It’s slower than the natural surface and it will be for about 3 years.”

His favorite job post playing career.

”Having worked with one of the greatest broadcasters Thom Brennaman.....had a great time working with Daren Sutton. We are still friends, it wasn’t like Mario and Rod in Detroit or anything like that. I still get satisfaction from my minor league coaching days. These guys are sponges, and they had no idea who I was.” He says of watching the players he had coached in the minors, on TV in the majors, “There’s my thumbprint on them, but it’s one of many thumbprints.”

After just over an hour of talking we ended the interview and Grace left our lunchroom table to sit with Brandon Webb and Todd Walsh. I want to thank Mark once again for his time and also the D-backs communications department for letting me in the ballpark. We hope to do it again.