Bill Ripken played 12 seasons in the major leagues, seven with the Orioles alongside his brother, Cal Ripken Jr. In 1987, the Ripkens made baseball history when they played under their father, Cal Ripken Sr., who was the Orioles’ manager.
Ripken is a commentator on MLB Network and, along with his brother, runs Ripken Baseball, which owns the Aberdeen IronBirds. The brothers also founded the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.
Ripken has written a book, “State of Play: The Old School Guide to New School Baseball,” published by Diversion Books. He discusses what’s right and wrong with today’s game.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: Do you think the game is as much fun for you and fans as it was when you played in the 1980s and 1990s?
Answer: “It’s still a great game, though it’s taken a few hits with the amount of strikeouts … There’s still strong similarities [between] the successful teams of today [and] the successful teams of the past. I don’t think the game has changed as much as others have pointed out.
“The error columns in the boxscore still count. The teams that make less errors than the other teams win 60 percent of the games, and if you win 60 percent of your games over 162, you win 100 games and you go to the playoffs every single year. The simple parts of the game that worked today worked in yesteryear and will continue to work.”
Q: Why do you think the game isn’t as popular as when you and I were growing up?
A: “In the book, I say, ‘Just because someone stands on a soapbox and says it over and over again doesn’t make it true.’ We seem to stand on a soapbox in society and say, ‘Today’s youth can’t pay attention. Their attention span is short.’
“I think the more that we keep saying it, whether there’s a little truth to it or not, people are going to start buying into it and going with it. I still believe that this in its purest form is the best sport that we have and … attendance is down a little bit. I can’t put my finger on it 100 percent, and I don’t think it needs major drastic things, but I could be wrong because they seem to try to tweak little things to try and create attention, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily working right now.”
Q: You write a lot in the book about terms we hear a lot, launch angle, pitch framing and spin rate. Are they basically useless to the average fan?
A: [Laughs] “I think so. Launch angle is real. We need to understand the definition. It’s the ball coming off the bat and when somebody starts using, ‘launch angle, launch angle, launch angle,’ and when you’re watching a game, the replay of a home run will be played from the side, and somebody in the TV booth is watching the swing, and the ball hasn’t been hit, and they say, ‘Wow, look at that launch angle.’
“No, the launch angle hasn’t been created, yet. The assumption or the misinformation or the misdiagnosis of some of these terms has gotten extremely carried away. It should have been named ‘exit angle’ because then everybody would have a better understanding of what launch angle actually was.
“The other catchphrase that’s used in broadcasts is: ‘He worked hard in the offseason to improve his launch angle.’ Did he improve it by making it go higher or lower? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all number … for WAR. There’s not a one-size-fits-all launch angle that everybody should strive for because everybody’s different in the game.”
Q: As an analyst, do you use WAR or OPS? Do you find any of it useful for yourself?
A: “I can use OPS because it’s on-base percentage plus slugging. I’m OK with that because both of those numbers are real. You will not find me using OPS+ because the plus means adjusted. Any term that’s adjusted, created, weighted means they’re not real. There’s some sort of fabrication going on so I choose not to use those.
“WAR means very little to me. I don’t need a number assigned to Mike Trout to know that he’s the best player in the game.”
Q: Analytic people in baseball often say that so-called counting stats — hits, RBIs, wins are of no use to them. Are they of no use to you?
A: “No, if I want a 3-4 combination in my lineup, and I set the benchmarks, hitting .300, hit 30 home runs and drive in 100, it’s pretty fair to say, ‘This dude is who I want hitting in the middle of the order.’
“I believe Milwaukee and I believe the Angels have wasted the talents of [Christian] Yelich and Trout by hitting them in the two spot as much as they have when you have more opportunities to do damage if you hit them in the 3-spot, and put somebody with an average on-base percentage in front of them.
“If you hit a guy third and have two guys to hit in front of you in the first inning alone, your chances to hit in the first inning alone with a man on base completely outweigh the 15 extra plate appearances you might get in the season [batting second] … The Washington Nationals won the World Series because their 3-4 hitters were better than everybody else. I believe the Washington Nationals gave us a nice glimpse into a little bit of throwback baseball where your 3-4 hitters are dominant and your starting pitchers went out there and pitched.”
Q: What would your father have thought about today’s game? Would there have been a place in the game for Cal Ripken Sr.?
A: “Senior would not have diplomacy right now when it came to a lot of these thought processes. The thought processes by a lot of the new school branches of the team are throwing out the connotation that the old school guys just threw the bats and balls out on the field and said, ‘Go get ‘em.’
“That’s never been the case. Old school guys always used numbers. The old school guys always used information available to him to create the plan to go forward. The innuendoes and the assumption that old school baseball people aren’t analytical or don’t use numbers or information is just 100 percent false.”
Q: A lot of teams have hired coaches from colleges and high schools that haven’t played professionally. Is this a dangerous trend?
A: “If you keep enough baseball people around, then it’s going to be OK, but if you weed out too many people and you don’t have the baseball part of it in the mix, you’re going to be missing something badly. When I think about the old school people that are still in the game, they can learn more baseball, they can learn more information, they can get more information, and that’s a good thing.
“The new school guys that are in the game have not ever experienced what the old school baseball guy has. The new school guy can continually get smarter by the numbers. He can never get the experience and the understanding that the old school guy already has.
“If you surround yourself with a bunch of people that have never played, and you get rid of all the people who have played and experienced things, you’re going to set yourself up for a little bit of failure.”
Q: You have to follow all teams in your job at MLB Network, but you’re a former Oriole and still live in Maryland. What do you think of Mike Elias’ rebuild?
A: “I guess the beginning of it was last June when you think about the draft of [Adley] Rutschman. You had the No. 1 pick, and you went out there and got this guy that’s a pretty good catcher, highly thought of throughout baseball.
“Houston, in all their thought of being the new school, and they did things differently — and we don’t even need to go into the trash can banging because that was definitely done differently — but as far as their intellect goes, Houston wasn’t built any different than any other World Series team that’s gone to multiple World Series in the past 25 years.
“Rutschman’s the No. 1 start of the rebuild. June rolls around this year, you cannot miss on the draft. You’ve got to get another piece that’s going to get up to the big leagues. The next year after that, you better get another one, and you’ve got to find some ancillary picks that’s not your first-round pick that you can build around and have a core because I don’t think that baseball’s changed in that regard because in the last 25 years, all the teams are kind of constructed the same way.”