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Old-school managing still matters to 51s’ Backman

It looks like a tornado inside a rainbow. There are long, colorful lines running together across the page and, at certain points, a red funnel signals trouble.

That’s the hot zone for a hitter, where he places most balls.

This is scouting in 2015.

This is a really important book to Wally Backman.

He’s not a big shift guy, not obsessive over a defensive strategy that has become so commonplace throughout the game that we no longer blink when a second baseman fields a ball in right field and tosses to first for the out.

We no longer are amazed by the extreme.

Backman is still old-school enough to prefer a mix of metrics and instinct, the 51s manager who should be running the Miami Marlins right now but isn’t because owner Jeffrey Loria is a bigger lunatic than we ever imagined, having recently moved his general manager (Dan Jennings) from the press box to the dugout.

Loria’s new-old guy is 0-4 and already took the blame for losing a game by choosing a pitching matchup that made sense to no one with a pulse.

It resulted in a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning.

Yeah. This has a great chance of working in Miami.

But when he finally makes the jump and receives the opportunity he deserves as a major league manager, Backman will still trust the book.

“I believe in what it tells me,” he said.

The 51s on Thursday night opened a four-game series against the Oklahoma City Dodgers at Cashman Field, matching two of the best teams in the Pacific Coast League and yet presenting Backman an opponent he didn’t believe would lead to Las Vegas shifting much.

He is more concerned on whether a hitter pulls the ball than realigning his defense to blanket one side of the field or another, and within his book of colored lines and red funnels, you might find more than 500 at-bats of data on any opposing player the 51s face this season.

It’s a virtual almanac of information.

This is baseball today, charts and graphs and videotape, scouting so detailed that every inch of every step of an outfielder tracking a fly ball is analyzed.

His first step. His speed. His turn. His everything.

The technology is ridiculously precise, nothing like the times of an advance scout showing up to a playoff team’s clubhouse and offering a few notes about how the other team swings bats.

The advance scout is now a computer that can scrutinize a player’s entire skill set and probably tell you what he ate for breakfast each of the previous 365 days.

But all the facts and figures can prove a little much.

“I love video, but I hate the fact players have access to it all the time because I don’t think they know what they’re looking for,” Backman said before the 51s’ 11-6 victory over the Dodgers. “When you have players running down to look at their swing after every at-bat, trying to break things down mechanically, it gets into their head too much. They’re worried about too many things instead of just playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

“Sometimes, it’s just how a guy is pitched a certain at-bat. It’s still nine innings and 27 outs. It’s still about how you take the material given to you and how you use it the way it needs to be used on the field. Players aren’t robots. The best part about all of this is a mix of the computers and still having eyes on guys.”

It’s like his book, which players study before games and always have access to during them. There was a time when charts were instead hand signals, but the basic premise hasn’t changed: Understand a guy’s strengths and weaknesses and pitch him accordingly, which means don’t get sucked into the red funnel.

In one of his first public statements upon assuming the position as commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred suggested the game might consider eliminating shifts to help produce more offense. He relented quickly when fans pulled a Jeffrey Loria and lost their collective minds, which was the smart play.

Those who never prove capable of hitting to the opposite field don’t tend to stay around the majors for long, so to aid their inability to do something important by making things easier for them is foolish.

Progress, be it technological or strategic, shouldn’t be impeded.

But there is always a balance to strike.

“The computer might tell you a guy is 0-for-10 in his last three games and isn’t hot at the plate,” Backman said. “But it might not tell you he hit seven of those balls on the screws. So he’s not cold, but has just run into some bad luck. That’s where the eyeballs come in.”

Which means the book is really important, and old-school ways still matter.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on KRLV 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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