In the last 22 years the Draci Brno baseball team have lost the Czech Republic Extraliga championship title only twice. More than a ¼ of the way through the 2017 season, they have accumulated a 3.5 game lead with a record of 17-2.
Statistically the team has no clear standout talent and every outstanding stat seems to have a counterpoint. Their bullpen, on the whole, is doing exceptionally well sporting a cumulative 1.88 ERA. Scrolling through the numbers however, their strikeouts, a combined effort for 116, are very low.
At the plate, they’ve got six guys swinging .350 or better but their team run total is just 120, an average of 6/game. To some teams these are incredible numbers, for others they’re normal. EBSM sat down with the team’s head coach Arnošt Nesňal to learn what makes his club unbeatable.
Your team’s statistics aren’t any better than many in leagues across Europe yet you consistently win. What makes the difference?
With import players, all the Czech team pitching, on average, is better than last year. They are pushing the league ERA down by, on average, 1.00 point.
What makes our pitching special is we are always low on walks [45 on the season]. We are always looking for pitchers like, let’s say Wes Roemer. He’s not a strikeout guy but we like to play defense behind him. He makes us hussle during the ballgame and it’s more fun. We are a team sport, not based on individuals.
Some pitchers take care of batters themselves with strikeouts, others throw strikes that allow their defense to easily field them. It sounds like you’ve got the latter.
Is there something you do as a team to help improve the team’s average ERA?
We have already 19 games and we only have 119 strikouts. There are teams that have 160. Basically our pitchers have very, very few walks and we have good outfielders with good range. This makes our pitching so effective.
Defensively Brno is posting curve-setting numbers when it comes to averages. Their fielders are responsible for 505 of their 540 putout possibilities while keeping their error count at 25, nearly averaging just one a game. Considering how much more the defense is handling the ball than the average team, that’s a substantially low number.
Is there anyone having a standout season at the plate?
Basically I have 3-4 guys in the lineup right now that are really playing their game. There have great control and good mental approach. They are having good counts and being very consistent. Guys like Martin Schneider. He’s like a professional hitter and he’s above the crowd with his average. He’s not a typical Czech hitter. He likes working the count against better pitching.
Schneider is leading the league in batting with a .426 average. He’s hit 4 doubles, 3 triples and his first homerun of the season marked 500 on his career. He’s accumulated 17 RBIs over 54 plate appearances and struck out just 5 times.
Any clubhouse or bench guys, people making the difference between what the team does on skill versus what happens from the heart?
I think for us a key player, offensively, defensively, everything - even pitching too - is Martin Schneider. He’s like a fireman. When we need him in some games defensively, statistically we see the results.
We are a little bit weaker without him. He’s a great shortstop, closing games. He’s hitting over .400. He’s a power hitter.
I would tell him that he’s the guy that makes the difference between Draci being a very good team and being a great team.
How long has he been with you?
More than 10 years.
Does he bring the veteran wisdom to the clubhouse?
No, I would not say he’s the guy that’s cheering everybody up. He’s the guy that always shows up and performs solid – in the box, on the field, at the mound – he makes our team very compact and stronger. He leads by example.
Like any good utility player, comes in and quietly gets the job done?
I would not say he’s a quiet guy but he’s not the guy that makes jokes. He’s positive energy leading the team.
On the field Martin has 21 putouts and 40 assists. On the mound he’s pitched 2.0 innings accumulating a save and striking out 5 of the 8 batters he’s faced for a 0.00 ERA with a little help from the field.
How do you keep the team interested in competing when the competition can’t seem to play up to their level?
I think top teams in Extraliga right now, with all those import pitchers, are very good competition for us.
How are we motivated? We work hard is basically our way.
We take 100 extra swings during the week and basically enjoy the time at the field because, for us playing just for the win in one game it’s not motivating because we’ve won so many times.
Is the motivation more the love of the game and the opportunity to play then?
Yes, this is exactly what I will tell the guys because we are kind of getting in a little slump right now. They are winning but not playing well and we lost yesterday, to our biggest opponent Ostrava, and struggled a little bit.
Yes, this is what I’m trying to, every time, remind our players that we are not playing for the win that we are playing for enjoying being together at the ballpark and playing the game.
Are there team-building things you do off-site that help the guys bond?
We have about 70 games, including European cups, and for National team players its up to 90. It’s a pretty good season. We play only single games. We never play double headers. We spend about three months together.
We don’t spend much time off field as a team but, as a group, players might spend time together. Like, for example, today we’ll go to one of our players and help him to do some work at his house but that is not anything that is planned or managed. Our players are the closest friends for decades.
What is your average player age?
It’s tough to come up with an average age. The oldest player was born in 1973 and the youngest is probably like 18 years old.
So you bring guys up regularly as ready?
Yes, but there is no easy way to be an 18-year old player. Mentally, you have to enter the team first and then become a player. You need to show up, work hard, be proud to be part of the team, not like stepping in and pretending to be the top. There has to be some natural respect.
At 17-18 years old, they don’t have the maturity to play at our level. Maybe some players you put them in other clubs in the Extraliga they will do okay but in Draci it’s a different story. To be compared to players with professional experience, with national team experience on the highest level of baseball.
How many national team players do you have?
I think more than are not. All our young players are on the national team but in the U-groups. There are maybe five guys not on the adult national team, the rest are on the roster.
What is the biggest competition you’re preparing for this season?
We always prepare only for the championship series in September and then, on the way, there is the CEB European Cup, which we will host in June, but the primary goal for each season is to win the Extraliga championship.
Pointing to one thing, what keeps you champions year-after-year?
I would say it’s two things, respect and hard work.
In general. You see teams all the time blaming the umpires, being rude toward their own teammates. They look like lunatics sometimes you know what I mean? This is not our way.
Do you guys do community events as a team?
Yeah, this year we’ve already been to the children’s hospital.
We closely cooperate with the schools working with kids under six. We provide them each week one lesson of baseball and the kids love it.
Next week we will have Bruno Heroes Day at our stadium. We will invite people like firemen to a little thank you for helping the community. Athletes from other sports will be there too. The basketball team will be there, the hockey team.
We are trying to do those things but the main focus is baseball on the field.
On their face the numbers never lie but they could not tell us the whole truth. It took Nesňal's understanding of the Brno game to bring to light what was not apparent. He has found unconventional ways to make players successful and a big part of that process is their need to rely on one another between the lines. Baseball is a sport where the team and individual successes cannot exist in exile. It seems Nesňal has found a way to impart that wisdom through the core of his lineup.