Monday, July 1, 2019

The Pitch Captures the Essence of the Game

Everything you wanted to know about pitching but were afraid to ask: Tyler Kepner’s K; A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches

My hard cover collection of books is mostly by novelists and short-story writers I have admired over the years as well as hard-to-toss gems from my years as a publisher and even some reaching back into my college days. 

So, it was unusual for me to spend the 20 bucks or so for a baseball book, but I did so as it addresses the heart of the game, pitching, and as a former sandlot pitcher in my salad days, a crafty lefty as I thought of myself, using “’junk” pitches to get guys out who were accustomed to seeing only fast balls from my contemporaries, I thought this book would be ideal to feed boyhood fantasies.  Having played the game adds to the appreciation of what (I think, but I’m prejudiced) is the most perfect game invented, mirroring the game of life itself.

I liked the way Tyler Kepner describes his history, devoting “a chapter apiece to the fastball, the curveball, the sinker, the slider, the cutter, the changeup, the splitter, the screwball, the knuckleball and the spitball.”  Finally I thought to myself, here is a book about baseball from the inside, not just players recollecting about the old days, but much about strategy and the execution of these pitches. 

I threw some of them myself, although back then, and I’m talking the 1950’s, we didn’t have the variety of names for all of them and when I was throwing my fastball (which given my size was not very fast), it was with a hope I could place it accurately.  Mostly, I relied on a curve ball, slider and the little thrown and understood screwball.

Kepner does not cover the natural movement of a lefty’s fastball.  Lefty pitchers simply have more movement on their fastballs away from right handed hitters, although he does acknowledge that “because lefties are harder to find, they tend to get more chances to stick….Lefty relievers invariably need a breaking ball that moves away from a lefty hitter; once they have that to go with a fastball, there’s usually little need for a third pitch.”  Well I did need a #3 and my screwball was simply a more exaggerated variation off my fastball, at a slower speed and a bigger break.  In effect it was my changeup.  My bread and butter pitch to right-hander hitters, the big decision being when and how often in a batter’s pitch count to throw it.

One thing that adequately comes across in Kepner’s book is one of the reasons I could never move beyond high school with my pitching skills.  The bigger you are, the harder you could throw and generally the larger your hands. 

Small-in-stature pitchers were and are a rarity. No wonder my idol as a kid was 5’6” Bobby Shantz who played for a number of teams in the 50’s and 60’s, including the NY Yankees.  He pitched with guile and a great curve ball and earned the MVP award in 1952, when I started to follow him, with 24 wins.  He ended his career with a 3.38 ERA which, today, would get you a $10 million a year contract over multi years.  Bobby never saw that kind of $$ and Kepner’s book doesn’t mention him although he does address the size issue and, not surprisingly, under the screwball chapter.

Left hander Daniel Ray Herrera of the Reds “made 131 appearances from 2008 to 2011, and without the screwball, he would have made none.  He used it because he could not throw a changeup and it distinguished him just enough to give him his modest career.  Herrera’s quirky profile fit the pitch: 5 foot 6, and at the time of his debut, no pitcher had been shorter in more than 50 years,” perhaps a veiled reference to Shantz.

Of course, he can’t cover everyone, and that is not why I was slightly disappointed by this book.  Maybe I was expecting too much, an easy to follow and interesting narrative of these ten pitches, how they’re thrown, and the strategy of throwing them when they are thrown.  Kepner does address these issues, but in an encyclopedic, almost academic way.  After all he interviewed some 300 people and this book is distilled from those interviews, almost chaotically, and a little repetitiously I thought.  It was nice to hear the inside stories of so many of the pitchers I admired over the years, but this book often fails to be a coherent narrative.  Sometimes it reads more like a dissertation without the footnotes.

Nonetheless, being so familiar with the game itself, there were revelatory elements.  What especially stood out is the “hand me down” nature of throwing these pitches, how one generation passed on the skill to others.  And that is part of the mystery of pitching as well; each pitcher modifies these pitches to fit their unique hands, delivery, and to compliment their other pitches.  No pitcher throws all ten and few throw and hold the pitch the exact same way.   This is why it’s an art as much as a science.

All pitchers though in the majors need some kind of fast ball even if it is “only” in the high 80 mph range, to make their other bread and butter pitches more effective.   I used to experiment with fork balls, splitters but my hands were just too small to hold those pitches properly.  This comes through so clearly in Kepner’s account:  if you want to pitch in the big leagues, throwing hard and having large hands are clear advantages. 

There are anecdotes galore in this book, a gold mine of information, but trying to piece them altogether into the narrative I had expected was frustrating.  Still, I now have it as a reference work. Play ball!