Showing posts with label Baseball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baseball. Show all posts

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!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Maybe There is Hope

Why?  Because baseball continues to reflect and give voice to the American Dream.  Work hard, have talent, succeed, in spite of ethnicity or humble beginnings.  It stands as a bulwark against the tide of dystopian xenophobia promoted by no less than the President of the United States.  It is rule based and while it has succumbed to instant replay challenges, pitch clocks, and exotic statistical metrics, it has essentially changed to remain the same.

There used to be a similar familiarity about the checks and balances of our three branches of government, comforting as a citizen, but we now have a disrupter in the White House, someone who has no sense of history, a disdain for culture, and who measures everything in clicks, sound bites, and winning and losing.  And now he is set to ignore an equal branch of government, Congress, and apparently Republicans there are willing to be accomplices, their sacred vow “to affirm support for the Constitution” relegated to mere hollow words.  If baseball was played this way, players might as well refuse to return to the dugout after strike three is called, saying the people want to see hitting, so let’s make it 4 or 5 strikes before one is called out.  Just tweet it and it shall be.

The recent political developments would normally envelop my blog with multiple entries, as well as more on gun control because of the recent tragic Colorado school shooting, However,with the publication of my book, Waiting for Someone to Explain It, I vowed it would serve as a cathartic statement on such topics, thus allowing my writing life to return to some kind of new normalcy as well.

“As American as apple pie” frequently gets conflated with baseball.  The baseball of my youth was mostly all white players with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in the National League in 1947 and Larry Doby the American League a few months later.  As an adult I once sat next to Roy Campanella  (who came up to the Dodgers the year after Robinson) at a luncheon; it was sometime in the 1980s.  He was in a wheel chair because of the automobile accident that ended his playing years.  We briefly talked about the old days, not about race, but about baseball.  He was interested in my childhood dreams of pitching but of course I tried to turn the discussion to him, but he was reticent in that regard, I think there was an inherent sadness about missing his buddies, and his last years in baseball. After Jackie Robinson he was the second black player inducted into the Hall of Fame.  I remember his humanity and putting up with me and my questions.

I think of him from time to time especially as the landscape of American baseball changes to reflect our immigrant heritage.  It is truly an international sport and it is no more apparent than here in the United States.  One wonders, if baseball could change and still be the great sport of yesteryear, why not America?  Isn’t that what it means to “make America great?”

And it is nowhere more apparent than in the Miami Marlins’ farm system.  As the Marlins’ CEO (and one of my favorite Yankees of my adult life) Derek Jeter said: "We want Miami to be the destination for top international talent.  This organization should reflect the diversity of the South Florida community."  And indeed it does.

Although we’ve already seen a few Jupiter Hammerheads’ games this season, the Marlins’ Class A+ team in Jupiter, this was the first opportunity to write about one and although Wednesday night’s game involved dropping a 5-1 decision to the St. Lucie Mets, it was notable in other ways.

The first thing that caught my eye after the singing of the National Anthem was the image of the American flag in the background with the Hammerhead’s pitcher, Edward Cabrera, standing in the foreground waiting for the sign.  

He joins the ranks of players from the Dominican Republic, boasting probably more professional baseball players per capita than any place on earth.  We’ve truly, rightfully assimilated the best of the best on the field.  We just need to do so as a nation of citizens.

I was looking forward to seeing him pitch; a highly touted, skinny 6’4” ballplayer who can routinely throw in the high 90s.  His young, 21 year-old body still has time to fill out and will make him even more formidable.   During his last start he had struck out 13 and now has more than 20 scoreless innings to go along with his 1.50 ERA.  While he pitched well for 2 innings (scoreless, and 2 K’s), apparently he had a fingernail problem and had to leave the game.  But one sees how he gets his speed from his whip like delivery.  Edward Cabrera is a player to watch for MLB action, or at least moving up a notch in the minors this year.

He was replaced by Daniel Castano, a lefty who caught my fancy, my being a lefty with baseball dreams which never went beyond my teenage years.  When the Miami Marlins traded away Marcell Ozuna, they got three highly ranked minor leaguers and sort of as an afterthought the left-handed pitcher Castano was thrown in.  He’s labored in the minors but has good control.  His low base on ball to strike out ratio is an attribute of a more mature pitcher.

In five innings he allowed five hits and four runs, although two were unearned, and he struck out five. His ERA is still around 4.00, but his mechanics were powerful, mustering up speed and good breaking stuff.  He was at the low end of the draft (picked in the 19th round) and he is one of the “old guys” on the team at the age of 25.  He’s listed at 6’4” but seems smaller as at 230 lbs he is stocky.  Somehow I think this guy has some chance of making the majors.  Here he is in action:

But that is not the end of the multicultural story.  The shortstop Jose Devers, only 19 years old, is another Dominican.  Disappointingly, my New York Yankees traded him to the Marlins.  He is now one of the high ranking shortstops in the minors, hitting around .370.  If the name sounds familiar, he’s the cousin of Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.  How cool would that have been if the NYY held on to him for the Sox / NYY rivalry?  During Wednesday night’s game he went 2 for 4. 

Also on the team is the highly touted 22 year old Cuban Victor Victor Mesa who the Marlins signed for about $5 million, along with his 17-year-old brother, Victor Mesa, Jr. for $1 million. To my knowledge, the latter is yet to play minor league ball, but his older brother looks like he has the right stuff.  They’re sons of the famous Cuban baseball player – you guessed the name, Victor Mesa.  Here’s Victor Victor at bat:

Finally that game was the first rehab assignment for one of the Marlin’s regulars, Garrett Cooper, who unfortunately made a bush league error playing left field and seemed to have difficulty getting back into the grove, but the last I looked he was batting over .500 so I can only assume he’ll be joining the parent club soon.

It was one of those special Florida nights, a cool breeze and on the field the kind of multiculturalism which is to be embraced, not feared.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Heaney Delivers

Happy to hear that my 2013 pick for a pitcher destined for the major leagues, Andrew Heaney, threw a 1 hit gem for the LAA last night.  Wow.

When I saw him in pitch for the Marlin’s Class A+ minor league team in June 2013 I said he is a quality lefty and already has great control. His fast ball was clocking at 93 maximum, usually in the low 90s, but he was working the ball mostly at the knees.  His off-speed pitch, either a cutter or a curveball was in the low 80s.   I went on to say he follows another famous lefty Jupiter Hammerhead alumnus, Cliff Lee, who pitched here in 2001. He too relies on control -- and is about the same size as Andrew Heaney, who's listed at 6-2 and 190. But he looks much thinner than that and needs to work on building himself to his advertised weight for stamina and to further develop his off speed pitches.  I'll go out on a limb and predict he will make the majors in 1-2 years.

Well the stamina is there as he threw 116 pitches yesterday, and the pinpoint control as well, 81 of those for strikes.  His fastball was at 95mph, even in the 9th inning, mixing with the same curve I saw back then and with an effective change up.  He’s now the complete package.

Added bonus last night, it was his first complete game as a professional, recording all 27 outs on his 27th birthday!

Attaway to go Andrew. And I’ll be a professional scout yet!

Monday, April 23, 2018

All is Right With the World – Another Season of Baseball

Roger Dean Stadium, home to the Jupiter Hammerheads, the Marlins affiliate, and the Palm Beach Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, recently commenced its Advanced Class A season.  Last week we saw the Hammerheads take on the Lakeland Tigers, winning the game 6-2.  Here’s the exciting part, as of this date the Hammerheads have jumped off to a 14-3 record.  The Marlins have some real talent in their minor league system.

That night Dan Straily pitched for the Hammerheads.  He’s on a rehab assignment with a right forearm strain from the Marlins and he did a credible job allowing only 1 run in 5 innings with 5 strikeouts.  He’s pitching another rehab game in AA and probably with rejoin the Marlins if that goes well.

A good sign for the Marlins’ future: the five pitchers with the most innings pitched on the Hammerheads are averaging a not too shabby 1.15 WHIP.

Their hitting is strong with three players in the middle infield hitting more than .300 to date,

                                                        John Silviano (.333, 3HR)

                                                         Joe Dunand (.328, 2HR)

                                                      Riley Mahan (.304, 2HR)

So, all is right with the world right now with baseball underway both in the majors and the minors.  I’ve always said that I enjoy our minor league games even more, sitting right behind 3rd base each Weds. night as “Silver Sluggers,” the cost of a ticket, FOR THE ENTIRE SEASON of Weds. night games, 30 bucks which includes a hot dog and a soda!  Try to beat that at any ballpark.  Maybe that would cover a couple of beers at Yankee stadium.

Only sad part of the night was former First Lady, Barbara Bush, had just passed away with the Flag at half mast and a tender rendition of the National Anthem played on a wind instrument.

Looking forward to the rest of the season, and following the Hammerheads and the Cards!