The Game within the Game
In 1987 John Holway and I published a book titled The Pitcher. It was grandiosely and grotesquely subtitled “The Ultimate Compendium of Pitching Lore: Featuring Flakes and Fruitcakes, Wildmen and Control Artists, Strategies, Deliveries, Statistics, and More.” The book thus appeared to offer a rollicking ride through baseball history, a successor of sorts to my own execrable debut book from 1974, A Century of Baseball Lore. But the current ascendancy of pitching, highlighted wonderfully by Tyler Kepner last week in “Now Pitchers Have the Power,” [http://goo.gl/oklQe7] prompted me to take another look at this tattered old tome–much of it, gratifyingly to me, not half bad. Below, the introductory essay; remember this is from 1987 except for bracketed remarks.
“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” —Warren Spahn
Viewed from the bleachers, baseball can seem child’s play, simple, clear, and sweetly pure of intent. Throw and catch, hit and run—these are things we can do (or once could) and, we may flatter ourselves, not so much worse than those fellows down there. The pitcher slings the ball toward the catcher; the batter swings to intercept it; the fielders, coiled, await the outcome. Broad expanses of green and brown frame the players as they spring into motion at the crack of the bat. The brilliantly white ball soars or bounds where it will, the batter takes his base or is denied it—and inning after inning, game after game, year after year, the ceremony is reenacted. Harmony. Grace. Justice.
Baseball is not really so routine of course, or we would not care about it as intensely as we do. Is there a single action in all of sport more difficult than hitting a pitched ball, or one more intricate than pitching to a batter? What can appear more natural yet be more practiced than catching a fly ball? The beauty of baseball, its sustaining satisfaction, is that it is both simple and complex, slow and sudden, predictable and surprising—a tangle of paradoxes that, like art, like life, reveals itself only by degrees. The astute fan may weigh the merits of a sacrifice bunt or a steal of third base; after much study he may even solve an age-old enigma; yet the essential mystery of baseball—what goes on between pitcher and batter—remains forever hidden in plain sight.
We enter the national pastime’s labyrinth of deception with the opening words of the official rules: “Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players….” While basketball may be a game of five against five, and football, of eleven against eleven, no part of a baseball game pits nine men against nine. One might as well describe the sport as a free-for-all matching two rosters of twenty-five players each. In fact, baseball is a joint enterprise before the game’s first pitch and after its last one, and at precious few points in between.
As a team game, baseball is an aggregate of individual games played for individual goals. It may be seen as the lonely struggle of one man, the batter, to overcome nine opponents. Or, if we consider the seven men in the field to be of no concern if the batter cannot first hit the ball, the conflict narrows to one against two, hitter against the battery. But even in this game within the game, the catcher plays a passive role: his wisdom may direct the battery attack, but little that he does with the ball can set the larger game in motion. And so baseball’s conflict telescopes further, to the primal combat of pitcher and batter, one against one.
Locked in concentration, the antagonists devise their strategies, ready their weapons, and face each other across the odd distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. The batter is armed with a tapered club, ideally of white ash, up to 42 inches long and of unlimited weight (although approximately 2 pounds is the current standard), with a diameter of 2.75 inches at its widest point. The pitcher grips a cowhide-covered sphere fashioned from layers of tightly wound woolen yarn, rubber, and at the center, composition cork; it weighs 5.25 ounces and is of a diameter slightly greater than that of the bat. He must apply speed, spin, and guile to the ball while directing it over (or tantalizingly close to) a plate 17 inches wide, within a vertical strike zone of 2 to 3.5 feet depending upon the height and stance of the batter and the predilection of the umpire.
A good major-league fastball, traveling 90 miles per hour, will traverse the 55 to 56 feet between the pitcher’s point of release and the heart of home plate in 0.42 seconds. Within the first 0.22 seconds after the ball leaves the hand, the batter must pick up the flight of the pitch, identify it by its rotation, predict its location, and decide whether to swing or not. He will need the remaining 0.20 seconds to stride, rotate his hips, and apply torque to the bat through the muscles at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. To drive the ball into fair territory, he must meet it within an arc of 15 degrees in front of or behind the point at which the bat is perpendicular to the path of the ball—a space of about 2 feet, through which the good major-league fastball will pass in 15 thousandths of a second.
Even if he connects squarely, however, he has little control over where his hit will go. Because both the ball and the bat are round at the point of impact, the batter cannot direct and manipulate the ball as golfers or tennis players, with their flat-surfaced clubs and racquets, can. Thus, there exists the phenomenon of the hard-hit out, which any batter will tell you is not compensated for by an equal number of scratch hits; and thus, we define the successful hitter as one who fails only seven times in ten. The major-league pitcher is a formidable foe, so formidable that only four batters in the 20th century—Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, and Babe Ruth—have ever been his equal, reaching base as often as they were retired, for even a single season. [I will add here that in the 19th century, John McGraw, Hugh Duffy, Ed Delahanty, Joe Kelley, and Billy Hamilton did it; and in the 21st century Barry Bonds did it four times, with an other-worldly peak of .609 in 2004.]
Pitcher and batter are constantly looking for some key to obtaining momentary advantage. The batter will alter his stance, his location in the box, his grip; the pitcher will change his speeds, his selection of pitches, his delivery. Through this series of adjustments, the game within the game stays in traditional balance, with the average major-league hitter batting between .250 and .275 and the average major-league hurler yielding 3.50 to 4.00 runs per nine innings. (These norms are a matter of practice, not a product of physical law. The earned run average for all play from 1876-1986 is 3.66, and the batting average is .268.) [At this moment in 2014, the MLB ERA is 3.79 and the BA is .251.]
But sometimes the combatants’ adjustments are not enough to prevent the long struggle from tilting radically in favor of one or the other, as it did for the hitter in 1930 and for the pitcher in 1968. At such moments, just as the fight seems a mortal mismatch and the public outcry is at its greatest, strings are pulled from above the fray and a deus ex machina—in the form of a designated hitter, a redefined strike zone, a livened or deadened ball—restores equilibrium. The owners and rules makers know that the object of the year-in, year-out competition between pitcher and batter must be, not final victory, but eternal unresolved conflict if the fans are to maintain interest and profits are to be made. These handicappers will provide the balance between offense and defense that they imagine the public demands. If the customer clamors for a bushel of .350 hitters, he may have them. More home runs? As many as he would like.
Providing the hitter with an advantage requires tinkering with the game, which can be and has been done. But if you want more low-scoring classics, no problem: Just leave the rules and the ball alone for a generation and the .300 hitter will go the way of the dinosaur. Left unfettered, pitching is an irresistible force and will prevail. The progress of baseball from a boys’ game of the 1830s to the national pastime and passion of today is the product of, on the one hand, a steady rise in pitching skill, fueled by advances in physiology, training, and technique; and, on the other hand, the repeated restraints placed upon that rise. These shackles permit hitters, dependent as they are on reaction time and electrical impulses to the brain, the chance to reestablish their former efficiency, thus maintaining the soothing illusion that, of all things, baseball, at least, remains the same.
But baseball has changed, and the steady onslaught of pitching has changed it most.