Baseball: The hardest game

With all due respect to golf, I think baseball is the hardest game to play. To be good at, I mean. Pitching and hitting are at its core, and the science of both has become so complex, so drilled down as to become esoteric. If you doubt what I’m saying just listen to the dialog between the play-by-play announcer and the ‘analyst’ during a major league baseball game. (The analyst is always a former major league player who brings inside knowledge of the intricacies of the game, and the ‘game within the game,’ but more on that later.)

Back to pitching and hitting. The essence of baseball is for a player holding a wooden, cylindrical stick — the ”batter”–to strike a leather-bound spheroid thrown by a player of the opposing team in such a manner that it cannot be caught on the fly or stopped before the batter reaches a square bag 90 feet away. (This is an over simplification but will suffice for now. ) The thrower of the ball — called the pitcher — has the ‘catcher’ of his pitches and seven other persons strategically scattered around and behind him to catch the ball, thereby disqualifying the hitter from reaching the safety of the aforementioned square bag, called a ‘base.’ The hitter must not only merely hit the ball, but must hit it so it cannot be caught by any of the pitcher’s supporting teammates before it hits the ground or before one of the fielders retrieves the ball and throws it to a base before the batter arrives. Any one of these occurrences is considered an out. (For a more comprehensive treatise on the game of baseball, please enlist the help of an Internet search engine.)

If you are beginning to think that the batter has the deck stacked against him in this scenario, you are absolutely correct. That is why hitting a baseball so as to successfully reach a base a mere three out of ten times is considered extraordinary — the magic .300 batting average!

But wait! Things aren’t as easy for pitchers as it may seem. To help hitters attain a fair level of success, the pitcher must throw the baseball within a confined, specified area that ensures the hitter a reasonable opportunity to make contact with the ball. This is very appropriately called the ‘strike zone,’ which is a specified area of height, width and depth above ‘home plate,’ a house-shaped plate recessed into the ground that the pitched ball must be thrown above. To be considered a hittable pitch, the thrown ball can be no lower than the batter’s knees and no higher than his armpits. The batter gets three strikes — either he swings at the ball and misses or refuses to swing at the ball as it travels through the strike zone — before being called out. (Please don’t make me have to explain what ‘out’ means.) If the hitter partially strikes the baseball, meaning it flies outside the field of play — this is called a ‘foul’ ball — and if not caught by one of the many ‘fielders’ supporting the pitcher, it is deemed a strike against the hitter (except when the hitter already has two strikes, in which case it means nothing). And if the pitcher throws four pitches that are not in the strike zone and the hitter does not swing at them, the hitter is awarded the opportunity to advance to ‘first’ base. (There are three bases in the field; along with home plate, they constitute a perfect square, with the bases and home plate being 90 feet apart. This is called a ‘diamond’ because the square sits on its point — home plate.)

On the whole, it would seem that batters (also referred to as hitters) are at the mercy of pitchers. After all, they must react to what pitchers throw. They must calculate the speed of the pitch, the location of the pitch, and, most difficult of all, the spin of the pitch. The physics of a spinning baseball is probably the most intriguing aspect of the game, maybe in all of sports. A pitcher’s ability to not only apply various types of spin on a baseball, but to throw the baseball exactly where he wants to is what determines his worth to the team. That, and possessing the God-given gift of throwing it — with control — upwards of 100 mph is of what legends are made.

To wit, the following are the different types of pitches thrown by professional baseball pitchers, all of them distinguished by the spin, velocity, and how the fingers are placed on the ‘seams’ of the baseball: fastball; cut fastball, two-seam fastball; three-seem fastball; curveball; slider; knuckleball (has no spin); slurve (slider-curveball); sinker; change up (thrown at a decided lower velocity); screwball (a kind of ‘reverse’ curveball, seldom used anymore). In addition to all the ‘English’ applied to a thrown baseball to effect explosive, abrupt movement at the point that it reaches home plate, there is the added consideration of location. Based on the compiled information on each hitter — referred to as his ‘book’ — a pitcher will attempt to throw whatever pitches are in his repertoire that will render the hitter most helpless: low and away; high and away; low and inside; high and inside; hard stuff (various types of fastballs that rise or sink or tale away); breaking stuff (sliders, curveballs, screwballs); and ‘off-speed pitches that are camouflaged to appear to be thrown faster than they really are. All of these things throw a hitter off his rhythm and keeps him guessing. And, if the hitter is good enough — or lucky enough — to overcome all of these things and make perfect contact with the ball, it may go directly to one of the many fielders for an out. Thus the magic of what may seem to be the relatively low successful hitting standard of 30 percent!

It ain’t like pitchers have it made, however. Big league hitters are masters of their craft, despite the odds stacked against them. They keep a ‘book’ on the pitchers, too, and dedicate themselves to the art and science of hitting a baseball thrown at various velocities and with varying degrees of spin. Guessing is a part of their strategy against pitchers, but knowing the tendencies of pitchers and what they like to throw most often also increases their degree of success. And the best hitters are good at hitting pitchers’ ‘mistakes.’ These are pitches that don’t go where the pitcher intended, or don’t possess the sufficient spin to achieve the movement necessary to fool a hitter. And when that happens — boom! — a solid line drive in the gap or, worse yet, yard city!

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