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Friday, November 11, 2005

Baseball According to Me

Baseball is the greatest sport ever created. Baseball fans don’t have to hear the debate on this; they know I’m correct. Briefly, let me say why. Baseball transcends itself as to be more than the game in all its beauty (but that is indeed formidable). At key moments in our lives, many people can point to a baseball game as the backdrop, or the fulcrum for a memory. Think of ‘Good Will Hunting’, a film that communicates part of its central message through baseball. I won’t give that away; watch for it the next time you view the movie. One of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, communicates both the majesty of the game and its possibility for serving as a vehicle for meta-narrative. It is not simply old men waxing poetic when they speak of baseball as a cohesive force, uniting friends and family. That sentiment is entirely true. James Earl Jones delivered perhaps the greatest monologue in a movie that wasn’t about Jesus in ‘Field of Dreams.’ Even speaking the colloquial name of our nation—America—conjures pride in some, and sadness in others. But what could be a more outstanding and non-controversial gift from America to the human race than baseball?
With the end of encouraging a healthy appreciation for baseball in all its facets, I intend to spend the next few days attempting to explain baseball to the non-fan, or the casual fan. The descriptions and opinions expressed here in so doing are my own, gleaned from watching at least hundreds (if not thousands) of baseball games in the last 15+ years. If I get e-mail in correction from baseball fans or players, I’d be all too happy to post it here. Not that I will, because this blog has been abandoned for so long, but you never know. I think it will be profitable to begin with my favorite aspect of baseball: pitching.
A pitcher controls the action on a baseball diamond, at least until the ball is thrown. With his pace and relative effectiveness, he can play a substantial role in adversely affecting the comfort level of an entire opposing team. With the same, he can positively or negatively impact his own team, both in the field, and at bat. A pitcher who works slowly (takes a long time between pitches) bores his team behind him and likely increases the frequency of errors. An ‘error’ is a play that has been judged by the official scorer to be one that should have been made by a fielder but wasn’t, and would have resulted in an out. As you may recall, at team at bat remains so until they make three outs. Pitchers’ effectiveness can be measured in various ways, with one being Earned Run Average, or ERA. This is calculated by taking the number of runs allowed, and dividing by the number of innings pitched in one game (9). Take note that this holds true for any pitcher, even those who do not start the game. (Non-starters are unlikely to pitch nine innings; that’s impossible unless the game is extremely long.) For example, a pitcher who surrenders 1 run in three innings has an ERA of 3.00. Multiply both the runs allowed and the innings pitched by the appropriate multiple to get 9. That may have been overly complicated! Sorry. For a starting pitcher, an ERA of 1.00 is unheard of. In fact, the lowest ERA recorded for a starting pitcher since 1914 is 1.12, by Bob Gibson in 1968. Gibson was so dominant that Major League Baseball (abbreviated MLB) lowered the mound after that season. It was believed that a lowered mound would assist batters, which it has done. Even though Gibson was not the only reason, (it was a good decade for pitchers) he likes to claim he was!
You may be wondering: “What kinds of pitches does a pitcher throw?” Good question. A pitch can be identified by three things: location, speed, and movement. Location is where the pitch ends up as it enters the hitting zone (another name for the strike zone, usually from the batter’s perspective, as he is trying to hit the ball). Speed is how hard the pitcher throws the ball on any given pitch. Speed in a more general sense might refer to the pitching style of a particular pitcher as well. For example, one might hear a player say, “He throws hard,” or, “He’s a soft tosser.” In more direct terms, a pitcher is either a power pitcher or a finesse pitcher. A “power pitcher” is one whose fastball consistently exceeds 90 MPH. A pitcher who does not reach, or does not consistently exceed 90 MPH is a finesse pitcher. Why is 90 MPH such an important number? In my experience, a pitch in excess of 90 MPH has a better chance of getting by a batter, or causing a weak swing even when the pitcher misses location. For example, if the pitcher intends to throw a fastball low and away (a location at or below the knees in height, and moving away from a batter) and instead throws the pitch thigh-high over the middle of the plate, he’s missed badly. If it’s a hard fastball, the pitcher might escape with no trouble. If it’s a sub-90 fastball, look out; that pitcher has as much chance of not giving up a hit as I have of winning the lottery. On other types of pitches, the margin for error is even less. A bad curveball is the easiest pitch to hit. A bad curveball is one that does not spin (at least not well enough) and thus, does not drop. We say then that it ‘hangs’—it stays in the hitting zone longer. And, at that speed, this spells doom for the pitcher. QUESTION TIME: “What is the normal path for a curveball?” Generally, curveballs move downward in a 12-6 fashion, like the hands on a clock. One will often hear commentators say, “He has a good 12 to 6 curveball.” In theory, a curve could move differently, but if so, it would likely be another pitch. A ‘slider’ is thrown harder than a curve, and moves more laterally. The ball slides toward one of the corners of the plate, hence the name.
Terminology: off-speed pitch: any pitch that is not a fastball. They’re off-speed because of the variance in velocity. NOTE: Whether a pitch is off-speed depends on the velocity of a particular pitcher, not on the MPH. For example, Randy Johnson’s slider comes in at anywhere from 85-89 MPH, while Greg Maddux’ fastball might, on the best of days, hit 89 MPH once in the game. Thus, 89 MPH would indicate an off-speed pitch for Johnson, but would indicate an extremely hard fastball for Maddux.
A ‘slurve’ is a combination slider-curve. It usually has the movement of a slider, with the speed of a curve. A ‘changeup’ is a pitch that does not spin. It doesn’t typically move much, either. It looks like a fastball, but the speed variance could be anywhere from 10-30 MPH. It is so named because it complements the fastball. A pitcher will throw this to change speeds. The pitcher has two ways of getting a batter out: upsetting his timing, or upsetting his balance (or both). Two pitchers who throw moving changeups are Pedro Martinez, and Freddy Garcia. That is not common, however. Power pitchers’ off-speed pitch of choice is the slider. It is a rare talent to throw a hard fastball and a curve. Better said, it’s not common to find a pitcher who throws both effectively. Those that are able usually find themselves near the top of pitching rotations.

QUESTION TIME: “What is a pitching rotation?” A pitching rotation is the group of pitchers designated to start games for a team. They are arranged from the most talented to the least. They are informally numbered 1-5 (“Chris Carpenter is the Cardinals’ #1 starter.”). This ranking could change in the midst of a season, if a team’s best pitcher struggles, and another performs above expectations. Ideally, there is little discernable decline in skill from a #1 starter to a #2. On the best teams, these two are interchangeable. Local observers will speak of “the battle for the #1 spot in the rotation.” Though the numbering is somewhat informal, teams do sometimes rearrange their rotations if they will face a tough pitcher, so that their best (or as best as they can get) will face him head-to-head.Of course, baseball is for the fans, so managers are also motivated to do this to please them to a certain degree. The very best starting pitchers do two things very well: They pitch deep into games (into the 7th inning or later) and avoid surrendering runs, such that their teams win most of the games they start. It is most useful to look at a team’s win-loss record on the occasion when a certain pitcher starts a game to judge his effectiveness (though, as we have noted, it’s not the only way). It is perhaps less useful to look at a pitcher’s personal win-loss record, because receiving a win requires a certain set of conditions be met.

A starting pitcher receives a Win if and only if:

A) HE PITCHES AT LEAST 5 INNINGS. This is the primary condition; if this is not met, there is no way the starter will be credited with the win, even if the other conditions are satisfied.
B) The starter’s team wins the game. This is an obvious point, perhaps, but important nonetheless.
C) The winning team is not behind or tied at any point after the starter leaves the game.

One can see that the third requirement costs starters a great many wins. The non-starting pitchers are collectively referred to as a team’s ‘relief pitching’ and the individuals are called ‘relievers.’ The relief pitching is also colloquially called the ‘bullpen.’ Many feel that a pitcher’s win-loss record is an overrated statistic for two reasons: (one which benefits the starter, and one that does not) On teams that score a lot of runs, a serviceable pitcher might be thought of as a great pitcher if his record is impressive, and a great pitcher might not be given due credit if his record is not impressive (if the team fails to score runs, or the relief pitching is suspect). I understand and sympathize with these contentions. SPECIAL NOTE: If a pitcher completes 5 innings, is lifted for a pinch hitter (a substitute batter) with his team trailing or tied, and they take the lead in that inning, the pitcher is eligible for a Win. For example, Chris Carpenter is lifted in the home half of the fifth inning trailing 2-1. The Cardinals score two runs, holding the lead for the remainder of the game. Carpenter would be credited with a Win. The win-loss record of a pitcher must be weighed along with other statistics, such as innings pitched, or ERA to make the best possible assessment of effectiveness. We can see that a pitcher who tends to stay in the game longer can better avoid the pitfalls related to letter (C). A pitcher who can start and complete games is the most highly prized commodity, therefore. A game started and finished by the same pitcher (taking note that a pitcher cannot re-enter the game once he is removed) is called a ‘Complete Game’. I capitalize the term because it is an official statistic that is abbreviated ‘CG’ on baseball cards and television graphics. Complete games are rare these days in baseball. Pitching legend Greg Maddux (my favorite pitcher) has never thrown more than 10 complete games in a season, for example. A full season consists of 30-35 starts, give or take. Note that this card shows the totals for the current season, along with ‘splits’, or subdivisions within that season, for the last 7 days and a ‘Projected’ row. There is a row for aggregate career statistics as well. We can see from the career totals, if we understand their meaning, that Greg Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers to ever play in Major League Baseball. It was not, however, a good season for Mr. Maddux. Let me illustrate this with part of his bio from MLB.com:

































Greg Maddux 31 P
Current Status: Active
Full Name: Gregory Alan Maddux
Born: 04/14/1966
Birthplace: San Angelo, TX
Height: 6'0" Weight: 180
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
College: N/A
MLB Debut: 09/03/1986

4.24
13-15
0
136

Photo Gallery

Biography:
Greg - who ranks 20th on MLB's all-time wins list - is the 22nd pitcher in major league history to win 300 or more games, doing so in his first season back in a Cub uniform...was the 10th National League pitcher to win 300 games - and the first since Steve Carlton (September 23, 1983)...was just the second pitcher to record his 300th victory while in a Cub uniform, joining Grover "Ol' Pete" Alexander...Cub John Clarkson also finished his career with more than 300 wins, but reached the milestone with Cleveland...was the fifth pitcher in major league history to win his first and 300th game with the same team...is the first pitcher in major league history to win at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons...over the 17-year span, he has led the majors in wins (297) and innings pitched (3,994.2)...has a 2.83 ERA over the span, ranking second in the majors...only Pedro Martinez has a lower ERA...has worked 200.0 or more innings in 16 of the last 17 seasons - and missed the mark in 2002 by just 0.2 innings...has a 3.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, fanning 2,916 batters while issuing 871 free passes...holds the National League record for most consecutive innings pitched without allowing a walk (72.1, 6/20-8/12/01)...is a 14-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner - winning 13 straight awards from 1990-2002 and picking up his 14th in 2004...the only pitcher to win more consecutive Gold Gloves is Jim Kaat, who won 16 straight from 1962-1977...is an eight-time National League All-Star selection...has seen action in every round in the post season, pitching in 11 Division Series contests, 15 League Championship games and 5 World Series games...has a 3.22 ERA in 190.0 post season innings...graduated from Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1984 ... earned all-state honors in baseball in 1983 and 1984..was selected in the second round of the 1984 June draft by the Cubs. (MLB.com)

Both as a pitcher and a fielder, Maddux is worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he will doubtless be placed there once he retires and waits the minimum 5 years before induction. This rule is not usually waived, except in the case of sudden death (Roberto Clemente).
Let’s go back to the card from ESPN.com for some explanation of the terms used. ‘G’ is games. Anytime a player is announced in a game (even for the briefest of times) this counts as a game played. This card assumes that Maddux is unlikely to appear as a relief pitcher (indeed, he’s only done so 4 times during the regular season). One is likely to see a column for games and games started (GS) on baseball cards and the like, especially if a pitcher both starts and relieves (John Smoltz, Glendon Rusch, Dennis Eckersley). The next column (IP) stands for innings pitched. Keep in mind that a pitcher really throws half an inning each inning of the game. This is fairly evident, as both teams must bat in each inning. WARNING! The decimals in this column represent thirds of an inning, not tenths! Thus, Maddux’ career innings pitched (4406.1) means that he has completed 4406 innings and recorded 1 out in another. QUESTION TIME: “What if a pitcher begins an inning, but doesn’t record an out?”[A] In the stats for an individual game, the pitcher’s total completed innings will be listed, and in this case, a plus (+) will follow that number to indicate that he attempted to pitch the next inning, but failed to record an out. For partially completed innings, one will see either the decimal notation (e.g. 7.1 IP) or the entire fraction (7 1/3). Understand the meaning of the example. 7.1 IP means that the pitcher finished the seventh inning, and recorded one out in the eighth before he was removed. Hits (H) is the next column. A ‘hit’ is recorded (both for the batter and against the pitcher) if any batter reaches first base safely on a batted ball, provided that an error has not been committed. This also includes reaching other bases, including home (home runs count as hits as well). Also, if a batter attempts to reach second base, but is out before doing so, this still counts as a hit. It is important to note that batting average is reckoned as hits per at-bats (H/AB). Not every appearance by a batter counts as an at-bat. AB’s exclude walks, (BB, base-on-balls) hit-by-pitches, and catcher interferences. Therefore, batting average is one distinctly effective way to measure batters’ effectiveness, because it excludes precisely those situations which are entirely outside the batter’s control. I mention this here because similar qualifications and caveats exist in the relation between runs (R) and earned runs (ER). (Our second card divides them, the first does not.) The (R) category measures the raw number of runs that cross the plate against a particular pitcher. Looking at this statistic can show an observer how many runs a team must score per game with a particular starter. The preceding statistic includes runs that cross the plate as a result of fielding errors, which distinguishes it from earned runs. Earned runs are those for which the pitcher is directly responsible (runs stemming only from hits, walks, and hit-by-pitches). As one may be able to see, unearned runs harm a pitcher’s chance for wins, but do not harm his most individual statistic (ERA, or ‘earned run average’).[B] The next category on the card from MLB.com is labeled ‘SHO.’ This is the abbreviation for shutouts. Question Time: “What is a shutout?” A shutout is a complete game in which the starter (as the winning pitcher) surrenders no runs. Therefore, shutouts are a sub-category of complete games. Remember that a game cannot be credited as a shutout unless: 1) the starter gets a Win; 2) he pitches the entire game (a CG) and 3) he surrenders no runs (whether earned or unearned). Greg Maddux has completed 108 games in his career, 35 of which are shutouts. (.324) Maddux finishes games at a rate of approximately 17 percent. Of those, as we noted, almost a third are shutouts. Let’s compare these rates with two noted contemporaries, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Courtesy of ESPN.com, we find that Clemens has started 671 games, completing 118 (the percentage rounds up to .176, compared with a rounded .170 for Maddux). Of the 118 completed games, 46 are shutouts. (rounded to .390) This is an astounding statistic. Clemens completes games at a higher rate than Maddux, and on those occasions, he is much more likely to pitch a shutout. Mr. Martinez is a great pitcher as well. According to the e-card from ESPN.com and STATS, Inc, Martinez has 46 complete games. Having started 354 games, this ratio rounds to .130. Of those 46 complete games, 17 are shutouts (a rounded .370). Thus, Pedro Martinez possesses the lowest complete game percentage, but compares favorably with Maddux in terms of shutouts. While measuring shutouts may well be only a marginally useful tool signifying a special dominance, viewing these pitchers in terms of complete games is very instructive, because this era of baseball is probably the least conducive to complete games as any time in the history of the game. While Bob Gibson even lost dozens of complete games (in an era where finishing a game was expected, not remarkable) today’s pitchers demonstrate elite status by completing games. There is a unique psychological edge inherent in a complete game. That starting pitcher is the master of his own destiny. He need not wait with bated breath to see if the relief corps can hold the lead he helped build. In addition, no greater sympathy extends to pitchers from fans than that poured out on the narrow loser of a complete game. If we consider it philosophically, the CG is a unique combination of longevity and effectiveness. A pitcher who surrenders many runs will not have the opportunity to finish the game. By contrast, a very effective pitcher may have exactly what it takes to dominate a team on a given day. If so, it would be foolish to entrust a close game to another pitcher. In my opinion then, a starter should only be pulled when:

He is ineffective; or
He is unlikely to remain effective much longer; and
A relief pitcher would be more effective at that point in time.

Baseball Taboo Warning: A baseball fan can tell that someone is not a fan if he or she refers to the score in terms of ‘points.’ Even a novice fan is going to catch this. (This concludes an excerpt from a future book called "A Subjective, Romantic Fan's Guide to Baseball," by Jason Kettinger.)
[A] The e-card from ESPN includes 3 statistical categories not included in the same e-card at MLB.com: P/GS (pitches per game started) WHIP (Walks+Hits per inning pitched) and BAA (batting average against).
[B] ERA’s formula is ER/9 IP.