It’s snowing here in Minnesota right now (exactly why we call it “Minnesnowta”). The recent temperatures rival — sometimes excel — the temperature in my freezer (which is to say: zero degrees Fahrenheit). To be clear, by “excel” I mean ‘colder than’ — we would disdain a February that didn’t chill our bones and nip our nose.
But down south, in Florida and Arizona, MLB pitchers and catchers are reporting for Spring Training after having the winter off. (Teachers get summers off, baseball players get winter.) Depending on the team, the report date varies from the 19th to the 22nd. The rest of the players, depending on team, report from February 23rd through the 27th.
So I thought now would be a good time to talk about pitching.
Any baseball team first divides into pitchers and all the other players, who are called position players (they have a position on the field when playing defense).
In modern baseball, there is a very important two-man sub-team within the team: the battery. The term, which goes back to the mid-1800s, might suggest batters, but in fact is named after artillery batteries (not, as some think, electric batteries — there weren’t a lot of double-A cells in 1860).
The baseball battery is the duo of pitcher and catcher. They are the “firepower” of the team’s defense. (Baseball has the odd property that the defense possess and controls the ball, not the offense. In some cases, if the ball touches an offensive player, that player is out!)
In baseball’s early days, pitchers existed only to serve the ball to the batter (who could specify what type of pitch they wanted). The idea was just to get the ball in play. Baseball was all about hitting, fielding, and running, then.
As the game evolved, that changed. Pitching became an art of fooling the batter. (And batting became an art of not getting fooled.) At first, the battery referred just to the pitching staff, but over time it came to include the catcher (who is responsible for “calling” the game — specifying what pitch should be thrown next).
A common complaint about baseball is that it’s “boring.” It is a sedate game — you can have a conversation while watching baseball — but boring it is not. Not when you understand the game.
Key to that is understanding what’s going on with the pitcher, batter, and catcher. A low-scoring game might seem dull to the untrained eye, but such a game often means very exciting performances by the pitchers.
So let’s talk about pitching.
What modern baseball pitchers do is actually pretty amazing. For one thing, it’s at the extreme limit of what a human body is capable of. Very few can throw a 100 MPH fastball, and the truth is that pitching is so extreme that pitchers often harm themselves just doing their job.
Consider the physical facts: The distance from the pitching rubber to the back tip of home plate is 60 feet and 6 inches. The batter will hit the ball somewhere over the plate, possibly a foot or more forward of that back tip.
The pitcher must keep one foot against the rubber (that longish plate you see on the mound), but — depending on their size and arm length — may release the ball several feet towards home plate. The actual flight path of the ball is closer to 55 feet.
The strike zone is only 17 inches side to side. The height, which depends on the batter’s height, is somewhere around 36 inches. Imagine trying to throw a ball as hard as you can, from 60 feet away, and having it fly between two posts separated by only 17 inches with a three-foot target between them.
And here’s the thing: Taking a distance of 55 feet and a fastball going 94 MPH (an average fastball), the ball is in flight for just under 400 milliseconds (well under a half-second).
The batter has that brief time to decide [A] whether to swing at the ball and [B] where and how to swing. Plus the batter has to move the bat from the ready position somewhere near their back shoulder to out over the plate in just the right spot so the round bat hits the round ball in just the right place.
You can see there is a serious challenge involved for both parties. You can see why so many at bats don’t result in hits (let alone home runs). How many professions do you know where a three-in-ten success rate (that is, a batting average of .300) is considered very good? How many professions let you fail seven times out of ten and still consider you worthy?
A smoking fastball (getting into the high 90 MPH range or topping 100 MPH) is just plain hard to hit simply due to the brief time the batter has to engage. A 100 MPH fastball gives the batter only 370 milliseconds to react.
The icing on the cake is that the pitcher uses a number of tricks to fool the batter. It’s not all fastballs. Pitchers have a variety of pitches.
A changeup is thrown exactly like a fastball, but the pitcher modifies their grip to reduce the speed by as much as 10 or more MPH. The batter thinks “fastball” and swings early and fast. The ball arrives at home plate an instant later. Swinging Strike!
Pitchers use various grips to put spin on the ball. This makes the ball break — to have a curve to its flight path. The break can be to the right or left or down (physics prohibits curving up at speeds humans can throw).
Curving to the right or left allows a pitcher to throw a ball that, at first, appears to be headed to the strike zone thus triggering the batter to swing at it. But the break takes it out of the zone — the batter would have been smarter to take the pitch for a ball.
And because the pitch is outside the zone, even if the batter can get the bat to the ball, it’s generally going to be a foul ball of some kind. Even if he does hit fairly, odds are it won’t be a very good hit, it will be fielded, and he will be out at first.
Or the pitch might appear to be headed outside the zone, causing the batter to take it thinking ball. But the break veers it back into the strike zone leaving the batter embarrassed.
Fastballs have back spin which, contrary to myth, does not cause them to rise, but to fall less than experience with thrown balls expects. This tricks the brain into thinking they rise. In this case, the batter ends up swinging underneath the ball.
A cut fastball (or cutter) is a fastball with enough spin to veer left or right. Classic cutters break towards the batter, who ends up hitting the ball with the shank of the bat, which typically breaks the bat.
The classic curveball has forward spin which causes the ball to drop off the table. It appears to be headed towards the strike zone, but before it gets there it drops into the dirt (as if it had been rolling along a table top until it hits the edge and falls).
Batters swing over the top of balls that break down more than they expect and under those fast balls that stay up longer then they expect.
There is some fascinating fine-tuning involved in the combination of distance, ball speed, and spin. These combine to make baseball pitching a delicate balance between the pitcher and batter. The distance is just right for the spin and speed to create useful effects.
Televised baseball games typically show each pitch from an outfield camera that allows you to see how the ball curves. The best parks place that camera as near the center line as possible. Pay attention to the horizontal offset between the pitching rubber and home plate. The closer to center, the less the offset (and the more you can accurately see the pitch effects).
This only scratches the surface of baseball pitching. I haven’t even mentioned the catcher’s role which goes far beyond what’s implied by the name. Catching is also a tough (and vital) position, but I’ll leave that for another time.
I’ll leave you with what are called the three true outcomes of an at bat. These are results that do not put the ball in play, that do not involve the defense:  a home run,  a walk,  a strike out. A concern of some baseball analysts is too much focus on the three true outcomes (strikeouts, in particular, are very high these days).
There is no question baseball is more exciting when the ball is put in play, and over the years changes have been made to adjust the balance of defense and offense, and to make the game more interesting.
This year, word is they intend to focus on the pace of the game and to tighten up the strike zone to force pitchers to throw more strikes. That should increase the number of hits.
For my part, I’m just hoping my Minnesnowta Twins don’t suck again this year! Batter up!