by Hugh Gilmore
When the cold weather slipped in last weekend and made our bones rattle, I sat down next to the fireplace and reached into the pile of fuel I keep handy for such hard late-February times. I felt for and plucked out...what else?... a baseball book!
After all, the once and future Phillies have reported to Florida and play their first Grapefruit League game this coming Saturday against the Detroit Tigers. It’s time, once again, to yawn in the face of those who say that baseball is a dull game because “nothing ever happens.” Tyler Kepner’s fascinating new book, “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (2019), should delight the converted and convert the benighted. There’s so much more to baseball than what meets the eyes of people who think that a sport needs collisions to be exciting. Kepner pulls back the curtain and shows us, in the case of pitchers, where the magic lies.
He has been a baseball writer since he was a teenager, covering games and interviewing players for his own homemade magazine. He was precocious enough to be awarded a Grantland Rice/Fred Russell sports-writing scholarship to Vanderbilt University. After a few years covering the Angels, and then the Mariners, he joined the New York Times in 2000. He covered the Mets for two years, the Yankees for eight, and then became the Times national baseball writer since 2010. He’s that good.
“K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” is based on archival research and more than 300 interviews with baseball people, including many Hall Of Famers and contemporary players. The pitches that Kepner organizes his book around are: the slider, the fastball, the curveball, the knuckleball, the splitter, the screwball, the sinker, the change-up, the spitball and the cutter.
Each of them gets a chapter telling its mechanics, explaining how different finger placement in gripping the ball, and different arm and wrist motions in releasing the ball, affect the flight path of the ball as it comes whirling towards the batter at around 90 mph from 60 feet six inches away – this takes about four-tenths of a second. The chapters tell of each pitch’s history (Who, back when, taught the pitch to whom?), and its effect on the would-be hitter (75 out of 100 times it’s negative).
Underlying these details, are wonderful interviews and anecdotes. A basic understanding is revealed: From the pitcher’s point of view, the batter must not know what kind of pitch is coming toward the strike zone. If a batter knows, or guesses correctly, he can usually hit the ball. So, deception rules. A pitch can be fast and look slow, be slow and look fast. It can break away, or turn in, when it looks straight. It can start breaking from far away, or not break until it almost reaches the plate. It can also look like a small pill or drop like a big one... the possible variations are still endless, even after almost two centuries of daily global play.
And if the pitcher makes a mistake, modern major league baseball players are talented enough and strong enough to pound the ball out of the park with one equalizing swing. The pitcher doesn’t even need to make a mistake: if he becomes predictable, or loses the speed needed for a particular pitch, or can’t pinpoint control where the ball is supposed to go, or his curving, looping, dipping, dropping pitches just kind of hang in the air, the batter will win the contest.
(The current scandal in baseball involves the Houston Astros, whose batters received stolen information, from their scouts and coaches, about what the opposing pitcher was about to throw. They cheated their way to winning the 2017 World Series, to the dismay of fair play fans everywhere.)
The best parts of the book are probably the interviews with players, both current and retired. Kepler even gets the notoriously reticent Steve Carlton to talk.
“The slider’s tough because the hitter has to come get it, because it looks like a fastball,” said Carlton. “So he has to start swinging, and then it starts breaking. So that’s where you get the check swings.”
Carlton said that the two most important people on the field were Mike Schmidt at third base and the umpire at first base. “Schmidt to field the ground balls pulled by right handers, and the umpire to call strikes on their check swings.”
That’s just one of the hundreds of anecdotes that make reading this book better than hot mulled wine for getting through a cold February weekend.