The first two World Series games have featured some fantastic starting pitching. Perplexing pitching, in which in one notable case the Great Baseball Equation–on one side the input of the pitcher and on the other the output of the hitter–doesn’t seem to the naked eye to balance out. In other words, what the pitcher is doing with the ball doesn’t seem to suggest the results, or lack thereof, produced by the hitters.
Cliff Lee’s start a couple of days ago was particularly impressive. As I watched him throw, though, I was struck with the strangeness of his dominance. Something about it didn’t register. What he was sending plateward didn’t seem to jive with the results. Hitters were puzzled by slowish fastballs up in the zone. Swing after swing missed the ball by what seemed like yards. Lee wasn’t throwing 98, and he didn’t feature a prime-Zito curve or a prime-Clemens splitter or a prime-Lidge slider.
That got me thinking about the sort of fine pitching performances that you see, and what it is that you’re seeing. I came up with two basic categories of pitching greatness: the obvious and the mysterious.
Obviously Great Pitching
Billy Wagner threw the ball a hunnerd miles an hour. I once saw Vinny Castilla jack a high fastball into the seats, but few hitters he faced could get the bat around quick enough to touch one. The heavy fastball is the most obvious of all difficulties: less time to react, etc.
Lots of pitchers build off of a great fastball with a second and third pitch the effectiveness of which is pretty clear. Smoltz and his killer slider; Clemens and a trap door split-finger; Pedro Martinez and his big curveball. There are many examples. The pitchers beat hitters with high cheese above the zone, and with bottoming-out breaking stuff that hooks back into the zone.
Obviously Great Pitching is the viewer’s innate sense that the pitcher has outgunned the hitter, that talent and mastery from the mound has out-dueled talent and mastery at the plate.
Note: it’s clearly an inexact science, this exercise. What I’m going on more than anything is the fan’s mental register of what s/he’s watching, in an attempt to label a phenomenon that is fleeting and imprecise.
Which brings us to the converse, which I believe was on display while Cliff Lee made Alex Rodriguez and company flail like Little Leaguers through the course of twenty seven outs:
Mysteriously Great Pitching
Pitching is at its core an exercise in deception. “He was fooled on that pitch,” is a key phrase in describing the contest between pitcher and hitter. The best pitchers use the exact same arm slot and body action for each of their various pitches, such that a hitter is unable to use the few milliseconds given him to determine what the baseball will do on its way to the plate.
This may sound like an obvious statement, but clearly there are situations in which a lower degree of deception can be compensated for with a higher degree of pure stuff, as in the case of Billy Wagner and his fastball. You know it’s coming, but it’s still so hard to hit that the deception factor is mitigated.
Mysteriously Great Pitchers, on the other hand, are masters of a far more elusive art, which is to say capitalizing on pitches that taken on their own are relatively benign, until they are deployed in varying sequences and rhythms and speeds and locations. You could call it Highly Contextual Pitching. All pitching is contextual, of course, but these mystery pitchers seem to grasp the sense of the whole, of each batter as a code to break, rather than a bat to miss.
Jamie Moyer has survived for years moving between 69- and 82-mph, as perhaps the finest example of the beguilingly contextual master (2009 excepted, perhaps). Greg Maddux, throwing hula hoops and slinkies and UFOs, simply embarrassed the best by exploiting their most vulnerable traits, manipulating tendencies and insecurities like Hannibal Lector. Tom Glavine used to do the same, inching his way from the plate with change-ups until batters and umpires each lost a sense of where the strike zone should have been.
Success, for these pitchers, is not a matter of winning each pitch as much as it is a matter of shaving away each hitter’s confidence with each pitch, until the line between what just happened and what will soon happen is blurred and pitching like a small boat on a big ocean. The mystery comes from the fact that you can’t see any of this. It’s all on the inside. Only the outcome shows.
Repeatedly during Cliff Lee’s Game One, I simply couldn’t understand how his pitches were succeeding so profoundly. 87-mph cutters letter-high were getting big dramatic swing-throughs from elite hitters. 84-mph something-or-others garnered the same. In a wrap-up on MLB.com Jim Duquette referred to Lee “controlling bat speed.” And just so: instead of the pitch that he wanted to throw, Lee seemed to be throwing the pitch that the bats wanted to miss.
“You gotta be unpredictable,” Lee told a microphone afterwards. “You’ve gotta show ’em stuff they haven’t seen before. Don’t get in patterns.”
As you’ll never get a dot matrix-printed readout of a hitter’s thought processes, his conscious and subconscious mental calculations, or his fast-twitch tendencies, it’s impossible to know why he’s missed a pitch that appears otherwise eminently hittable. But in a great pitching performance, the pitcher himself seems to have some deep knowledge of all of these factors. You want “this,” thinks the pitcher. Therefore I will make you think that “this” is what you’re getting, but instead it will be “that.”
2.5 hours later, those hitters will grudgingly praise the pitcher’s mix of pitches, his command, his stuff. But no simple terminology can capture what has happened, the depth of the accomplishment. Describe a sunset or a break-up in 10-second bullet points and you’ll find as much success.
If an at-bat was a piece of writing, a literary endeavor, then the Obviously Great Pitcher is Jack Kerouac, bellowing his intentions proudly and shamelessly (Kerouac’s “Greatness” is perhaps open to debate, but you get the idea). The Mysteriously Great Pitcher, then, is Vladimir Nabokov, trading on the reader/hitter’s sense of expectation, undermining that preconceived notion of what “should” happen by presenting something that seems plausible but that proves in the end to be a mirage, a narrator whose credibility begins to fray at the edges, or a change-up that fades tragically from the strike zone.