Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Seventh-Inning Stretch - In Defense of Baseball

Peter Milway's column will be called "The Seventh-Inning Stretch", he will have a regular column on baseball. Enjoy!

Amrit has kindly asked (read: commanded) me to submit a series of posts on his new favorite sport: baseball (favourite sport is a bit of a stretch - Amrit). For my first piece, I shall try to demonstrate why exactly baseball does not suck.

But first, allow myself to introduce…myself. My name is Peter Milway. I am going into my 3rd year at Queen’s University, majoring in Political Studies, with a minor in History. I am an avid sports fan and a defender of all things Toronto (except David Miller). This includes, but is not limited to, the Maple Leafs, the Raptors, the Argos and, of course, your Toronto Blue Jays.

For these posts, I am going to assume a basic understanding of the rules of baseball.

The biggest problem non-fans have with baseball is that they believe it to be boring to watch. This is understandable, as there are long periods of inactivity. However, what is most interesting about baseball is these periods of inactivity. Between each and every pitch, the pitcher is thinking about what he can throw: “My fastball has been good today, I know I can throw it past this batter.” The hitter is thinking about what he has already seen today: “He has had a good fastball today, thrown it to me twice in this at bat already. But last time I was up, he threw 2 fastballs, and then I swung over his curveball. I think he is going to try that again.” The catcher is thinking about the location of the pitch: “This umpire has had a wide strike zone today, I think my pitcher can throw a fastball off the outside of the plate, and it will still be called a strike and the batter won’t be able to reach it.” The result? The batter, looking for a 75 miles per hour curveball that will start up high and then dive (curve) down into the dirt, has no chance but to watch a 95 miles per hour fastball thrown outside, off the plate. “Good,” he thinks, “that was a ball.” The catcher, trying to trick the umpire into thinking the ball was a strike expertly catches the ball and quickly moving his glove back inside the strike zone, framing the pitch for the umpire. Called strike. The catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher, smiling that he fooled the ump. The pitcher smiles, knowing he made his pitch. The batter frowns, knowing he guessed wrong and thinking that he got screwed by a bad call.

The process starts all over again.

This all happens in the span of 15 seconds.

Their respective thought processes can only get more in depth when the pitcher can throw more than one pitch, or if the catcher does not think the pitcher can locate his pitches, or the hitter guesses right the first time.

Fielders are also thinking about where they should be standing and what they will do if the ball is put into play. They have to take into account which side the batter hits from, whether he pulls the ball, whether he hits for a lot of power or gets a lot of weak singles.

The manager is thinking about when he should replace his pitcher, and with whom they should be replaced.

On the surface, baseball is an extremely simple game for simple minds, but it is much more complex.

Beyond the cerebral part of the game, baseball is unique amongst the major North American sports in that the goal of the offensive team is to bat the ball as far away from the scoring zone (home plate) as possible. This creates 2 points of interest when the ball is put in play: where the ball is, and where the runners are. The convergence of these 2 points creates exciting situations: the plays at the plate where the runner is trying to knock the ball out of the catchers’ glove.

Baseball is also a precision game. The strike zone roughly extends from the hitters armpits down to their knees, and is about as wide as the plate with an inch or two on each side. This of course varies on the umpire, which adds to the beauty of the game. The strike zone is about 500 square inches. 450 of these square inches are taken up by the hitters’ wheelhouse. This, of course, varies from hitter to hitter, but the pitcher is trying to place the ball in these 50 square inches where the hitter cannot get to the ball. For instance, Jason Giambi has trouble hitting balls waist-high on the inside corner of the plate. This “hole” is about two baseballs high and one baseball wide. But if you miss this location by two inches back over the plate, you hit one of Giambi’s strongest locations, a location where he will likely make you pay. So from 60 feet, 6 inches away, a pitcher has to hit a location roughly the size of a beer can, or they get hit. Hard.

The main reason that I am such a fan of baseball is that it is the only sport where the objective value of each player can be discovered, defined and debated. I can show you why Lance Berkman has been the MVP thus far. I can show you why Ichiro Suzuki is overrated. I can show you why Bob Gibson’s 1968 season was one of the best, but I can also show you why Pedro Martinez’ 2000 was better. However, I can tell you that Martinez’ 99-00 stretch is the best 2 year stretch of all time, but you can tell me that Greg Maddux’ 94-95 stretch was just as good, if not better. It is my personal belief that Greg Maddux is the best pitcher of our generation, with Pedro and Roger Clemens in the discussion.

I probably have not changed anyone’s opinions about baseball with just this post, but I hope that you all give it a shot and you might find that you enjoy it, just like Amrit. Just sit back, have a few beers with a few friends and try to guess what everyone is thinking.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

good post Milway.