Pitching For Proust

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” – Marcel Proust

I cry one time each year, usually in March.

But we’ll come back to that later. First, let’s think about stupid things:

Doug Stanhope: “If you think football is stupid, you’re right. But it’s my stupid. You have your stupid, you play World of Warcraft, or you do renaissance festivals, you grow organic apples and sell them at the farmer’s market… whatever you do, football is my stupid.”

Everybody has seen something that millions of other people love and failed to grasp why it is so interesting. Despite having stupid hobbies of our own, we bring up our confusion with those who work on cars or read comic books or collect stamps. I make fun of my mom for watching Law & Order every week even though every episode is the same (this is where she yells, “No they aren’t!”). Yet when we are made fun of, we do not understand how people can fail to grasp the intricacies of our hobby.

The people who take the time to really get into a TV show or sport will always appreciate it more than those who do not. But as people on the outside, we can usually accept that different people appreciate different things (even if it upsets us like it does Sean). What is less appreciated is that even among the millions fans of a particular topic, no two of them are actually thinking about the same thing either.

I can watch the same baseball game as you and we would both be watching different things. We would describe the gameplay differently, and so would 600 other people in the park. We know this and yet, we never think about it. But I think we can gain a much greater appreciation of the sport and the way we view it by exploring this a bit further.

Inside a Baseball Mind

Some people spend hours studying prospects as they progress through the minors, some breakdown trends in player contracts, boatloads analyze statistics for their fantasy teams. And none of those things have to do with actually sitting down at the ballpark and actually watching a game—be it MLB, an independent professional league, college, a minor league game, a summer college league, tee-ball, or whatever pro league they have in Japan. There are baseball fans that focus most of their time on each of those leagues. Many concentrate on a single team within one of those leagues (although, unless you are a parent you should probably avoid focusing on one tee-ball team).

Then when the game actually starts, there are another thousand things to look at. How the first baseman is holding the runner on first, if the third baseman properly charged that bunt, or if the shortstop covered second base during that stolen base attempt in time. There are 2430 MLB games each year and you could write an entire book about any one of them. Daniel Okrent actually did.

I could list off aspects of the game people study for an hour, but the point is that there is too much to process. Baseball is a buffet, not a dish. We are forced to pick and choose what to pay attention to, often unknowingly so. This is how we have always watched games, after all, and we forget that there are other ways.

Keeping Score, or How I Learned to Love 3% of the Game

Scorekeeping can be enjoyable if you do it the way most people do: write down what happened after the play is over. When you really get into it though, there is a lot more to think about. I have been really into scorekeeping for over a decade. The interest led me to become the scorekeeper for a college summer league team. And I have scored a few hundred games over the last five summers.

In the press box, this is my mind:

New inning. OK, same pitcher. No defensive changes.
Michaels is up. Check scorecard, right batting order.
Ball or strike? Ball. Write down ball.
Ball or strike? Swinging strike. Write down swinging strike.
Ball or strike? Hit. Line drive single. Write down line drive single to right field.
Next batter, should be Jones. Jones it is, no pinch hitter.

Runner on first, so I’m looking at him—not the batter—to see if he tries to steal. I have already forgotten that it’s Michaels and that he singled. That’s already written on my scorecard which makes it irrelevant to me. Watching the pitcher’s delivery out of the corner of my eye, he goes home and the runner isn’t stealing so now I’m looking to see if the ball is bouncing in front of the catcher—that would be an automatic wild pitch—or if we’ve got a passed ball. The ball doesn’t bounce, but it is a called strike. Write down called strike.

After you watch a few hundred games like that it reprograms your mind. Note that I do not care about pitch selection, velocity, or a pitcher’s windup. I don’t care who the second baseman is, or how many errors he has this year. To me he is #4. When it comes to hits and errors or even the score, I don’t care about whether guys are on the home team or not.

I care about: was that a ball or strike? Was the runner moving on the pitch? Because if the ball gets past the catcher and the runner was going it is a stolen base instead of a wild pitch; and when the ball is in the backstop you can’t rewind the tape to see if the runner was going. Anticipation is vital. I write everything down, and as soon as it is on my scorecard, I dismiss it from my thoughts.

I left out the part where I operate the scoreboard too.

I usually stand the whole game (mainly due to poor park architecture) with my mental checklist on a constant loop. There are no replays to fall back on. Anticipating every pitch for two-and-a-half hours without taking your eyes off the game can be draining, especially when there is a group of cute girls sitting over on the third base side. It is an old saying in Hollywood that, “Pain is temporary, but film lasts forever.” Baseball games are temporary too, but box scores last forever. I try not to screw them up.

Zen and the Art of Bullpen Management

A few years ago, some people got worked up over a divide between traditional scouts and newer stat guys. Both the book and film adaptation of Moneyball reportedly portrayed the rivalry to a greater degree than it existed, but without question, some people see more value in numbers than others. (The divide is super-exaggerated in the 2012 film Trouble With the Curve, which I recommend to anyone who enjoys watching horrible movies.) This is not a new debate though. It is an old one wearing new shoes. They are cleats, probably.

Abridged Wikipedia summary on the 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: The book details two types of personalities. Romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being “in the moment,” rather than pursuing rational analysis. And those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance.

The argument goes much further back than the 70s, but this book is good place to start. The main character of Zen has a deep knowledge of how his motorcycle works. It is not really one object that you know how to fix when it breaks down. It is a large collection of small parts. Knowing how to fix the motorcycle comes down to identifying which part has gone bad and knowing how to correct the problem. In contrast, the narrator has a buddy who enjoys riding, but does not know much about what to do when his bike starts acting up. This leads to frustration and paying a mechanic a bunch of money to fix it. Both enjoy riding motorcycles, but they appreciate it from very different angles.

A baseball team is the same way. The narrator in Zen had charts about his motorcycle, and a general manager looking to improve his team could break his roster, specifically his pitching staff down, like this:

Classic Pitcher Breakdown

All GM’s and most fans do this, to some extent, even if it is not written down. A chart like that can potentially be expanded until it incorporates the entirety of existence, but we’ll stick with the pitchers for now.

Whether you are into advanced stats or not, everybody has compared one pitcher’s numbers to another’s at some point. It is not sufficient to know that a pitcher needs to give fewer runs because there are so many factors that affect whether a run scores or not. The increased number of stats over the past couple decades has allowed people to start looking at baseball on an even deeper classical level.

Maybe a pitcher needs to improve play with runners on base (we know he struggles in this area because we now have stats that weren’t always available). He could work on the speed of his delivery or his pickoff move. We can identify release points of pitches. How long is it taking a pitcher to tire during a game and drop his arm angle? Or perhaps a pitcher should be working to get a higher percentage of groundballs to decrease the number of extra-base hits his is allowing.

On the other hand, you have baseball romantics. Most are not as extreme as Harold Reynolds and announcer Hawk Harrelson who act as if saying any number aloud while in the same room with them will cause them to break out in a rash. Many authors though, do an excellent job of bringing out this aspect of the game, whether their stories are true or not. Guys like A. Bartlett Giamatti, Lawrence Ritter, Jim Bouton, and many others can bring out the joy of going to the ballpark that cannot be quantified.

Franklin Pierce Adams’s poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”:

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double –
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

The romantics often accuse the stat guys of taking all of the emotion out of the game, of being cold and hard. After I finish writing this I am going to go back to my spreadsheet:

You can almost smell the hot dogs.

Many people would cringe at that sight, but for me there is baseball in those numbers. What the romantics fail to realize is that that spreadsheet is not baseball, but a way to enhance baseball. After all of the stats, after all of the games each summer where I miss the intricate interwoven stories so I can concentrate on my scorecard, I make an annual pilgrimage to the heart of romantic baseball-land. Each spring I watch Field of Dreams and at the end as Ray plays catch with his dad and the camera ascends into the night sky, I tear up. Every fucking time.

Baseball and Goo

Thus we come to the crux of it: Realizing that there are many lenses through which to watch a ballgame, what should we be paying attention to in order to get the most enjoyment out of this baseball? What is it that keeps us coming back?

With my spreadsheets and annual screenings of Field of Dreams, I have reached the same conclusion that the narrator in Zen ultimately did, and that many scouts and sabermatricians will see or have already found.

I have typed numbers into spreadsheets until the wee hours of the morning many times (my social life is not very big). But it is not about the numbers, the numbers are a tool to appreciate what happens in that Iowan cornfield. Without numbers, we would not know how good of a player Shoeless Joe was and how much of a tragedy it was to see him and his teammates banned. Without numbers we would not have the Oakland A’s making the playoffs year after year despite their miniscule payroll. Without numbers we would not have people talking about the approaching era of Game Theory in baseball. None of these things are trying to replace the romantics, they are increasing the ways to appreciate the sport.

You do not have to be stathead or a romantic. In baseball, as in life, it is not one or the other. There is a continuum between the two, with unlimited stops along the way. Neither exists without the other. Neither can exist without the other. Perhaps Alan Watts, a philosopher who was discussing the classical vs romantic issue long before it entered the baseball diamond, explains it best:

We can still have our favorite lens though which to view the game, perhaps it is inevitable. There are things about baseball I will never know. Either I have little interest in them or that I have no need to know. I cannot not name, for example, the amount of money any baseball player makes. But taking the time to look at other points on the spectrum, to experience the game through the eyes of as many others as possible and recognize that looking at these alternate ways of viewing the game, is the only way to help us truly appreciate the things that we do care about.

It is true in baseball, as it is in life:

Advertisements