Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Learning Baseball: Pitching as Endurance Racing

If you’ve known me awhile, you’ve probably seen me go through a few little phases or manias, where I’ll pick something up and then do it obsessively for a season or two, until I can do it about as well as the average dedicated hobbyist.  Then it either becomes part of my life in the background, or it goes into my toolkit in case I ever happen to need it later.  This, I think, is how smart, well-rounded people become smart and well-rounded.
The New York Yankees
This is my summer of watching baseball.  I got interested last year watching the Bridgeport Bluefish, and now I find myself watching the YES network every night as the NY Yankees embark on a rebuilding season that suddenly looks to have a little magic in the early-going.  I’m also following the Bluefish obsessively via their app and their Twitter account.
By the time I got home from teaching swimming last night, the Bronx Bombers were up 8-2 in the second game of their series against the Toronto Blue Jays with ace pitch Masahiro Tanaka on the mound.  After two losses in a row, it looked the Yanks had finally found their footing.  But then catcher Austin Romine got injured running bases in the 7th.  Romine clearly wanted to stay in the game, but Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi took him out, and somehow Tanaka seemed to lose focus.  Whether this was due to the abrupt change at catcher or just to the difficulty of staying focused in a game when you’re up by six runs, Tanaka struck one batter out, but then he gave up a solo homer and another base hit, and then he walked a batter, and even on TV, we could see the demons had started gathering around in his mind.  Maybe he could have pitched his way out of it, but after two losses in a row, Girardi decided to go to the bullpen.  Given that the Yankees have started hot but lost twice in the new month of May, I’m sure Girardi wanted first and foremost to arrest the slide and win a game that had heretofore looked extremely winnable.
He brought in pitcher Tyler Clippard, but Clippard flat didn’t have it.  Clippard threw maybe six pitches, getting an out on a poorly struck dribbler but also giving up another base-hit and walking a batter, and suddenly the Yankees were…  well, maybe not in trouble exactly but certainly in danger of turning a winnable game into a rather more exciting contest than it needed to be.  With two outs and the bases loaded, Girardi went back to the bullpen, bringing in ace reliever Dellin Betances.  A home run at this point would have made the game 8-7 with two innings left to play.  Girardi therefore needed his best closer to throw a strikeout.  Instead, Betances balked on his first pitch, putting a runner across the plate, walking a batter, and bringing up the tying run.
Betances settled and then threw the needed strikeout, and the Yankees got out of the jam.  Then Aaron Judge hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, and the game was all but over.  The Blue Jays would score once more, but the game ended with a final score: Yankees 11, Blue Jays 5.

Through all of this, I was struck by the way that pitching, and especially starting pitching, is lot like some of the endurance racing that I’ve done.  You don’t go all-out as an endurance racer in every moment.  This is especially true in cycling, but even in mid-distance and open-water swimming, the best guys work to keep it fast but loose until the critical moments and then they put the hammer down.  This is also how pitchers, and especially starting pitchers, work.  They can’t put the hammer down through a hundred pitches.  The best guys use a variety of pitches, fastballs but also off-speed stuff that moves, to keep batters guessing.  Only in the truly critical moments do you see these pitchers’ very best stuff because that stuff costs against their abilities over the course of the rest of the game.  Tanaka is great with this because he has such a large repertoire of pitches but also because his fast-but-loose is still very hard to hit cleanly.  By comparison, whatever Betances was going to do when he came into the game, following that balk, he brought three pitches of his absolutely fastest stuff--all pitches over 100 mph--and that got it done.  That level of effort was warranted in that spot because that spot was the game’s critical moment.  However, it was also the end of Betances’s night.

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