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September 4, 2014

Baseball Therapy

I Guess You Just Throw The Next Pitch

by Russell A. Carleton


A few weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting some research at SaberSeminar in Boston to a room full of sabermetric luminaries (also, Mike Ferrin was there!) and one guy who was really confused about why no one was talking about swords. The seminar itself was a joy but, of course, given that I was in Boston and within walking distance of Fenway Park, it would have been a shame not to go to a game. It was my first time at Fenway, and if you haven’t yet been, it is worth the trip from anywhere. TV doesn’t do it justice.

I sat in the center-field bleachers between Ben Lindbergh’s girlfriend and former Kansas City Royals pitcher Brian Bannister. Bannister was one of the first active major leaguers to talk about how he used sabermetric principles and also happens to be a really nice guy. We ended up discussing our proposals to our wives in buildings that no longer exist.

In the fifth inning of the game itself, David Ortiz did one of those things that David Ortiz does. He smacked a ball down the right-field line and, because this was Fenway Park, he wrapped it around the Pesky Pole for a home run. Brian remarked that he remembered a time when Ortiz hit a similar home run off him. He said that he felt angry after it happened, but that he realized he needed to calm himself down. Lindbergh, hearing our conversation, leaned over and asked Brian, “Well, what do you do if you’re a pitcher in that situation?” Brian just shrugged. His message was clear. What can you do, really? “I guess you just throw the next pitch,” I said.

From a perfectly rational point of view, “throw the next pitch” is the correct answer. You can’t do anything about what just happened. The home run will not be coming back (unless it’s at Wrigley) and whether you like it or not, there’s another batter walking toward the plate who gets to take his swings. Your job is to get him out. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. Of course, no one is perfectly rational. The sting of disappointment will be there. Baseball players are human. To suggest they would be completely unaffected is silly.

But does it affect the outcome for the next hitter? Brian might have been angry about giving up the home run to Ortiz, but when Manny Ramirez strode to the plate, did it affect his fastball? This is another case where announcers and fans alike love to play amateur psychologist. The camera zooms in on the pitcher’s eyes and everyone tries to tell how the pitcher was affected by the misfortune that just befell him. (For the record, Ramirez proceeded to fly to left and Kevin Youkilis struck out)

Why settle for amateur (read: usually awful) psychoanalysis when you can actually look at the data with a real-life psychologist? You know what that means ...

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article The Call-Up: The Other... (09/04)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Baseball Therapy: How ... (08/26)
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Baseball Therapy: Pois... (09/09)
Next Article >>
The Lineup Card: Nine ... (09/04)

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