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December 21, 2007
Would a Batting Champion Dominate in Wiffle Ball?
Freddy Sanchez takes his cuts
Question 4: Would a major league batting champion dominate in wiffle ball?
"Wiffle ball is like fight club." Yes, except with Wiffle balls and no fighting, but the point Tom Lynch, a sports marketing consultant who has played in leagues all over the country, is trying to make is that there are some parallels in the underground, word-of-mouth nature of both. There are hundreds of Wiffle ball communities throughout the country, filled with thousands of men who do battle against one another every weekend with plastic bats and plastic balls.
The elite of the Wiffle community is an organization called Fast Plastic. With more than 300 teams, 1,500-plus players, and 18 locations spread across the country, Fast Plastic boasts a level of organization above and beyond anything you could ever possibly imagine for this backyard game, and it's just about the greatest thing ever for someone who loves Wiffle ball. Many of its regions even have minor leagues. The organization's website is so in-depth that it includes player transactions, available free agents, upcoming prospects, and potential draftees. The players range in ability from ex-minor leaguers to guys who can't tie their own shoes, but they all have one thing in common: their baseball days have passed.
Now, let's say a free agent became available in the Fast Plastic league who, instead of spending his time daydreaming about playing Wiffle ball on the weekend, was talented enough to be paid millions of dollars to hit a baseball in front of a nation of adoring fans. And let's say this wasn't just any professional baseball player, but the National League batting champion.
I headed out to a baseball field in Chandler, Arizona, where I met Jim Balian, who was dressed in his Arizona Vipers uniform. The thirty-one-year-old Balian, when not a senior systems analyst and part-time professor, is one of the best Wiffle ball players in the world-a two-time Wiffle Ball National Champion and MVP. Joining him was teammate and protégé Randy Dalbey, a 6′6″, twenty-one year-old former all-state basketball player; Tom Raven, who played baseball at Azusa Pacific University and has a swing as pretty as Manny Ramirez's; and Kyle Ramsey, one of the best pitchers in all of Wiffle ball. It only took watching them for a minute to see that, unlike many of their major league counterparts, they were real athletes.
Freddy arrived and was about as nice and normal as could be. Instead of spitting on us or demanding no one look him in the eye, he signed autographs for fans and made friendly small talk. It was no way for a professional athlete to act.
We gave Sanchez some warm-ups to get accustomed to the plastic Wiffle ball bat, which isn't the yellow stick-like thing that you grew up using (I really hope you didn't use the big fat red bat). While extremely light, the bats the hard cores use have the dimensions of real baseball bats-perfect for the batting champ. I was becoming concerned that the first inning would never end.
Once we set up the Wiffle ball field in right field, we were ready to start. The rules would be thus: Freddy would get the regulation six innings, three outs an inning, and would play only offense. Since he was an army of one, ghost runners would be used on the base paths as the official rules of Wiffle ball specify. He'd be facing a pitcher throwing from a mound 45 feet away (instead of 60 feet 6 inches, as in major league baseball); three strikes, he'd be out; four balls would be a walk; any fair ball that landed past the infield line would be a single; a double would be when the ball rolled to the fence or hit the fence on the fly but was caught before touching the ground; a triple would be a ball that hit the fence and then the ground; if he hit a ball over the fence, it'd be a homer; and the game would be declared a forfeit if, before the six innings were completed, his mom called him home for dinner.
Balian opened on the mound for the Wifflers.
As far as Wiffle ball, or any other kind of pitching, is concerned, his pitches were as nasty as nasty gets. Balian has been clocked throwing a Wiffle ball 87 miles per hour, which from 45 feet away is the equivalent of 117 miles per hour in baseball. Using pre-scuffed balls (which Wiffle ball allows), Jim was throwing pitches that looked like they were done with CGI effects: a drop ball that completely fell off the table, a riser that started an inch off the ground and ended up over the batter's head, and a slider that broke four feet.
But he was wild early. Freddy walked to open the game and was fouling off pitches and making Balian work. Sanchez went down with three strikeouts in the first inning but I was sure the levee would break.
By the third inning Freddy was no longer even remotely close to getting a hit. A guy who could pull a 102 mph fastball from Joel Zumaya or hit a Pedro curve on a line was missing pitches not by inches but by feet. The foul tips were a thing of the past. Balian's drop ball was untouchable at this point.
Then, the magic happened. After two strikeouts and two walks, Balian left a drop up in the zone and Freddy pounded it to the wall for a double, driving in a ghost runner.
But that was the end of the fun for the batting champ. Balian regained immediate control and polished off the inning with a series of pitches so devastating that two thousand miles away, Chuck Tanner felt a disturbance in the Force.
Break time. Who brought the Sunny D?
While Freddy licked his wounds, I spoke with Balian about why Sanchez hadn't shown any improvement yet, and why, with the exception of his one hit, he actually seemed to be getting worse.
"I'll analyze the hitter," he said. "If I notice he's even fouling them off better on a certain pitch, I'll stay away from that entirely. You start to develop an understanding of what certain hitters can hit. There's so many pitches you can throw, you need to just stay away from the hitter's strength."
We resumed play with Dalbey on the mound. His stuff was kind of like Balian Light but it was still goodnight nurse for Freddy. K, K, K. The game took on a monotonous air of inevitability at this point. K, K, K. The box score was starting to look like it was done by David Duke.
For the final inning Kyle Ramsey took the mound. Freddy continued taking hard cuts and going after pitches with his trademark intensity, but the results were the same: K, K, K. After an awkward silence, someone said the game was over.
Freddy wins 1-0!
Here's the National League batting champion's box score: 1-for-19 (.053 average), 18 Ks, four walks, one hit by pitch, one run scored, one RBI, one double. For you sabermetric types, that adds up to an Erstadesque VORP of POO.
To understand how Freddy ended up looking like your typical Pittsburgh Pirate, I asked him to compare hitting a Wiffle ball to a baseball:
"This is a lot harder. This is way harder."
How much of the problem was the speed of the pitches and how much was the movement?
"It's a combination, but mainly the movement. I had balls going in, coming away, going up. Eighty-five to ninety percent of it is the movement."
How would the movement compare to, say, a Barry Zito curveball?
"Oh, there's no comparison. I mean, at least with the movement up there [in the majors] you can see it, and you have time to do something with it. With this, I have no time to do anything. The distance isn't that big of a deal; it's just that it's coming in hot and has a lot more movement than what I'm used to."
Well, Freddy does play in the NL Central, so maybe that wasn't as meaningful as it sounded. But later, All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca confirmed that this is indeed a very difficult adjustment to make, even for a major league hitter in a real division. Lo Duca was the man to talk to because he is a master of both forms; on the back of his rookie card under "Major Accomplishments" he listed making the semifinals in the Wiffle Ball World Series.
Paul wasn't surprised that Sanchez flailed at the Wifflers' offerings. He said it was just like the time he faced softball pitcher Jennie Finch and struck out on four pitches. The real problem was that Finch's pitches moved in ways that major league batters never see-exactly the problem that Freddy had when he was whiffing like Rob Deer. And Freddy had the added challenge of using a bat that was a pound lighter than what he's accustomed to. "Most major leaguers get so used to their stick that they can tell you if it's an ounce off," Paul said. "It took me a year to get used to a wooden bat after coming out of college and using aluminum." If Lo Duca is to be believed, Freddy should have stayed home and tried to calculate pi to the sixty-fifth digit.
But as someone who has hit both a baseball and a Wiffle ball with great success, he says it's all just a matter of adjustment. "We face Randy Johnson and don't strike out every time... I guarantee if you give Freddy a week or a week and a half of swinging that bat, he'd start rocking those guys."
While the idea of Freddy "rocking" Balian and his mates anytime soon might be pushing it, we may see if Lo Duca's prediction was on the money sooner than expected. When I asked Sanchez whether there was anything to be learned from playing Wiffle ball (a question I am quite certain will never be posed to anyone for any reason ever again), he said, "I'd like to get in one of these leagues in the off-season. Once you'd get into the baseball season, the ball would look like a freakin' beachball coming at you. This is definitely good for hand-eye coordination and this is definitely the hardest thing to hit. No doubt about it." Balian came over and gave Freddy a flyer for the upcoming tournament.
"Awesome. Me, J-Bay, and Grabow are in." (Yes, even Pittsburgh Pirates have cool-guy nicknames; J-Bay is left fielder Jason Bay. Grabow is relief pitcher John Grabow, or G-Bow in Linda Cohn parlance.)
Freddy left, and just as your mother taught you, only after people leave should you start to talk badly about them. But he was such a good guy that there really wasn't anything bad to say besides he stunk at Wiffle ball. Unlike what many people would have done in his shoes, he kept trying hard and didn't make any snide remarks like "The sting of striking out in Wiffle ball is lessened by thoughts of the multi-million dollar contract I'm preparing to sign." Seeing what a decent guy he was gave me some insight into how he didn't go on a killing spree after starting the season that he led the league in hitting on the bench behind Smilin' Joe Randa.
So the day may have been a tough one for Freddy, but maybe he'll redeem himself if J-Bay and Grabow don't bail on him. But even if he never again enters the den of (Arizona) vipers that is competitive Wiffle ball, he can rest easy knowing that he picked the right ball to be able to hit.
This is an excerpt from Todd Gallagher's book Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan, which answers similarly crucial questions, like how a fan would hit against a major league pitcher. If you would like to get in contact with Todd, you can reach him by clicking here.
To hear more about the book, listen in to BP Radio's conversation with Todd Gallagher:
Click to download the mp3