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January 24, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Latest in Baseball Lingo

by Cecilia M. Tan

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Cecilia Tan is the Publications Director for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), where she edits the Baseball Research Journal. Her next project after Baseball Prospectus 2012 is launching a new digital magazine, Yankees Yearly: An Annual Look at the New York Yankees

I'm a writer and editor by trade. Words interest me. And baseball's words interest me more than most. Much is made of the way baseball lingo has shaped American slang, and how the history of baseball as first written and then narrated on radio pushed the evolution of the jargon to more and more colorful heights. That evolution has not slowed. What interests me most is not the history of baseball argot, but the way it continues to grow and change. If anything, there are more commentators, bloggers, and pundits adding their voices to the conversation now than ever before.

New terms seem to me to arise from three distinct populations: the players, the scouts and sabermetricians, and the media. The players and coaches use specialized language among themselves for teaching purposes but also as part of the sociological fabric of the clubhouse. Slang terms define cultural boundaries, as well as generational ones, and current players want to seem "hip" to the language of their peers. The "dinger" or "round-tripper" of the past became the "big fly" in the 1980s. What was a "nasty" pitch in the 1980s had become a "filthy" one by the year 2000. The first player I heard describe a changeup as a "Bugs Bunny ball" was Jason Giambi, who said it came from a Looney Tunes cartoon that ballparks often show during rain delays in which Bugs strikes out the whole lineup with a pitch so slow that all three men swing at it three times each as it floats by.

Scouts have a language all their own, as they should, since they're the ones who have to talk about players more than anyone and describe them in technical terms to people who haven't seen them. Scouts borrow lingo from sabermetricians and the stats community but also lend it in the other direction. Phrases like "misses bats" (for a pitcher who gets a lot of swinging strikes) and "bounce around guy" (for a player who has been traded often) come out of scout chatter. The sabermetricians and baseball analysts, meanwhile, are the population most likely to be inventing new stats and the words for them. We especially seem fond of turning acronyms into words. WHIP, WARP, VORP, and BABIP are typically used in the running blather at any of our favorite watering holes. Unlike the "old style" stats like RBI, ERA, and even OBP, you won't hear anyone spelling out Vee-Oh-Arr-Pee for VORP. (Besides, "vorp" is just fun to say.) We've also got phrases like the "Three True Outcomes" (walk, strikeout, home run). But not every term that is common parlance in the stat community makes it out to the mainstream fans or media.

The media these days includes so many former players in its ranks as commentators, analysts, and talk show hosts that clubhouse terms have accelerated into the mainstream. Simultaneously, we have many veteran commentators and play-by-play announcers still using the jargon they learned half a decade ago, resulting in what may be a richer and more varied stew of baseball vocabulary than ever before.

Much of my time this winter has been spent huddled not over the Hot Stove, but my laptop, editing the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2012. The BP Annual combines the efforts of a full roster, 25 people, and each writer comes from a different background. Some started in newspapers, some in blogs, some have writing degrees, some have scouting experience. All these voices strive to make the annual readable and fun. I couldn't help but notice quite a number of colorful terms in use throughout the book, terms that are not yet found in the Dickson Baseball Dictionary. I thought it would be fun to share some with you.

So here you have it, a collection of cutting-edge baseball terms from BP's writers, some of which might make their way into common parlance (and Dickson's next edition), or which might not. 

Worm killer
Ground-ball pitcher. We talk about pitchers' ground-ball versus fly-ball tendencies often when writing up players. A guy with extreme splits might merit the label "worm killer." There are a ton of terms for ground balls—worm burners, daisy cutters, squibbers, ten-hoppers—but I haven't yet seen many others for sinkerballers and other pitchers who induce a lot of them.

Backup catcher. Here's a great example of language evolution. The word caddy, from golf, was applied often in the 1990s and 2000s to set-up men or eighth-inning pitchers. Dickson even gives the following example from a 1997 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article: "Hernandez has pitched four times in his new role as caddy for incumbent closer Rod Beck." It makes perfect sense to extend that concept of sidekick or subordinate to the catcher and his caddy, the backup catcher. You may see the whole complement of bullpen relievers leading up to the closer described as the "bucket line."

Marginal Player. In Dickson, you'll find a "tweener" as a synonym for what we now call a "gapper," a batted ball that splits the fielders or gets in the gap. But at BP, "tweener" is most often applied to a player who is at an in-between stage in his career, stuck between levels of the minors, between the minors and the majors, or between positions, with the glove for one of them but not the bat. Some tweeners are "Quad-A" players, guys who are better than Triple-A and yet not quite good enough for the major leagues. The phrase "on the bubble" is used here, too, and is in general US parlance now, but that term for "on the cusp between making it and failure" comes from car racing. The day of the qualifying race to make it into the Indianapolis 500 is known as "bump day" or "bubble day," as in the day the bubble bursts and the dream ends for many drivers.

Marginal. In Dickson, you'll find another synonym for "tweener": "fringe player," i.e. a guy who is on the fringe or edge of making the majors or sticking in the big leagues. Language has this way of growing, though, where words migrate from one use to another. Fringe players are "fringy." Not only are they fringy, but their stuff can be fringy, their bats can be fringy. Young guys who are fringy may have tools so raw they are "mooing."

Cold Corner
First base. The opposite side from the "hot corner," of course.

Innings Muncher
A non-ace pitcher, someone who is good for "eating" a lot of innings. This is an evolution of "innings eater." Like the move from "nasty" to "filthy," it may be the natural progression from one synonym to another more extreme. Don't discount the fact that "innings muncher" is also more fun to say than "inning eater," not to mention possibly just a touch risqué. Street cred comes with crudeness, you know. This one is often preceded by the words "replacement level," as in, "After surgery, he never returned to form and is now nothing more than a replacement level innings muncher." Unlike "workhorse," innings muncher doesn't carry a positive connotation.

Lanky or long-armed. A scouty term for tall players, especially pitchers, who may use those long limbs to generate extra hop (velocity) on the ball. While we're on the subject of "velocity," in baseball, all it means is pitch speed. In physics, "velocity" actually describes direction as well as magnitude of speed. Somehow it came into baseball parlance as a flat synonym for pitch speed and never left. (And it's only pitch speed—no one talks about a baserunner's "velocity." Not even for Rickey Henderson.)

Now if only someone would come up with a snappy, memorable epithet for "strikeout-to-walk ratio," next year's annual could be even more colorful.

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