April 11, 2012
Finding the Zone
In his sparkling debut for Baseball Prospectus last week, Doug Thorburn wrote perceptively and with iconoclastic intelligence about pitching mechanics.
“The ominous world of pitching is full of theoretical sand traps,” Thorburn wrote, “and modern research has uncovered the evidence to challenge some deep-rooted beliefs.” His article does just that. (And let me also put in a plug for “Raising Aces: Da Pitching Code,” which he published about a year ago on the Baseball Daily Digest web site and which provided some of the seeds of thought for last week’s BP article.)
But it was an aside in Thorburn’s recent article that stopped me in my tracks: “My world was rocked the first time I spent an entire ballgame focusing on just the catcher's mitt and was clued in to the functional difference between pitch command and control.”
So what is the difference between command and control? This question has been on my mind since just after I began covering baseball games. After a May 19, 2009 Durham Bulls game, starter Wade Davis was answering questions from reporters and made mention of his command. One of the reporters, picking up on this line of thought, asked him a further question about his “control,” and Davis interrupted him, quietly—he was always quiet and stony with reporters—but quite firmly.
“Not control, command,” he corrected. Then he went on to talk a little about his command.
Although Davis was making an emphatic distinction between the two terms, I’ve discovered since then that they are conceptually muddy, and in fact some ballplayers and, especially, managers, seem to use the words interchangeably. From a distance, they seem much like the same thing, and in fact they are similar, as Thorburn himself allows.
But how are they different? I wanted to know. I’ve been wanting to know.
So I decided to ask Thorburn. I sent him an email. I had good control of the email, but frankly, I thought my command was a little shaky.
Thorburn’s comebacker: “This is sort of a hot-button issue with me.”
Sweet. Please push it.
I define command as the ability to hit the catcher's target with a certain pitch type, regardless of where he sets up in the zone (or outside of it). A pitcher with command of his fastball will be able to consistently hit leather without the catcher needing to move his glove to receive the offering; command of the curve also means knowing how to bury the pitch vs. putting it over for a strike (and rarely hanging one). To me, "control" describes the ability to get the ball over the plate, often with a margin of error with respect to hitting the catcher's glove. A pitcher can have decent control yet poor command by throwing strikes that frequently miss targets, resulting in few walks but a lot of hard-hit balls. I will also use "control" to describe how a pitcher harnesses a pitch in a short stretch (one inning / one game), and "command" to describe the long-term ability to hit targets with that pitch type.
Now we’re getting somewhere. I wrote back, starting to regain my command:
It seems that, in the sense you're using it, "Command" is to some degree a more refined and potent step up from "Control"—the difference between merely throwing strikes and actually hitting a target with a given pitch. That makes perfect sense to me, since I've had some pitchers talk to me about throwing "good strikes," i.e. pitches out of the middle of the plate and down, as opposed to balls up and out over the plate that get pounded. I watched last night's Charlotte Knights starter do just that—actually, the Bulls' starter, Matt Torra, did a fair amount of it, too. They were strikes, but they were too hittable.
Thorburn took my pitch for a strike, and our exchange basically settled the matter for me.
Comparing pitching to writing, which I did the other day after watching Chris Archer pitch for Durham, also helped me separate the two concepts. “Control,” for a writer, means delivering words and sentences that functionally get the point across, or over the plate, if you will. But there is plenty of bad and/or bland writing that does merely that and nothing more. Anyone with a decent grasp of language can communicate meaning, even if it is vague or un-compelling meaning.
Yesterday I came across this sentence, quoted in the New York Review of Books:
In under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good.
The word you trip over in that sentence is “blisteringly.” It’s cool-sounding and attention-grabbing, but what exactly does it mean, and why use it here? In fact, “blister” creates an incongruity, because it is (blisteringly?) hard to visually connect the failure to be “good” with the notion of scorching or abrading suggested by the word “blister.” Note, too, that there are different kinds of blisters (heat, rubbing), so the word is a little vague right from the get-go unless you indicate what kind of blister you mean.
You could argue, I suppose, that weakness of skin can lead to blisters, and thus attempt to link the image that way: the world is rough, and it blisters your moral skin. True enough, but there’s a larger problem: “blisteringly” doesn’t really need to be in the sentence at all. (“Omit unnecessary words!” The Elements of Style is never as good as it is in this three-word sentence.) It’s a buzzword that sounds pointed and sharp but actually makes the sentence a little vague, the way a pitch thrown with decent control but little command is vague: it could wind up anywhere in the zone. (A “blistering” fastball, on the other hand, is thrown with command.)
The author, I bet, chose the word quickly, for expedient emphasis, without asking herself if “blisteringly” was what Gustave Flaubert, whose command in Madame Bovary is impeccable, called le mot juste. (Mark Twain similarly exhorted writers to “use the right word, not its second cousin.”)
Control is being able to write a coherent sentence, but nothing more than that. Command is being able to write an exact one—one that precisely captures one’s intended meaning, just as a pitch thrown with command precisely finds the catcher’s mitt. John Cheever did this, over and over. Joan Didion does it, Salinger did it, Proust did it. Those four writers are very different from one another—they all have a “signature,” as Thorburn calls a pitcher’s unique genetic/physical constitution—but they all, in their own way, throw perfect pitches. Although their mechanics are idiosyncratic, each writer has full possession of them.
It’s interesting, in the context of a comparison to writing, that Thorburn identifies set-up and posture as probably the fundamental sources of a pitcher’s command. It goes for writing, too: the quality of your writing is determined by how you start: balance and uprightness of thought. Poor thinking posture, no matter how well the rest of your mechanics play out, will result in writing that can never be better than just average. Nor will it have any signature. Anyone could have written it.
There is more to command in writing, of course, than just choosing the right words and putting them into purposeful sentences. You have to get the reader, having finished a sentence, a paragraph or a page, to want to go on to the next one. You’re telling a story or making an argument, and you’ve got to be compelling. Or rather, propelling: you’re going somewhere, and if you’re doing it with good command then you’re taking the reader with you.
This notion leads me to a sort of second-order theory of pitching command and control, one for which Doug Thorburn should in no way be blamed. I started formulating this theory right after I watched Wade Davis in May 2009 and then listened to him talk about his outing that night. To me, the way he was approaching the matter, I took him to mean—perhaps mistakenly, but sometimes mistakes lead to discoveries—that command meant, for him, staying ahead of the hitters: not necessarily in the count, but in the progress of each at-bat. He was, in forcing the hitters to swing at the pitches he wanted them to swing at, and in keeping them guessing and off-balance, drawing hitters into the “story” he was trying to tell them. Davis was subjecting them to his will, dictating each at-bat, moving the ball around, changing speeds and locations, compelling the hitters to follow his pitches and their sequence in much the same way that a reader in suspense remains in thrall to the unforeseeable revelations of a mystery plot. Here is how I advanced the idea then:
Command has to do with not merely the location but the intention and purpose of each pitch, as well as the function of that pitch within the overall approach to each at-bat. Davis wasn't just throwing his fastball for strikes, but throwing it where he wanted it and making the hitters subject to his decision-making. He was, in short, commanding them. Davis told me that a couple of times, he started a hitter off with the curveball, just dropping it in (for a strike, of course), in order to give the hitter something extra to think about, which of course would make the low-90s fastball that much harder to catch up to. The curve not only kept the [Rochester] Red Wings off-balance, it also made his outing "a little easier on my arm."
In other words, part of command is command of oneself. (Ezra Pound, who had erratic command: “If a man have not order within him / He can not spread order about him.”) In this sense, Cliff Lee is a master of command. He stuff doesn’t seem dominant, but he arranges it in such a way as to totally overmatch hitters. (Alice Munro can be kind of like that.) Jeff Weaver, on the other hand, comes to mind as an example of a pitcher who lacked this kind of command: he had good stuff but could never consistently harness it. He sometimes seemed to give no sense that he had any idea of what he was trying to do out there. The literary world is littered with such talents.
A couple of years ago, my editor gave me a book to review. It was a debut novel, and not long into it the narrator spends quite a length of time in a cafeteria, detailing for the reader her painstaking approach toward and execution of the project of loading ham, peas, and mashed potatoes carefully onto her fork, and then eating the little sculpture. Repeatedly.
The sentences were all good ones, and I was to some degree impressed with the obsessive micro-focus of her attention: that’s a pretty good, hard slider she’s got there. But after I got through dinner with her, I put the book down and emailed my editor to tell him I was going to pass on the book. I had no interest in knowing where she would go or what she would do next. In my mind, I imagined picking up the eye of her slider as it came toward me, hanging, and drilling it into the gap for a double.