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February 20, 2013

Punk Hits

Baseball Players Are Too Damned Good For Their Own Good

by Ian Miller

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I was never what you’d call good at baseball. My career peaked not at 27, when many pros come into their own, but when I was 12. I was one of the bigger kids in my league, and even though I hadn’t entered puberty, I already had the full complement of old player skills: good eye at the plate, low batting average, above-average power. On those occasions I did make contact with a ball, it stayed hit.

I was also a capable first baseman; the coach told me being left-handed gave me a reach advantage, but we both knew I was there because I lacked any semblance of speed or range. But when my fellow fielders threw a ball my way, more often than not, I caught it.

After that it was all downhill. In my freshman year of high school I made the junior varsity team and rode pine for the entire year. I was maybe the worst player on a team full of replacement-level high school players. Then in 10th grade I actually got cut from the JV squad! How does that even happen? (Doing lots of drugs and kinda nodding out during tryouts is how it happens.)

I wasn’t really sad that I got cut. I was really angry at first, of course, and took it as a personal affront, but I didn’t miss playing baseball. I enjoyed watching baseball and I loved it in the abstract, but playing it made me miserable. The pace of the game left me far too much time to think, and mostly I thought about failing. What if the ball is hit to me and I boot it? What if I can’t get the guy in from third? More often than not, self-doubt carried the day. In a game where even the best players fail two-thirds of the time, self-doubt is the quickest way to ensure failure. Also not being good at baseball contributes, and I had that on lock too.

So I haven’t played baseball in any concerted fashion since I was 14 or so. There have been occasional pick-up softball exploits, which is about as similar to playing baseball as doing community theater is to being in a Broadway show. The general idea is the same, but all the particulars are different. But in the intervening 30 years, I haven’t played baseball, and as a result, I no longer really appreciate how difficult it is.

Postulate 1: Baseball is really, really difficult and most of us really don’t appreciate that.

Forget the whole hitting part, which seems to defy the laws of physics. For the moment, let’s consider just the throwing. When I’m at a game, I like to watch the infielders warm up between innings, paying special attention to the third baseman’s throws to first. Sometimes they’ll be a little high, occasionally one will be low, but they rarely skip in, and I’ve never seen one end up in the stands (although I’m sure that happens occasionally).

Now I know what would happen if I were playing third, but what would happen if you were? How many of your half-dozen throws would reach their intended target?

And we haven’t even mentioned pitching yet. What would happen if you attempted to throw a ball into a 24-inch-by-21-inch space from 60.5 feet away? No hitter, just a screen, maybe. I’d probably walk the ballpark. Now consider that major-league pitchers are doing the same thing, only at like 90 miles an hour with the world’s best hitters ready to demolish their mistakes.

Postulate 2: It’s the players’ fault for making it look so damn easy. These guys do themselves a disservice by being among the 750 best baseball players in the world.

My wife, Tracy, is an aerialist. Aerial tissu is her apparatus of choice. Her goal is to make her movements, which are physically demanding and would be impossible for all but the strongest and most fit among us, look graceful and effortless. This is a problem, insofar as the people in audience can’t appreciate how incredibly difficult the performance actually is. We’ve discussed how to address this: maybe make all spectators attempt a single pull-up or something, just to impress upon them how hard this is.

Trapeze artists have also been known to intentionally tank a trick in order to build anticipation and drama before they perform it successfully. Maybe baseball players need to adopt this practice. What if Josh Reddick uncorked one into the bleachers every now and then, just to keep us honest?

The college baseball season started up again this past Friday, and I made sure I was in the stands for Cal’s opener against Michigan. Neither team looks like a world-beater this season, but they’re both Division I programs with talented players. These kids have been playing organized baseball for most of their lives, and are among the best amateur players in the world (probably; I mean I don’t really know). Every time either team would get a leadoff hitter on, the next batter would invariably attempt to bunt him over. In the pro game, we’d all consider this to be terrible strategy; not so in college, though, because the defense seemed to be able to throw out the batter-runner only about half the time. Because it’s really hard to do.

Postulate 3: Occasionally reminding ourselves how difficult this all is will only increase our enjoyment of the world’s greatest game.

I can’t think of anything more aesthetically satisfying than watching a slick-fielding shortstop showing off during infield drills. (Don’t tell any of the sluggers taking BP that I said that, though; I’d die if they found out!) It’s a rare opportunity to see the raw ability unfettered by the requirement of recording an out. These guys are gifted athletes who have performed these actions tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands of times, refining and internalizing their reactions and actions until they're automatic.

Of course that doesn’t make it any easier when your team’s shortstop boots a routine grounder, and that’s not where I’m going here. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, or demanding that you “take it easy on these guys because they’re trying their best”; no, my ultimate goal is selfish. I want to enjoy baseball more.

So if you’re so inclined, try getting to the yard extra-early to see some infield drills. Or take a minute and recall how difficult it is to hit a round ball squarely with a round bat. Or just marvel at the aesthetic perfection that is the game of baseball and the men who play it at its highest level.

I hope you wring every drop of joy out of the 2013 season, and every season that comes after it. I hope you never lose sight of what an amazing game this is and how lucky we all are to be able to witness it.

 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Baseball,  Baseball Things

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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bobbygrace

Great article.

I also washed out in JV, but in a fall league that I signed up for not knowing what it was -- a league for really, really good players -- I faced the varsity guys. One guy, who was drafted in a late round out of high school and went to a Division I college, threw an 85-mile-an-hour fastball and a knuckle-curve. Fortunately I didn't have to face him very often because he was on my team. It was scary just to catch the ball when he was warming up; hitting his pitches was, for me and most other guys in the league, nearly impossible. I often think about this guy when watching major league pitchers. It blows my mind that his velocity was in Jamie Moyer territory -- that stuff's not "slow" by anything but a ridiculous measure.

By the way, I finished 0-for-the-season in that fall league. But I had the GWRBI on a sacrifice fly in the championship game! Ah, the glory days.

Feb 20, 2013 04:16 AM
rating: 3
 
BillJohnson

Agreed, great article.

Another scrubeenie here, although I will point out that I did manage to finish my sophomore season with a .500 batting average (1 for 2...). It's funny, though: throwing a fastball into that tiny target honestly looks a lot harder today than when I was trying to do it back then, 40 years ago. (Never successfully enough that the coach would let me do it in a game, mind you, but still.) It just seemed like something you've gotta learn to do, rather than the awesome feat that it is. Youth is wasted on the young.

Nice comment about how big a "soft-tosser's" 85-mph fastball really is, BG.

Feb 20, 2013 06:01 AM
rating: 2
 
somerford

Awesume resume Ian, Thanks... You're hired.

Feb 20, 2013 07:23 AM
rating: 2
 
Vicmill1

Beautiful. Thank you for a real gift.

Feb 20, 2013 07:55 AM
rating: 2
 
kenneff

Needed reminder of how good these guys are. Just today, one of your fellow writers at BP referred to Casey Kotchman as a "mediocre athlete." Mediocre major league player maybe - but I doubt if there's any mediocre athletes in the big leagues.

Feb 20, 2013 08:55 AM
rating: 4
 
therealn0d

John Kruk might disagree.

Feb 22, 2013 13:44 PM
rating: -1
 
vansloot

Pick up a tub of baseballs at your local secondhand sports store (they always have a ton) and pick a used glove while you're there and head over the park with a buddy (or by yourself) and just try throwing at a target consistently. Not only is it incredibly difficult (and fun), you'll probably be surprised how quickly your arm begins to ache.

Feb 20, 2013 08:56 AM
rating: 1
 
mblthd

Word!! Great article, and I totally agree.

However...

(1) RE: "What would happen if you attempted to throw a ball into a 24-inch-by-21-inch space from 60.5 feet away?" It blows my mind whenever hitters get offended by pitchers throwing inside. I'm not saying pitchers never intentionally drill hitters - sure, it happens all the time. But the way many hitters crowd the plate, the difference between a strike over the inside corner and a HBP in the ribs can be less than 12 inches. Do these sensitive hitters think they could hit a 12-inch-diameter target from 60.5 feet away with any consistency?

(2) It also blows my mind when hitters whine about called strike threes. Did these guys not play Little League? "Protect the plate" means don't let the ump punch you out - with 2 strikes on you, you have to swing at anything close, even if it's just to foul it off. Anyone who ever played has heard this a hundred times, and yet we still see major league players whine about called strike threes. So what if the pitch missed the plate? Okay, the ump made the wrong call - but you've been taught not to let that happen, haven't you?

(3) It seems like way too often you see this - an OF loses a routine fly ball in the sun or whatever, and it pops out of his glove and to the ground. However, the batter was jogging out of the box, surely thinking, "Why should I run full speed on this one? It's a routine fly ball, surely the guy is going to catch it...," and he ends up on first base when he could have made second base standing up had he hustled right out of the box.

Again, I totally agree with the article and I enjoy watching and marvel at the skill displayed by pro ballplayers at the MLB level - hell, I marvel at the skill displayed at the Low-A level - but the above-listed phenomena have always puzzled me and I guess they always will.

Feb 20, 2013 09:13 AM
rating: -1
 
BHayes

Great article man. Should be required reading for the casual and passive fans who, for whatever reason, lack perspective about the skills on display at an MLB game. The 12th pitcher on any roster would have a K/BB ratio of about 25,000/1 if he faced the fans seated at the ballpark! Plus, any article that gets Tracy Miller some deserved run in BP wins.

Feb 20, 2013 13:41 PM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Great article.

My wife is a musical theater actress, and it consistently amazes me how skilled she and her colleagues are when it comes to singing, dancing and emoting on cue. My son is a budding gymnast- it is incredible to see what the oldr kids at his gym can do.

It is amazing to see human performance at peak levels. You are right, we fail to appreciate this sometimes.

Feb 20, 2013 14:27 PM
rating: 1
 
ChoppertoChipper

You are gifted, talented and write concisely and to the point without droning on and on. Here are some other fun baseball skills to try that many of us couldn't do:
1. Run as fast as you can then slide into the grass without spraining something or winding yourself from the running. That's just the grass, not even the dirt!
2. Have someone drop a ball from a four story building. Try to catch it on a sunny day. A cloudy day. In a drizzle. In the dusk.
3. Place two friends twenty feet apart. Run from one to the other five times. This is called a rundown and it's way harder than it looks.
4. Bunt. Chances are, your bunt is in the sink.

Baseball is really, really hard.

Feb 20, 2013 19:56 PM
rating: 3
 
greenengineer

This is good. Thanks!

Feb 22, 2013 16:21 PM
rating: 0
 
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