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In The Room

Hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in sports. Everybody knows this. As a measure of irrefutable proof, I googled my above lede sentence and here were the first two links that popped up.

With premise firmly established, let us now move on to a far more interesting question—if hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in sports, what's the second-most difficult thing to do in sports?

This is truly an excellent area to explore, one that deserves a detailed, thorough examination… ideally by a smarter, more dedicated writer than myself. So let's give up on it.

With my own lack of competence and #want firmly established, let us now move on to a slightly less interesting, if more germane question—if hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in baseball, what's the second-most difficult to do in baseball?

"Outside of hitting, it's tough to say what's most difficult," admitted Jake Arrieta of the Cubs. "Now, being in the National League and having to hit, I have a new appreciation for how those guys do it and how they do it so well. When a guy throws 95 down and away on the black, it looks like it's a mile away.

"I kind of use that on the mound, now, knowing how difficult it is to hit certain pitches."

Apparently, coming to the NL has informed Arrieta’s choices.

"One hundred percent. And even seeing how certain guys will mix in off-speed against a guy like me, it just shows you how difficult it is to maintain the timing you need to adjust to breaking balls, to stay on a fastball. Yeah, I've got an entirely new appreciation for hitting."

While Arrieta didn't have a specific answer for the question, his response was fairly astute; throughout my interviews with about a dozen or so Cubs and Pirates, no baseball thing received more than a single mention as being the second-most difficult after hitting.

So it would seem that, yeah, it's tough to say. Fellow Cubs starter Travis Wood had a good answer, though.

"To stay in baseball. There's always somebody trying to take your job, and it's performance-based, so it's a grind to keep yourself in shape. Hitters are figuring things out about pitchers and pitchers are figuring things out about hitters, so to stay in the game a long time is really hard."

From there, Wood and I digressed into our shared longing to see a lefty at an non-1B infield position, just once, but now I'm rambling.

John Axford is a thoughtful guy and argued for pitching as the second-most difficult thing to do in baseball.

"Pitching is quite difficult. It's also one of the most unnatural things we can do with our bodies, so it takes quite a toll. I had Tommy John surgery, so that shows the force and the unnaturalness of pitching. You look around the clubhouse and a lot of guys—even non-pitchers—have had similar surgeries or shoulder surgeries. It's definitely a matter of making sure your body is in tune with itself, whether it's core, legs, chest, back, shoulders, elbows, everything, so you're not putting the all the pressure on one particular spot.

"And just the mechanics of (the job of pitching) —you have a 17-inch plate that you have to throw the ball over. You have to make sure it's within a certain distance above the ground, but not too high above the ground. And you can't just lay it in there; there's someone standing there with a bat who's going to hit it, and they're going to hit it far if they can. So you have to confuse them or fool them, or at least spot it exactly where you want to, and it's difficult to do."

Unlike our first three respondents, Ike Davis doesn't pitch for a living; he's a first baseman by trade, so his filter would seem to be a bit different.

"Plays on bad hops, a pop up between three people and it's a big crowd and you can't really hear anybody say anything so you don't know who's going to catch it…. "

I interrupted here, curious on the factors at play on those balls in no-man's land.

"Yeah, it's crowd noise and the distance you're apart from each other when someone calls it. You can't hear it if someone calls it early. There's a certain level of noise that you really just can't hear anything. And it doesn't really happen in the minor leagues. I mean, 2,000 people aren't really going to fill your eardrums. But you get into the high 30s and low 40s (in terms of thousands of fans) and it gets pretty noisy."

After the interview, I informed him that he'd unwittingly submitted two answers, but he wouldn't rank one above the other, so it seems Ike Davis gets two votes. Mazel tov!

As a middle infielder, I assumed Clint Barmes' answer to our query would be something related to a tough double play or a ball deep in the hole at short… especially given that each response to this point was reflective of the position the guy plays.

"Probably catching. To be a catcher."

E-Rocco (9).

"I have a lot of respect for guys I've played with behind the plate. Just watching what they do and being in the game as much as they are—following along with hitters, and trying to call pitches, not to mention wearing foul balls and the way they get banged up throughout the season, it takes a special person to be a catcher."

Has he ever caught?

"I tried it one time. Once. I was 12. And I said I'd never go back."

That bad, huh?

"I didn't have a great experience with it," Barmes said, laughing. "But yeah, it wasn't for me. But I enjoy being in the action, so I went to the next-best thing which, for me, was shortstop."

I regaled Barmes with stories of my own baseballing career and noted that, when I pitched, my arm always hurt.

"Yeah, that probably would've been the best answer."

Is he changing his vote?!?

"I'm not changing, because I can't give the pitchers too much credit—I'm still a hitter. But yeah, it would be tough with what they do with their shoulder, with their arm and with their elbow. All that goes into that, and then you have to have success to stick and to even get an opportunity to be as consistent as they need to be. That's not an easy profession."

We'll take Barmes’ (original) cue and conclude our look into baseball's second-most difficult thing with Chris Stewart, catcher.

"I just think it's the day-to-day grind, mentally locking yourself in for 162 games. Some days you come in and you're definitely more tired than other days. There could be some external things going on in your life that may affect your mindset coming in. But once you step out between those lines, it's time to go play ball. You have to get your mind right. Just making sure you're mentally prepared each and every game.

"Obviously there are physical effects, your body wears down a little bit the longer the season goes, but yeah, I think the mental grind is what kind of separates the guys that are able to be consistent the whole way through a season and guys who aren't. Coming in, getting your mind right and preparing yourself for how you need to be before you go out there—it's tough, but that's the key."

***

In the interests of full disclosure, here's the breakdown of opinions on baseball's second-most difficult thing, including a few responses that didn't make the final piece:

  • "It's tough to say." — 1
  • "To stay in baseball." — 1
  • "Pitching." — 1
  • "Bad hops." — 1
  • "Pop ups in no-man's land." — 1
  • "Catching." — 1
  • "The mental grind." — 1
  • "Smart baserunning (making the correct first step on line drives)." — 1
  • "Staying healthy." — 1
  • "A ball deep in the hole." — 1
  • "Being consistent." — 1
  • "Playing elite defense." — 1

Thank you for reading

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cdgarosi
9/19
It's actually the hardest thing to do in the galaxy. Hit a baseball that is (at least according to Jayson Werth): http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/03/20/jayson-werth-says-theres-nothing-harder-in-the-galaxy-than-hitting/
rdemaro
9/19
As an intergalactic traveler, I suppose we have to cede to Jayson's expertise on the matter. But the bigger question remains--where does he hide his spaceship?
cdgarosi
9/24
I'd assume it's in his beard somewhere.
DDriesen
9/19
How about catching (or perhaps throwing) a knuckleball?
rdemaro
9/19
Yeah, the knuckler is a fickle beast. Obviously, given that so few can thrive in the majors for an extended period with the pitch, it's a really tough way to make a career.

But if we're comparing that to hitting a baseball, I'm not sure it's an apples to apples comp. Hitting is an integral part of the game. You literally can't play the game without that action/interaction, which makes its inherent difficulty all the more meaningful. Whereas throwing a knuckler... it's kind of a gimmick, a rarity, an Outlying knack if there ever was one.

If we extend that example to the larger sports world, sure, there are very specific things that are harder than hitting a baseball. Kicking a 60-plus yard field goal. Saving a PK in soccer. Getting an eagle or a hole-in-one in golf. But if we're talking about something necessarily vital to a sport's very construction, hitting a baseball wins out.
therealn0d
9/19
Just to interject here from a golfer's perspective, you never (well...yeah, never) try to hole out from the fairway or the tee. Sometimes, oftentimes, you don't even aim directly at the hole. You almost always want to aim for a spot on the green that will leave you with a make-able putt. In many situations it can be downright disastrous to aim at the flag. So my point is, hitters try to go the other way and whatnot, golfers don't try hit it in the hole.
rdemaro
9/19
We must be playing a different game, therealn0d, because I constantly try to hole out... from everywhere, on every shot.

The rough? Not an issue. Under a tree? Where's my three iron? 'I don't pay greens fees to lay up' is something I like to say just before hitting a golf ball into a lake.

One could say I'm poor at course management. This probably explains my 25 handicap.

But I get your meaning, sir. Yeah, I could've used a more appropriate example there other than the HIO, I suppose. Though Eagles are certainly tried for on purpose...
therealn0d
9/19
This reminds me of a rather good anecdote from my days working at one of the (many) AZ courses. We'd go out to pick the pins (we don't leave them out overnight...the greenies are going to recut the cups the next morning anyway, so they reset the pins) in the afternoon, and the late afternoon golfers would complain that we were taking the flags away. Response: "just aim for the center of the green, you'll score better that way." So there's some free advice.

BTW, I share your hubris, just not as a rule.
rdemaro
9/19
In case you were making a case for the knuckler as the second-most difficult, btw, I think the same logic holds, DDriesen. A bit too specific to be on the same plane as 'pitching', 'catching' or other things that happen as a matter of course during regular play.

Again, tho--very tough, as you point out. Wish I could throw one ;)
bhalpern
9/19
I'd like to hear from someone like Coco Crisp on stealing off a lefty with a good pickoff move.
therealn0d
9/19
I've wanted to address this one for awhile:

"Pitching is quite difficult. It's also one of the most unnatural things we can do with our bodies"

It's not, really. It's quite natural. So natural, in fact, that it precedes baseball. The unnatural part is doing it so frequently. Throwing something overhand as hard as you can? Sure. Doing it for a living? Weird.
bhalpern
9/22
Maybe true for trying to throw straight and hard up to a point, but not for imparting drastic sideways spin.
therealn0d
9/22
That's a fair point.
therealn0d
9/19
For my two bits, I would agree that pitching is the second hardest. The whole pitcher v hitter thing is often the most chess-iest of chess-iness. And sometimes we can't really even tell who won.
piraino
9/21
I'm going to violate the laws of the universe and suggest that pitching is harder than hitting. Mentally you have to stay locked in for a longer period of time. You're the first mover so you have to contend with "yips." You're performing your job under conditions of accumulating fatigue. Or to be fair to hitting, hitting is more physically precarious, and probably leaves less margin for error in execution, but hitting is less mentally and emotionally difficult
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