Excerpt from Off Speed
Chapter Two – The Curveball
Sweet as Candy
Pitchers, being more or less human, are greedy. As soon as they were allowed – with a wink and a smile – to throw the ball hard, they began to experiment with ways to throw it not just hard, but crooked, too.
The game then was played in a style nothing like its profligate contemporary descendant. For one important difference, there was the ball itself. Then a whole game might be played with a half dozen balls. Balls would quickly become dirty, scuffed, out of round.
Contemporary major league balls are made according to strict specifications in a single factory in Turrialba, a small town in the Costa Rican interior. It is a very complicated little product. The ball weighs about five ounces, and is approximately nine inches around, more or less the size of your fist. It has a cork center, wrapped in two thin layers of rubber, then wound tightly with wool yarn. To be precise, it is wound with 121 yards of blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of white yarn, 53 more yards of blue-gray yarn, and 150 yards of a fine white poly-wool blend. Only then is it finally covered in two pieces of figure-eight shaped white cowhide leather, which has been tanned in Tennessee and shipped to the Costa Rican factory. Once the winding is complete, the ball is wrapped in the shiny white leather and held together by 108 hand-sewed, double stiches consuming 88 inches of thick red cotton thread.
The balls are rolled between steel platens to flatten but not wholly eliminate the red seams, leaving the seams raised about three one-hundredths of an inch. The balls leave the factory as perfect and shiny as fresh-cut diamonds. The shine, a product of the tanning process the cowhide has undergone, is removed at each major league park where, before games, the balls are rubbed with mud dredged from the bottom of the Delaware River. Removing the shine has little effect on the ball but allows the pitcher to get a more consistent grip on the ball.
The general result of the manufacturing process is an object much more uniform in dimension and predictable in trajectory than anything earlier generations had used.
Considering the physical nature of baseballs in the formative years of the game, it came as no surprise to anyone that a ball could be made to go in something other than a straight line. Any kid who’s ever skipped a rock across a pond knows how much easier it is to curve a lopsided rock than one perfectly formed. It’s a wonder anyone could ever throw those old balls straight. They were irregular at best, even when new.
The claims as to who threw the ball crookedest, soonest are many and conflicting, but there is little doubt that even before it was legal to fool hitters, plenty of pitchers were trying to do exactly that. The most consistent claims for the first pitcher to perfect a deliberately curved pitch have been made by, and on behalf of, a little guy named Arthur ‘Candy’ Cummings, the nickname bestowed by an admiring manager who pronounced his stuff sweet.
Cummings promoted himself as the inventor of the breaking ball, saying he’d been inspired by throwing clamshells along the Massachusetts shore as a boy and dreamed of throwing a baseball with the same outrageous curvature. He gripped the ball tightly at the end of his fingers and, illegally, snapped his wrist as he released the pitch. Pitching in amateur leagues in the 1860s, the 5-foot 6-inch, 120-pound pitcher worked to gain consistent control of the curve ball. Some days he had it, others not. He began to wear a glove on his pitching hand to ward off the blisters he got from what he referred to as a death grip needed to throw his curve. It’s not entirely clear what advantage could be gained from such a tight hold on the ball; contemporary pitching instructors would argue a tighter grip reduces rather than encourages spin on a thrown ball.
Nobody knows exactly what magic Cummings conjured to make his ball curve. He threw lop-sided balls underhanded so whatever he did surely differed from the modern game. He was secretive about developing the pitch, thinking – rightly – that it would give him a competitive advantage. At his diminutive size, he figured, he needed every advantage he could find. He claimed that he had his first real success when he discovered that gripping the ball with just the ends of his fingers, then snapping his wrist just as he released the ball. Cummings was not a complete outlier. Pitchers of the era routinely broke rules in an attempt to get something closer to equal standing with hitters who were allowed to request where in the hitting zone they would like a pitch to be delivered.
Cummings bounced around the semi-pro and amateur ranks, as was common in those early years, taking whatever offer was most advantageous. Eventually, he was signed by the big league New York Mutuals of the National Association in 1872 and racked up 33 wins against 20 losses in what for the era was a not unusual 53 games pitched. He continued to change teams almost annually and routinely provided at least 40 starts and sterling results. His career earned run average was 2.42, excellent in any era.
Cummings’ monopoly of the curve ball, if it ever existed, was short lived. He had learned to manipulate the early rules outlawing almost everything a pitcher might do to gain advantage, but by 1877 – his last year as an elite player – many of the restrictions were removed and bigger, stronger pitchers took the mound. Cummings was out of the big leagues by the end of 1877. The art of deception that he helped initiate had just begun.
The move to overhand throwing was but the first major change in major league pitching. It advantaged pitchers to an almost unconscionable degree. Allowing pitchers to throw overhand, and hard, from a box 50 feet from the plate must have felt unfair, mainly because it was. It is an unreasonably difficult task to hit a major league fastball when thrown from the contemporary distance – 60 feet 6 inches. From 50 feet on the run it was nearly impossible.
The second great change occurred to address the inequity the first rule change had created. Pitchers had gone from being mere servants to the batter to their overwhelming masters. The pitching distance was moved back five feet at a time until 1893 when the current distance was established at 60 feet six inches. As important as the increased distance was the elimination of the pitcher’s box which was replaced by a small slab, what we know today as the pitching rubber. Instead of being allowed to run at the hitter before throwing the pitch – similar to what occurs in cricket – the pitcher was in a fixed location. The distance of the rubber from home plate – 60 feet six inches – had no special significance; it was just where the mound ended up after a series of moves. By chance, it had landed at what now seems the best distance, at the only imaginable distance, it so happens, for pitchers to manipulate the path of the ball as they do. Think about it. Most breaking balls break appreciably more when they lose speed. They lose speed as they advance toward the plate. At 50 feet a knuckle ball wouldn’t knuckle, a curve ball might curve but not much, a sinker wouldn’t sink. At 60 feet 6 inches, it can be made to do all of those things and more.
If the mound were any other distance from the plate, the basic dynamic of the pitcher-hitter confrontation would be utterly different; at most, it would perhaps disappear. The decision to set the distance at 60 feet six inches was almost providential, a good break for the future of baseball.
Once the distance was set and the pitcher’s rubber established, pitchers, often without really knowing how or why the ball would move, embarked on a prolonged investigation of how to manipulate pitches. It became a subject of some fascination among the public. A Pennsylvania newspaper, The Reading Eagle, in 1891 published a column on its front page quoting John Clarkson of the Boston Beaneaters on how to throw a curve ball: “He wants to fool the other fellows when they come to the bat. He cannot be blamed for that. . . Let the young aspirant grasp the ball firmly in his hand. Giving the pressure with his forefinger and middle finger. The other two fingers should be drawn in towards the palm. Next let him snap the ball out of one side of the hand, and the next one out of the other.”
One of the great early practitioners of the curve ball was Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, so called because as an Indiana farm boy he had lost a finger and a half to a feed chopper. The resulting disfigured but still capable pitching hand enabled him – almost unbidden – to impart incredible spin to the ball. His overhand curve – called a drop or a hook – made him one of the most dominant pitchers of the era. Brown pitched mainly for the Chicago Cubs in the first two decades of the 20th century. He was frequently matched against the seemingly invincible Christy Mathewson, and was the best big game pitcher of his time. Ty Cobb, the greatest hitter of baseball’s early era, called Brown’s curve the “most devastating” pitch he had to face. Brown became sufficiently renowned he was commissioned to write a series of newspaper articles – “How to Pitch a Curve” – that was repackaged into a book.
The curveball quickly became a standard part of the pitching repertoire, the first in what would become an armory of off-speed weapons pitchers could deploy.
Candy Cummings’ curve ball, because he was a right-hander throwing more or less sidearm almost certainly broke dramatically right-to-left, but probably didn’t move much vertically. This type of curve, often called a roundhouse curve, can have tremendous movement side-to-side. It starts off seemingly aimed behind the back of a right-handed hitter, then curves all the way across the batter’s box and finishes on the outside part of the plate. Twenty years later, in the days of Mordecai Brown, this side-to-side movement gave way to pitches that dropped dramatically down. This is the curve in its most devastating form. Thrown almost directly overhand and falling sharply as much as a foot pretty much straight down as it reaches home plate, it is virtually unhittable. In general, pitches that break vertically are more consistently difficult to hit than pitches that break horizontally. The reason is straightforward. A ball that breaks down is a much more difficult proposition for hitters. A ball that moves side-to-side remains largely on the same plane throughout its flight, similar to the movement of a bat through the strike zone. There is almost no room for error on pitches breaking vertically. Willie Stargell famously said facing Sandy Koufax’s curve was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.
Brown was the early master of the straight overhand pitch, which in his time was known as the drop. In later eras the pitch acquired different names – the yakker, the yellow hammer, the Deuce, the hook, Uncle Charlie, Lord Charles and most recently, Public Enemy Number One. The latter term was applied by legendary Los Angeles Dodger play-by-play man Vin Scully to current Dodger southpaw Clayton Kershaw’s curve. The nickname Deuce comes from the typical signal a catcher uses to ask the pitcher to throw a curve. Catchers signal the pitch they would like the pitcher to throw (sometimes relaying the manager’s decision) by waggling fingers between their thighs while in a catcher’s customary crouch. For decades it has been common for catchers to signal for a fastball by waggling one finger; two fingers indicated a curve, hence The Deuce. From there signals get more complicated as many catcher-pitcher combinations vary in how they call for other pitches.
The hook is self-explanatory. Lord Charles was the name given in the 1980s to young Dwight Gooden’s curve ball when he first came to the majors. Teammates thought his curve was so superior to others that the more common nickname then in use– Uncle Charlie – was insufficiently plebian. I’ve no idea where Uncle Charlie came from but it’s been in use for seventy years. Yakker and yellow hammer have both been said to derive from the flight of a particular woodpecker.
Bob Feller, Herb Score, Camilo Pascual, Barry Zito, Kerry Wood, Sal Maglie, Orel Hershiser, and Sandy Koufax were great curveball pitchers. Among contemporary pitchers, Kershaw, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Aaron Sele, Roy Oswalt and Chris Carpenter have had great overhand curves, but it is an increasingly rare pitch.
Bert Blyleven, who became an elite pitcher with the Minnesota Twins in the 1970s, has at various times been identified as the best curve baller ever. He was perplexed at his own success. “You can teach anyone to throw it,” he said. “I don’t know what made mine better other than the proper mechanics. The key is to get your fingers above the ball.”
As good as Blyleven was, Koufax was in a class apart. Mickey Mantle, after striking out on a Koufax curve in the 1963 World Series complained afterward: “How in the fuck are you supposed to hit that shit?” The answer, Mick, is you’re not.
Koufax might or might not have had the best curve of all time, but there is little debate that he had the best combination of fastball-curveball. He could have won with the fastball alone. Of that 1963 series in which Koufax was dominant, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, took note of Koufax’s regular season won-loss record of 25-5: “I can understand how he won 25. How the hell did he lose five?” Dodger shortstop Maury Wills explained:: “He didn’t. We lost them for him.”
The overhand curve is thrown less these days in large part because it’s hard to get umpires to call it a strike. A good overhand curve breaks from a batter’s waist to his knees or below as it cross the plate. It often ends up in the dirt before a catcher can glove it. Umps look silly calling strikes on balls in the dirt. Umps don’t like to look silly. David Wells pitched for eight teams over 20 years ending in 2007 mainly because he could get called strikes on his overhand curve.
Low and away
I saw my first breaking ball in a barnyard. It came from my cousin Kenny and in the dusty twilight I was helpless. When the ball came it was aimed directly at my head. Or so it seemed. My knees quivered and buckled the way they do when your body disobeys your brain. I fell back out of the batter’s box, then stood helplessly as the ball sliced past, nicking the outside corner of the plate – a plank end, actually – and plunked into the backstop, an empty feed sack hanging in the doorway of the hog barn. I blamed the twilight, but I almost certainly would have been helpless at noon. Boy, was I a terrible hitter.
Kenny, the silent type, smiled his slim gunslinger smile, so slight you wondered what it was he knew that you didn’t. That never changed in him. He hid things, ambitions, abilities. I wished Howie, out at shortstop, had the same restraint. He did not. Kenny was a secret. Howie was a hustler. He hid nothing. When I swung and missed, he would shout with glee: “C’mon, Monica, hit the ball.”
Monica – yes, that Monica! – lived not far up the road; she and her twin, Veronica, were the only girls my age Howie knew so he thought teasing me about them was a good way to get me. He was right. My sunburned face would glow still brighter in the gloaming and I’d fire the ball back to Kenny and dig in again.
The barnyard tilted uphill away from the pigpen and home plate. So Kenny pitched from the equivalent of a mound, downhill. Howie made me mad and I’d squeeze the bat handle and imagine hitting the ball out past the windmill in center, all the way out to where Blackie, the three-legged dog, lounged against the fence. His work for the day, bringing the cows in for milking morning and night, was done. He lounged in left center. He was not much worried I would disturb him.
I didn’t. My hitting days, such as they were, were years away. Then, I was a slight, nearly emaciated town kid sent to the farm for the summer with little chance of hitting anything bigger than a horse fly. In the hours after the wheat, the hay or the corn harvest of that particular day had been done, the long fade of the sun from the high summer sky gave us our only off hours and baseball filled a lot of it. I had little choice in the matter. My father, a strict man, had ordered that I love baseball. Except for the odd occasions – say, the time we shot out the living room window from inside the house with a BB gun – we were generally obedient children and we obeyed. So we played baseball and were happy for the command to do so.
My town was in eastern Iowa, hundreds of miles in any direction from major league teams. The White Sox and Cubs were nearest and each had its local fans. My father rooted for the Yankees. In basketball, he rooted for. the Boston Celtics and in football the Green Bay Packers. I sense a pattern here. This was the 1960s. He had an eye for quality, or a weakness for winning, perhaps both. Whatever the cause, these were our ordained family teams.
In an early rebellion, I broke from the Packers, choosing instead the Chicago Bears of Rick Casares and Willie Galimore. It’s not as if I was objecting to my father’s front-running. The Bears won the NFL title in 1963, my first year as a declared fan. I stuck with the Yankees through their long decline in the late Sixties but lost touch with the team when I joined the Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam for a year. I drifted away from baseball entirely and almost everything else in the mainstream of American life over the next few years. Still, I took my glove with me wherever I moved, including that sojourn in Saigon. I played fast-pitch softball there for the first time and also for the first time learned to dive for cover when the Vietnamese Army guards in the towers along the outfield fence decided it was time to play Yankee, Go Home, and would swing their machine guns toward the field rather than away at the bad guys beyond the Tan Son Nhut perimeter.
The success of the great, late 1970s Bronx Zoo Yankee teams of Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles and Ron Guidry, were a resurgence for me as a fan, but eventually owner George Steinbrenner’s overbearing personality and inability to stay out of his wonderful team’s way wore on me. In the early 1980’s, I Martin Luthered George, nailing my complaints about his regime to the op-ed page of an Oregon newspaper. Not that George or anyone else took notice.
I was living in Portland, Oregon in those years and sometimes watched games in a Yankee tavern on southeast Belmont that featured behind the bar a portrait of Munson chasing a foul pop. It was not well rendered. Poor Thurman seemed lost in a cloud that for some reason was green. So was I, lost, that is, although my cloud might have been a different color. I was completely stuck in a life that I realized I had been trying to run from ever since I fled Cascade. When I was a kid, Mac’s preferred name for me – when he wasn’t accidentally calling me Happy, the dog’s name – was Dark Cloud. It was, as usual for his knife work, spot on. I had been stuck inside some sort of darkness since I could remember. Baseball seemed so much a part of that dark past I couldn’t imagine it in my future. The game was old and quaint and rural. I was new and modern and almost certainly about to conquer the known world. (See the footnote to the preceding paragraph about the author’s tendency to believe stupid things.) What possible use could baseball be to me?
My interest in the game was revived by, of all things, fantasy baseball. I joined an early fantasy league in Eugene, Oregon in 1984, and through that stumbled on to Bill James, who then was already years into perhaps the strangest publishing career in American history. Beginning in 1977, James had been self-publishing annual Baseball Abstracts that explored the basis of a radical rethinking of baseball analysis. By the time I fell upon him, the Abstracts had been transformed into a mainstream enterprise with a big New York publisher and lots of critical acclaim. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted to win my fantasy league and thought James’ analysis was a shortcut to doing my own homework and building my franchise.
Which, of course, it was. The M & M Boys, the team I shared with a friend, Mark Matassa, were unaccountably successful given our own primitive understanding of how to project what players might be successful in any given year. We had James and we had fantastic luck. Julio Franco, Juan Samuel and Jesse Barfield blossomed into stars under our tutelage. Well, of course not. But that’s how fantasy owners come to think of these things. One of its charms and one of its faults.
In the course of things I became addicted to fantasy leagues – who has tried it and not? – but I also fell in love with James as a writer, as a skeptic, as an outsider, as a very strange and insightful devotee of a very strange game. James’ quirky and unrelenting insights into something I had thought of as static and old inspired an inquiry into the depths of the game I hadn’t known existed. It was like a bored and incurious student encountering a great teacher and suddenly discovering that history was a living organism begging to be decoded. I had often joked that baseball was the favored sport of intellectuals because it was so slow even they could understand it. This was meant as a critique but was now transformed into admiration. Baseball rewards attention. It also rewards inattention. It can be enjoyed at whatever level of focus you want to give it. It’s like Mac taking me to that cafeteria in downtown Chicago and telling me: You can have whatever you want. Baseball is a feast laid on a great banquet table. You can have as much or as little as you want. Just stay away from the chicken.
In my case, baseball was graciously slow enough to let me catch up to it after giving it a decade’s head start. I had moved to Seattle by 1985, the first place I ever lived that had its own Big League team. I started going to games, more as a novelty than out of any passion. I had grown up listening to baseball on the radio and started to listen again now that I was within range of a major league signal.
I first realized I was falling for the Mariners sometime in the late summer of that year. It was at night – these things always happen at night, don’t they? I was alone in a Volkswagen Jetta in the upland desert of Eastern Washington, blasting north out of Wapato on U.S. 97, one of the great intermountain highways in the United States. The moon was strobe light bright, the August air as quiet and still as a penitent.
My first experiences of major league baseball were all on the radio at a time when, as the novelist Mark Harris put it, life itself was slow motion. Before incessant musical recordings began being played in most big league parks, the noise you would hear coming out of the radio during a game, after of course, the announcers, was the background sounds of the game – venders chirping out their sales pitches and the communal hum of the crowd. When you hear this on the radio from a thousand miles away it can come across as some grand Buddhist chant – a prolonged “ommmm.” Even though I had lost my nearly religious belief in the game itself that sound was tucked so deep inside me that wherever I was I never quit listening to baseball on the radio. It’s like hearing the murmuring of a Latin mass – however little engagement I had with my Catholic childhood, the ritual chants and the muted call and response still echo inside.
I didn’t even realize I was missing anything until that night on 97. It was late. The Mariners were losing and it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t care about the game’s outcome. I wasn’t listening to the game. I was being transported by the hum of the crowd and layered over it I was listening to Dave Niehaus, the Mariner play-by-play guy. Man, what a voice. It insinuated itself into your thoughts even when you didn’t know you were listening. The high desert of a moonlit summer night is an enchanting place. When the road was clear and empty, I would turn off my lights and disappear into the darkness of the Horse Heaven Hills.
“The right-hander sets, checks the runners,” Niehaus said. “He delivers the 1-2 pitch. Breaking ball.” Then came the word that both broke and captured my heart: “Looooooooowwwwwwwwww.”
That ball-two call stretched out through the Yakima Valley to the Cascades, impossibly deep and long and rich. It soothed. It hurt. It had in it the ache of cattle braying on the plains. It had the idle joy of Niehaus’s southern Indiana youth. Harry Caray coming in from St. Louis on KMOX. Watermelon cooling in a No. 10 washtub. Mama’s got the sun tea ready. Fireflies flashing. Run to get a Mason jar and jab holes in the lid with an ice pick and welcome those flies to their new home
Niehaus lived inside a magical world largely of his own creation. He clearly loved baseball but in many ways it just happened to be what he was given to talk about, that night’s stage upon which he could perform. Fans could sense it. They sent him homemade pies and asparagus and Walla Walla onions. Only in Seattle would asparagus be regarded as a great gift. There were also jams and jellies. Boxes of them. Crates of them.
Like all great artists, Niehaus gave the impression he was artless, that you could do what he does. You could not. Okey-dokey, he’d say, starting the third. That’s a can of corn, he’d say, ending the fourth.
Niehaus smoked and drank, probably too much of both. In spring training in Arizona, he presided over a raucous month long party at Scottsdale’s Pink Pony restaurant. Anybody could join the table. Anybody could stay if they could tell a story. Niehaus loved stories. On the air, you could hear the smoke in his voice, especially in the early innings as he warmed up. By late night the bits of gravel in his delivery wore away. He was at his best then, when a tight game found its rhythm and he could fold himself into it. He never tried to overtake the game, but found it and rolled along inside it. He would lead you conspiratorially, as if offering a hand to guide you through the dark, quietly, murmuring low and sensuously, carrying you through inconsequential at bats and innings. Then all of a sudden he’d erupt:, “My oh my,” he shouted as a ball arced toward the depths. “That will fly away.” On the rare occasions that the Mariners hit a grand slam home run, he could barely stay seated as he shouted: “Get out the rye bread and mustard, Grandma, it is grand salami time!”
Being a fan of a bad team is not, contrary to popular opinion circulated mainly by Chicago Cub fans – and what do they know, really? – ennobling. It’s far closer to the opposite, abasing. To have a guide as joyful and sublime as Niehaus obscured all that. I crept back into the game. With Niehaus and James, how could I not?
So, by the late 1980s I was again a full-fledged fan. Niehaus and a new team not tainted by my own past pulled me back in. Unfortunately, my team sucked. Really sucked. Which, of course, they have continued to do now for most of the next three decades.
Top of the Second
Going against lanky Tampa right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, the Mariners managed a leadoff single by second baseman Dustin Ackley. Hope was extinguished quickly as he was doubled off and they got nothing else in their half of the first inning.
Hellickson is in many respects Hernandez’s opposite. He came into the league identified as a type often referred to, derisively, as a finesse pitcher. Finesse guys as a rule don’t throw very hard, at least not by major league standards; this doesn’t mean you would want to face him
For reasons that remain mysterious, the highest acclaim a pitcher can receive is that he has great “stuff.” No one ever says a soft-tossing lefty like Jamie Moyer has great stuff, although he somehow managed to win 269 games while throwing the ball about as hard as your aunt Bessie. Why that doesn’t count as stuff, I don’t know.
In any event, Hellickson’s fastball is in the low 90-mph range. Good enough, and faster than most finesse pitchers, but his true weapon is an overhand changeup that completely befuddles hitters. It’s one of the best pitches in the league and the Mariners have had almost no success against it or him. Which might or might not be significant in that as long as Hellickson has been in the league – since late 2010 – the Mariners have been god-awful offensively against everybody.
Being the best pitcher on the worst hitting-team in modern major league history has cost Hernandez countless wins, but he has grown used to this friendly ineptitude by now and almost never complains about it. He is unusual in that he has always mixed freely with the position players. On some teams, hitters and pitchers form two separate subcultures- they routinely refer to two distinct groups, pitchers and players – that mingle in the dugout but almost nowhere else. Many hitters think of pitchers as nearly alien. Unusually, Hernandez’s best friends of the team have almost always been position players and he has emerged as a leader of the entire team.
He took the mound to face the middle of the Ray’s order, starting with Evan Longoria, the slugging third baseman. Longoria was one of the best players in baseball and the heart of the Rays offense. He’s a big, tough right-handed hitter. Hernandez has owned him, striking Longoria out four out of every ten at-bats against him. He’s done it mainly by staying away from his fastball. He instead throws Longoria a ton of sliders; every third pitch he’s thrown to him, in fact, has been a slider.
Tampa hitters, in their pre-game scout meetings, had been told to be aggressive early in their at-bats, to look for Hernandez’s fastball and jump on it. This was opposite their normal approach. They were known as a team that took a lot of pitchers, ran up pitch counts on opposing pitchers. This was a more optimistic way of saying, “Don’t let Felix get ahead in the count. He’ll kill you.” This isn’t folk wisdom. On the season to date, if Hernandez gets ahead in the count with his first pitch, opposing batters hit .185 against him. If he gets to two strikes, they hit for a .111 average, less than half the overall average (for the season, the league average batting average was .255.) By a measurement more favored among contemporary statisticians, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), the league was hitting .486 against Hernandez. An individual hitter with those results would not last a week in the big leagues. League average against all pitchers varies year to year, but is usually between .700 and .750. In other words, when facing Hernandez after a first pitch strike, the best hitters in baseball hit like they don’t even belong in the league. No wonder they go to the plate hunting first-pitch fast balls.
So, of course, Hernandez and Jaso started Longoria off with another fastball, above the zone for a ball. If you know, as Hernandez surely does, that everybody coming to the plate is praying you throw them fastballs, why on earth would you do exactly that?
The two cardinal rules of pitching are:
1 – Strike one is the most important pitch you can throw; throw strikes.
2 – Establish the fastball.
To the validity of the first rule there is little doubt. The data declare in the most definitive way possible that pitching ahead in the count, controlling the count, as it’s termed today, confers huge advantages to the pitcher. Hitters with a no ball, one strike count typically perform half as well in that at bat as hitters who take the first pitch for a ball. Hitters who begin an at bat 0-1 hit like pitchers – that is, terribly. It varies year to year but composite batting average for all hitters in all games when they start out an at-bat with a first pitch strike is about .230. An individual who hits .230 generally has a very short career. Hitters who get ahead in the count 1-0 hit 40 points higher, around .275. If you’re a pitcher, the message is obvious – throw first pitch strikes.
To the validity of the second rule, well, let’s just say it’s widely but not universally believed.
“If you never throw a fastball, then you’re never really changing speeds,” said Mariner pitching coach Willis. “Everything’s soft? Then everything is soft. There has to be a certain number of fastballs in there to keep that balance. I think it’s the case. I think that’s why you see in so many of his games, and it’s not just him (Hernandez), it’s whenever any club faces an elite pitcher, you see an awful lot of early swings because guys want to hit the fastball. They don’t want to get into those counts where they’re unsure what is coming. Then it becomes a little bit of a guessing game, or hitting that nasty changeup or slider. Whatever the case may be, I do think you still do establish that fastball and as the game progresses you start to change your sequences.”
Here’s James Shields, a Tampa Bay righty known not for his fastball but for his great off-speed stuff:
“Fastball command is everything to a pitcher, even if you have a pet pitch like the changeup. . . . I’ve gotten to the point where I like hitters to be looking for my changeup. In fact, I love it when a guy is up at the plate sitting on my change, because I know that somewhere in the back of his mind, the fact that he’s sitting on a changeup makes him uneasy. He knows that waiting for the change will let me easily beat him with my fastball. If a hitter’s looking for a pitch that’s going to come in around 81 or 82 mph, you can throw him a fastball and it’s going to make you look like the second coming of Nolan Ryan. The hitter just doesn’t have time to catch up to the pitch. ”
The fastball first approach is so engrained in the major leagues that pitchers who attempt to throw their off-speed pitches early in counts are said to be pitching backwards. Major League Baseball is nothing if not normative. Pitching backwards is not intended as a compliment. As we saw with Hernandez early in his career, there is a limit to how useful it is to start a game throwing all fastballs all the time. Here’s the predicament the strategy entangles Hernandez in: To get to his really dynamite off-speed stuff, he has to throw his most hittable pitches exactly when hitters most expect them.
Hernandez has an excellent overhand curveball. The average MLB curve ball breaks toward the pitcher’s glove side six inches and drops – holding constant for gravity’s effect – 6 inches. Felix is a little better than that, but not hugely. What makes it an effective pitch for him is the fact that it is by far his slowest pitch, at 83 mph, one that provides a genuine velocity difference from his fastball. He uses it almost as a changeup.
He has another mediocre version of the curveball, of a type that is often called, derisively, a get-me-over curve, a pitch not thrown with any intent other than to surprise a hitter enough in what is ordinarily a fastball count to get a called strike. Hernandez’s get-me-over is lazier than his true curve, with a softer, more horizontal break. Jaso describes it as “slurvy,” not as fast as a conventional slider and not as much break as a conventional curve. It’s not really a weapon, but a plea for restraint: Don’t hit me and I won’t embarrass you.
This would ordinarily have been the spot for the lesser, get-me-over slurve. Instead, Hernandez snapped off a sharp, 82 mph curve over the outside corner. Longoria took it for a strike.
“He didn’t swing at that first fastball or anything, he just tracked it all the way in,” Jaso said. Indeed, Longoria watched the pitch all the way to Jaso’s mitt. It was as if he owned it. Jaso is intuitive. He knew Longoria had the fastball measured. “So I want to upset his timing and went with a curve ball. And this curve ball, I was like, `Alright!’ “ The pitch broke 13 inches down and away from Longoria. He never had a chance.
Hernandez, working very quickly, then brought a fastball up into the zone and Longoria couldn’t quite catch up to it. He fouled it straight back. Virtually before he could catch a breath, Hernandez threw him a better version of the first curveball, this one on the corner low and away. Longoria waved at it for strike three then went and sat down. He missed it by six inches in two directions – six inches too far out ahead of the pitch’s arrival and six inches above the ball. His front foot slipped as he tried to correct his body’s mistake. Longoria is a great hitter. He looked horrible. Jaso was excited.
“Longoria’s at bat was when I realized he had really good stuff. I knew it was going to be a fun day for me behind the plate,” he said. “See how far it dropped straight down? Down and away, you can’t go wrong there. The pitch that he swung at before, it was a fastball at the same exact height, so (the curve) ended up down there but it (started)right on the same plane.”
The key to deception, obviously, is to not let the hitter know what pitch is coming. More to the point, the key to deception is to not let the batter know what pitch is coming even as it is coming.
The pitch Hernandez threw to Longoria plummeted as if from a cliff. “See how far it dropped straight down,” Jaso said, emphasizing the 12-inch, nearly vertical descent of the pitch.
The pitch immediately before the curve had been a fastball thrown on the same plane. “The pitch that he swung at before, it was a fastball at the same exact height, so it ended up down there, but it (started) right on the same plane,” Jaso said.
Jaso is talking about an important aspect of Hernandez’s physical pitching form. Where a ball is thrown from – the point at which it is released from the pitcher’s hand – is one of the least discussed, but most important characteristics in so far as a pitch’s deceptiveness is concerned. Almost all hitters guess at what pitch is going to be thrown. If they guess right, they have an advantage. Wrong, and they’re meat. One way to reduce the amount of guesswork is to study a pitcher’s release points for his various pitches. If the difference is significant enough to be discernible from the batter’s box, the hitter can gain an early clue as to which pitch is being thrown. Using the same data captured by the digital camera systems that track every Major League pitch, clubs can track the release points of their pitchers and sort them by pitch type, inning or whatever variable you would like. Hernandez has a wide array of pitches, but almost all of them are thrown from nearly the same release point. Incredibly, in this game Hernandez threw 114 pitches, 112 of them from the same release point. This as much as anything makes him unreadable.
Ben Zobrist, the lefty-handed hitting second baseman, followed Longoria. Zobrist is a solid player who throughout his career was able to play around the field on defense, hit for a good average and, especially for a middle infielder, with good power. He was in the midst of his best year at the plate, by many measures one of the best hitters in the league. Hernandez treated him cautiously. He threw a first pitch fastball at the bottom of the strike zone, as good a pitch as you can make and umpire Ron Drake called it a ball. Hernandez, miffed, threw the same pitch a bit lower, for ball two, then missed with a good slider that Zobrist was able to restrain from swinging at. That made the count 3-0, Hernandez’s first three-ball count of the game. Zobrist took a fastball down the middle for a strike, then swung at another hittable fastball and hit a routine ground ball to second. On a lot of days, hitters would feel fortunate to get one or maybe two good pitches to hit from Hernandez in an entire game. Zobrist just had two and did nothing with either.
First baseman Carlos Pena followed and did Hernandez another favor – swinging at a first-pitch fastball on the outer half and hitting a routine fly ball to left center for the third out. Hernandez had thrown just seventeen pitches through two. One of the changes in hitting that has occurred in recent years is in what has been called the discipline of hitters. A key predictor in having success as a MLB hitter is an ability to walk coupled with an ability to avoid strikeouts. It’s the reverse of the pitching metric to keep walks low and strikeouts high. This has led to an approach in which hitters are reluctant to swing even at strikes early in an at-bat. The New York Yankee teams of the 1990s popularized this. It has two primary effects – it causes the pitcher to throw more pitches, wearing him out, and it gives the hitter a chance to see and thus measure more pitches. When teams face a pitcher as good as Hernandez they often take a lot of pitches early in the game in an attempt to wear him down and get him out of the game. The Rays were doing the opposite.
Hernandez’s teammates got a runner as far as second in their half of the inning but a fly ball to left center ended the small threat. No score after two.