The Sports Archives – The Art of Pitching

mattmoore

Matt Moore, a left-handed pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. The anomalous rarity of left-handedness is one of the ways pitching promotes individuality in baseball.

In baseball, there are 3 fundamental mechanics that absolutely must be present; the ball, beginning in the hands of the defending team, must be thrown to a member of the opposing team; this ‘batter’ must subsequently hit the ball with a long plank of polished wood (or, in some cases, a rod of metal), sending it through the air and into the ‘outfield’; finally, the defending team must secure the infield bases by moving the ball back to the ‘infield’ before the batter can round the bases and make it to home plate – if the batter halts his advance and remains at a base, he is considered ‘safe,’ though it is clearly more rewarding (and, consequently, more risky) to push farther on a single hit. Baseball is defined by these 3 consecutive steps – any other rules added on top of these events are designed to restrict, conform, or even aid play, outlining in greater detail the “rules of engagement.” Yet, despite so many regulations dictating what is appropriate or accepted in-game, baseball still does permit its players to develop their own unique strategies andtechniques, allowing for variety in the individual player as a method of counterbalancing the restrictiveness that is prevalent in overall gameplay. Perhaps the most prominent example of ‘personal freedom’ exhibited on the baseball field comes through the practice of pitching. Though many baseball fans do not know it, the pitcher’s role in a baseball game is often as eloquent and methodical as it is necessary to play; it requires precision, strategy, stamina, and a bold approach to risk-taking.

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tim Wakefield delivers a knuckleball against the Texas Rangers during the first inning of a MLB baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston Tuesday, April 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. The pitch he is about to deliver is a knuckleball, recognizable by the unique hand position involved with the pitch. Not every pitcher can throw a knuckleball as cleanly and precisely as Tim Wakefield. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

There are many important aspects that define the art of pitching, but one that is often overlooked by the average individual is the variety of pitches. The culture of pitching in baseball has developed a science behind every throw made on the mound, dividing pitches into categories based on facets such as airspeed, trajectory, and throwing technique. Some of the most common types of pitches are the fastball (named for its intention to maximize the speed of the ball while maintaining control of it), the curveball (which causes the ball to ‘bend’ it’s trajectory in midair, often confusing batters), and the changeup (designed to look like a fastball when thrown, but travel much more slowly – again, confusing batters). The individual pitcher usually has one type of pitch that they can employ to greater effectiveness than the others in his/her arsenal, resulting in a famous (or infamous) ‘signature pitch.’ For example, pitchers Steven Strasburg and Randy Johnson are well-remembered by their 4-seam fastballs, with speeds excessing in 100 mph! Some pitching techniques are more difficult to utilize than others, creating ‘anomalies’ – players that stand out in technique or playstyle – that may pose a greater threat to the batting team. One prominent example of a pitching anomaly is former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who could throw a very effective knuckleball – one of the rarest types of pitches in Major-League Baseball. The individuality of a pitcher makes batting against him a process of learning for hitters, and even by the bottom of the 9th inning, there are some pitchers that are still able to keep batters guessing!

baseball_pitches

A detailed diagram of common pitches in baseball. Although the mechanics of movement and speed vary between pitches, each of these can be categorized under the 3 more general definitions of fastball, curveball, and changeup, respectively.

Although the defending team’s catcher is officially designated as the “team captain,” it is not uncommon for players or fans to associate the pitcher with the role of a leader. Indeed, every play begins with the pitcher’s action, every pitch thrown has a whole game riding on it, and, though human error is only natural, nearly every run scored by the opposition can be chalked up to a bad pitch in the end. Of all the players in a baseball game, the pitcher has arguably the most control over what truly happens, and playing effectively against a well-trained team is difficult on its own. Imagine, in addition to this, how much more demanding the duty of pitching is, due to its weight on the outcome of the game (and the part it plays in team morale). It cannot be denied, however, that the realm of pitching also comes with its own rewards: a shutout (a game where the opposing team is unable to score a run) is largely chalked up to a pitcher’s endurance throughout the course of 9 innings. Furthermore, a game in which no player is able to score a hit on the pitcher or even touch base (known in ‘baseball lingo’ as a no-hitter and perfect game, respectively) are almost entirely the work of the pitcher alone. As a result, the pitcher is truly set apart from the rest of his team – the “Most Valuable Player.”

SEATTLE - AUGUST 24:  Starting pitcher Randy Johnson #41 of the New York Yankees throws against the Seattle Mariners August 24, 2006 at Safeco Field in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Randy Johnson during his time pitching for the New York Yankees. The record for Johnson’s fastest pitch is 102 mph, delivered at the impressive age of 40. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

 

Ultimately, every pitcher is unique in his/her playstyle, and that playstyle is just one more thing in the grand scheme of a baseball game to keep an eye out for on the field.

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