Last week in an email promoting the MLB Predictions Pool my pal and I run on an annual basis, said friend called me the most knowledgeable baseball person he knows. I scoffed internally at the suggestion, although I was also kind of flattered. Honestly, I used to be one of the most knowledgeable baseball people I know, until I started networking with all the amazing baseball bloggers out there.
But, I still contend I know a lot about baseball, and I do probably have a certain niche in that my knowledge of the game comes from many different angles.
Math was always my best subject in school, so I've always been a stats guy. In fact, at an early age, much of my education in arithmetic came from memorizing the batting averages associated with different hits-per-AB combinations, to the point my grandfather used to have me show off my mathematical skills at family gatherings. But, I won't go into that.
I also developed a fascination for baseball strategy at an early age—probably from Strat-O-Matic—which explains why I preferred baseball video games where I managed, rather than controlled, the players. I also used to try to tell my dad how to run my youth baseball teams that he managed, but I won't elaborate on that subject either.
However, the umpiring experience is probably what makes my baseball knowledge somewhat unique. I attended Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School in 1994—eventually I'll write about a few of my experiences here—and, although my professional umpiring aspirations never got off the ground, I did work a few college games. I honestly haven't umpired in years, other than a little slow-pitch softball, but my interest in and knowledge of the rules, and my understanding of what umpires have to do to survive, still remain.
Of course, I was a pretty good ballplayer as well. I'm sure there are plenty of bloggers who were better players than I, but from the looks of some of them—not you, of course—there are quite a few who never played competitively at all.
But, that's neither here nor there. My point of all of this is to admit that, despite a knowledge of the game that exists on so many levels, I know very little about pitching. And, since I now have a son, I may be called on to teach him a little about a craft I have virtually no experience with.
Which brings me to the title of this post, a subject which was the catalyst for the only starting pitching appearance in my entire career playing organized ball, which adds up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years, including softball.
The main weakness of my game was I didn't have a very strong throwing arm. I suppose that explains why I played regularly at positions like left field, second base and first base, although I did spend one season as a starting center fielder.
Not too many Little Leaguers had good "stuff." In fact, when a 12-year old threw a curve ball, the thinking was he was eventually going to ruin his arm. I'm not really sure if that was a bit over-reactionary, but I'm sure there's information out there that warns when it's developmentally unsafe for a kid to throw a breaking pitch.
But, my point is there were two basic skills that determined a Little Leaguer's viability to be a pitcher. #1, of course, was how fast he could throw. #2 was whether or not he could throw strikes. #2 could be worked at, but #1 was based solely on god-given ability, and my arm was sorely lacking in that respect. (I suppose I just as easily could have written this paragraph in present, rather than past, tense.)
So, a pitcher I wasn't. Which was fine with me, because I was good with a glove (at multiple positions) and at the plate, except in the power department. (Now that I've already knocked two of the five "tools" off my resume, you probably don't believe when I say I was good, but I swear I possessed the other three.)
Despite not being a pitcher, I occasionally threw batting practice, because my control was solid. One day—I guess I was goofing around a bit—I tried to throw a blooper, or Eephus pitch, during batting practice.
I'm surprised I didn't get told to quit horsing around, especially considering dad was a coach. But, somehow I was allowed to throw it enough to discover I could throw it for strikes, and it was a pain-in-the-neck to hit.
My team had finished in first place the previous year, but due to losing most of our star players to the next level of competition, we fell back to a .500 team. A matchup with the current first-place team was upcoming, and somehow our manager and my dad hatched a plan to use me as our secret weapon.
I would start on the mound for our next game versus the league's powerhouse and hopefully last two or three innings—just enough to throw their timing off—before giving way to our ace, a much harder-thrower, of course.
The plan was pretty much a failure. I gave up three runs, including a homer, in the first and was yanked after yielding a solo shot to lead off the second. I don't remember exactly (because I was 11 years old), but my pitching line went something like this:
1 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 0 SO, 2 HR, 4 ER
Of course, if you do the math (6 base runners plus 3 outs), this means I gave up a home run to the 9th place hitter, and I really don't think that was the case. So, maybe I'm not remembering that 4 ER in 1+ IP result as well as I thought.
But, I digress. I do recall the pivotal moment in that first inning was when I threw the blooper—as I called it long before the word Eephus meant anything to me—to my friend from down the street on a 3-2 count. The pitch dropped nicely into the top of the strike zone, in my opinion, but the umpire called it ball four.
In our post-game discussion, my father and I lamented that the umpires just didn't know how to call the zone on such a pitch. Given my own subsequent umpiring experience, I can honestly say this could be true. When I was used to calling a baseball strike zone, if I was thrust into duty to call a slow-pitch softball game, I had a difficult time with the arc of the pitches.
If only the umpire had called that pitch a strike. That first inning might have been less devastating, I might have been able to dispatch the bottom of the order in the second and even make it through the third.
Who knows? Maybe the experiment would have continued to future games. Maybe I would have continued to work on mastering the pitch and become a mainstay in our team's rotation through my final year in Little League.
But, most importantly, I would have recorded the one and only strikeout of my pitching career, if you want to call it that. Because honestly, that's really the only difference it would have made. The experiment was just a futile attempt at thwarting a superior team. My Eephus pitch was ineffective without a real fastball to offset it, and I would never throw it in a game again, despite two subsequent mop-up appearances (one of which resulted in a 1-2-3 inning).
This post was at least partly inspired by a piece written earlier this week by the always excellent William Tasker (aka The Flagrant Fan) for the Yankees blog It's About the Money, Stupid.