Friday, October 8, 2010

Making Pitching Sexy

At the beginning of the height of Steroids-induced Home Run Proliferation in Baseball, Nike took advantage of a weekend series in 1999 between the Braves and the Cardinals to shoot a commerical starring underappreciated pitching greats Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, overappreciated hitting great Mark MacGwire, and an always-appreciated starlet Heather Locklear in which their conclusion became a tagline that marked an era -- "Chicks Dig the Long Ball".

Why? Because home runs are sexy.

The Home Run is majestic in scale. As the ball is pitched back and forth at 60-feet,6-inches, it all of sudden launches 300 to 400 to 500 feet away... bringing the scope of the whole ballpark into view. In less than a few seconds, something significant has happened. The power. The sheer power. Boom! Over the wall! In the bleachers! Gone!

But now in this "Year of the Pitcher", a resurregence has occured in what happens in the toss between the mound and home. And, no more is this true than what's happened in this first round of the 2010 baseball playoffs.

Roy Halladay throws the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen's 1956 perfect game (no-hits, no-walks) in the World Series. Tim Lincecum throws a Complete Game Shut-Out with only 3 hits. Derek Lowe and Andy Petitte throw gems - and we've only played two games thus far. The reason is obvious - without hitters having a huge power advantage due to steroids, the pitchers are able to produce more swings and misses. Also, the pitchers aren't afraid to go after hitters -- the percentage of first-pitch strikes is way up. This puts the batter at a disadvantage throughout the rest of the at-bat. Advantage: Pitcher. Pitchers are no longer afraid to work-out and build their core and arm muscles - knowing that the steroid experiment produced stronger pitchers less prone to injury. So, the playing field is "level" again between pitchers and batters.

So, what's the problem with better pitching?

Pitching is not sexy.

To make the analogy for fans of other sports... pitching is like watching the Offensive Line in football. It's the key to the game, but nobody yells "That was an awesome hole" unless you know how to look for it. Pitching is like watching the movement without the ball in basketball. Pitching is like watching the passing in soccer. Pitching is like watching the traps in the center of the ice in hockey. Pitching is like watching the opening moves in chess. It's not the touchdown pass, the soccer goal, or lighting the lamp. It's not checkmate.

To baseball insiders, pitching is sublime. Each pitch is a guessing game between pitcher and batter. No major league hitter can simply "react" to any pitch. A batter has to think through a ton of scenarios... his ability to hit certain pitches, the pitcher's ability to throw certain pitches, the situation in the game, the situation on the basepaths, the number of outs, the count, the pitchers throw previously, the pitcher vs batter's previous match-ups and results, the fatigue of the pitcher - all of these factors come into play. A pitcher has a limited number of options. He has 2-3 standard pitches he can throw, and can locate them in about 6 different locations. The batter has to guess what type of pitch, and where it'll be. He can adjust somewhat.

It's a guessing game... or is it?

Pitching is strategy to the n-th degree. Deciding on pitches and executing those pitches is worthy of military generals at war on a battlefield. But it happens on such a small scale -- across a 17-inch by 2-footish Strike Zone. It's too small to be majestic. It's too small to be sexy.

But power isn't the only route to sexiness. Mystery also creates desire. Instead of MLB teams promoting pitchers as denizens of power, perhaps they need to create a mystique about them.

That pitchers are different.
That pitchers are from another world.
That pitchers are mentally insane.
That pitchers are crazy.
That pitchers are wild.

Wild thing you make my heart sing!

Now that's exciting to watch.

But will that even compare to the Long Ball? Probably not, but in this "Postseason of the Pitcher" I find there's no alternative.

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