With Spring in the air, all thoughts turn to baseball. What better way to prepare for the coming season than reading K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner? Kepner has covered baseball for the NY Times since 2010, and in this book he explores the background and usage of baseball’s most popular pitches. The book is divided into (can you guess?) 10 chapters, each devoted to a specific pitch. Kepner researches the development of the pitch and the famous practitioners, and talks about where the pitch stands today in the current baseball pitching arsenal. He interviews a lot of ballplayers, and goes back to older written sources, such as Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch, Kahn’s The Head Game, and Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.
As a precursor to the season this was a great read, long on stories and short on spin rate and over-analysis, though there is a sufficient amount of that, too. (How could you write about pitching today without talking about velocity and spin rate and photonic shift effect and all that?) But most of the book is made up of stories, pitchers talking about where they learned the pitch, how they throw it, and how the pitches have been handed down through the history of the league from pitcher to pitcher. That was an aspect of the book I really enjoyed, hearing about the Fraternal Order of Pitchers. The good pitchers are always looking to learn new weapons, and pitchers seem to readily share their knowledge with the young pitchers coming up, sometimes even if they are on different teams. There’s a “We’re all in this together” attitude. It’s pitchers vs. hitters, and it seems like the pitchers rarely win that contest. The object of pitching is to not let the other team score, and yet, every game, there is scoring. Every day, pitchers are beaten. Runs are scored. They are like lambs to the slaughter. And I think because of that, there’s the brotherhood of all pitchers as they battle against all odds for simple survival. Also, pitching is very idiosyncratic. Even though there’s a general way to throw a curve ball, and you can show someone how you do it, how you throw your devastating curve: just like this, put your fingers here, release here… but everyone’s hand and grip varies, along with the angle they throw from, how hard they throw, how and when they release the ball, which fingers they use. Telling someone how to throw the curve is only the first step. Each pitcher has to make the pitch his own, find his own way, find what works for him.
There are a few pitchers in here who were fortunate and found immediate success with a pitch. It just fits for them, their release, grip, everything, from day one. I think that they generally realize how lucky they are. Mostly though it’s a long haul of throwing, fine tuning, trying different things. The trick is to be able to perform time after time, to make the pitch day in and day out, without changing what you do. There was one pitcher, Roy Halladay, who was throwing his pitch well one day, and used a pen to trace his grip on the ball. He carried that ball with him for the rest of his career, and whenever he had struggles he would go back to that ball and get his grip back where it should be.
My favorite pitchers in the book were the guys who didn’t have the amazing arm and the crushing slider or forkball or whatever. The guys who had a bit of this and a little of that, and a lot of moxie. They kept learning, kept thinking, kept evolving throughout their careers. Guys like Jim Bouton (of course) who hurt his arm and lost his fastball and turned to the knuckleball. Or Jamie Moyer, who kept learning new things and pitched till he was 50. Those are the stories that resonated with me, and probably with a lot of people. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the physical gift, and even that may only take you so far. And if you can adapt and evolve, pay attention and learn,you could end up pitching awhile. (And probably this lesson applies to life in general, if you want to take it in that direction.)
All in all, a fun read. I learned a few things. And I’m working on my knuckleball. Because you never know, you know? Maybe, some day… maybe…