The Baseball Desert

Friday, October 06, 2006

The heater

I didn't catch any of the games last night, but this caught my eye. There are many aspects of baseball at the Major League level which leave me speechless, but 100+ mph fastballs would have to be somewhere near the top of the list of my seven wonders of the baseball world.

I've played a little baseball and had enough trouble trying to hit pitches at 50-60 mph - I can't even begin to conceive of trying to hit a fastball coming in at over 100 mph. One time at practice, we cranked up the pitching machine to its maximum velocity (around 80-85 mph, I think). Even knowing what was coming - and where - I couldn't even get close. Occasionally I'd anticipate the pitch, get way out in front and chop a ten-hopper to third base. But I cannot imagine what it must be like to stand in the batter's box against a Zumaya.

At home I have a copy of MLB's Hitters On Hitting, and one of the scientists interviewed explains that hitting a major league fastball is right at the limits of what the human brain can achieve. Given the speed and the distance, the brain has something like 0.4 seconds to see the ball, react and send the necessary signals to the body to try to swing at the ball. Even on those simple terms, it's easy to see why a 35% success rate as a hitter puts you amongst the game's elite. But there are two additional factors which make that kind of success mind-bloggling: movement and fear.

Stand in against a pitching machine and it's tough, but at least you can count on those 85 mph fastablls coming in straight and true. Stand in against Zumaya, and he's throwing 100+, with wicked late movement. Check out the strikeout of A-Rod from last night - the pitch comes in at cartoon speed, and then moves away from its trajectory in the last ten feet of its trip to the plate. You look at that and almost feel sorry for the hitter (I said almost - we're talking about A-Rod, people...). There is almost nothing you can do to get a piece of that, except swing and pray.

However, that's just the 'controllable' movement, the batter standing in there knowing that the ball is going to drop, slide and swerve ridiculously. What is really scary is the knowledge that the guy up on that mound is not a machine, by any stretch of the imagination. However good his control is, his pitches don't always hit the same spot. More importantly, the ball might slip as it leaves his hand, or he might be distracted by a bit of paper blowing across behind home plate or he might simply overthrow the ball, and instead of it dipping and diving through the strike zone, it might end up dipping and diving towards your head. The physical aspect of hitting is obvious to any casual observer, but it's easy to forget, when you watch 6,000 at-bats a year, how terrifying standing at the plate must be. People often go on about hitters wearing body armour to protect themselves, but I'm telling you - you could send me up there covered in that stuff and I'd still be scared shitless. I wouldn't be worried about getting a hit - I'd just be happy not to end up a blubbering wreck on the floor.

Where am I going with this? Well, I guess I'm finding out how to use the Sox-free postseason to rediscover the fundamentals of the game and to remind myself that, even though I may tear my hair out when watching games, I need to ease up on the old: "Just hit the friggin' ball, will ya?" This game is not as easy as it looks. But when it's played well - from the mound or at the plate - it is a thing of beauty.