I play in a weekly pickup baseball game in Brooklyn on Saturdays.
The level is perfect. Everyone knows the rules and at least knows what he’s supposed to be doing, but no one is good enough that you feel bad when you make an embarrassing error. It’s low key.
And it’s about as Brooklyn-ish an affair as you’ll ever see. On any given Saturday, the field is littered with hipsters, lawyers, artists, bartenders, musicians, carpenters, architects, med students, whatever. It’s a big melange of just about every demographic of Brooklyn resident, with a few out-of-towners (myself now included) mixed in.
Everyone gets along, of course, because everyone there really likes baseball.
And when you play with the same general group of guys every week, you start creating mental scouting reports on all the pitchers and you get a decent sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. So there’s never a lack of bench conversation; you can just size up everyone’s game.
I’m a decent hitter. I don’t have a ton of power, but I’m reasonably patient and I rarely strike out. I can’t hit curveballs all that well, but I can usually lay off them or foul them away until I see a fastball.
I’m also pretty certain I’m the single worst defender ever to put on a baseball glove.
Anyway, that’s a long introduction to this: I was on the ball yesterday. I ripped a double down the line in my first at bat, then singled to center, then hit a couple of well-struck flyballs, one of which scored a runner from third.
I got up in the top of the 9th with the bases loaded and my team down 11-8. I had only faced the pitcher once or twice before — he’s not a guy who pitches that frequently — but I had a decent book on him. He throws a reasonably hard, but not overpowering fastball with a decent curveball that he has trouble controlling.
He started me off with a fastball off the plate that I took a huge cut at and missed. He threw another fastball off the plate that I laid off, then came inside with a fastball that I fisted (with apologies to Chip Carey) foul.
Anyway, I know for certain that I should not try to guess or think too much at the plate. It just never goes well. But despite that, I couldn’t help but think, “OK, it’s 1-2 and he’s just thrown me three straight fastballs, no way he throws another.”
But sure enough, he did. It was a perfectly hittable straight pitch right over the heart of the plate, and I froze. Such a terrible approach. So very unclutch.
The next batter grounded out to third and we lost.
Anyway, I often wonder how much the so-called chess match between pitcher and batter affects at-bats in real baseball. Obviously Major League hitters are much better than me at baseball in every imaginable way, but the pitchers are much better than that pitcher too.
I’ve heard hitters discuss it both ways. I’ve heard some guys admit to guessing one way or the other, but plenty of guys say they try to avoid thinking about the cat-and-mouse game entirely and just try to read the pitch when it comes. That can’t be entirely true, of course, because everyone knows he’s getting a fastball from Ollie Perez on a 3-1 pitch with the bases loaded. Can hitters really ever clear their mind of what could be coming next?
It sure seems like pitchers work to outthink their opponents, but can they really, or is it just a matter of their confidence and their ability to throw all their pitches for strikes? I feel like every time I’ve heard Pedro Martinez discuss pitching, especially the intricacies of at-bats, it’s clear he’s doing a tremendous amount of strategizing on the mound. But Pedro, even without throwing 97 miles per hour, has some pretty nasty stuff and pretty awesome control.
I’m certain that one time I saw John Franco strike out Barry Bonds with four straight changeups, only one off the plate, the last a swinging strike. That’s got to be a mental victory, right? Franco was a very good pitcher with a great changeup, for sure, but Bonds had to be thinking that no one would have the balls to just keep throwing him changeups over the plate.
But then Franco, it turns out, kind of owned Bonds. Including the postseason, in a very small sample of 41 plate appearances, Franco held Bonds — he of the lifetime .298/.444/.607 line — to .216/.268/.270. So maybe Bonds just couldn’t pick up the ball out of Franco’s hand, or maybe Franco was really in Bonds’ head.
Or maybe Franco was a good left-handed pitcher who was ever-so-slightly lucky against one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game.
I’m guessing these are questions we can never really answer because only the players themselves know exactly what’s going through their heads during an at-bat, players have little reason to reveal everything they were thinking during an at-bat, and quite likely every player’s approach is different.
But it’s fun to think about, especially as a way to rationalize striking out with the bases loaded and the game on the line. Ugh.