A History of Baseball in 10 Pitches
A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
By Tyler Kepner
Tyler Kepner started his own baseball magazine in 1988 as a kid in suburban Pennsylvania. In 2010, he was named national baseball writer for The New York Times. In “K,” his delightfully nerdy first book — a study of the history, psychology and physics of 10 pitches, from the fastball and curveball to the spitter and splitter — he brings both a child’s giddy enthusiasm and a beat reporter’s diligence to questions of pitch velocity, the legend of the rising fastball, and which pitches cause injury. He interviewed more than 300 people to get into the heads of players armed with nothing but “those precious pitches, loaded with cork, yarn and possibility.”
If pitchers and hitters constitute a two-party system, Kepner is no independent. “The pitcher is the planner, the initiator of action,” he writes. “The hitter can only react. If the pitcher, any pitcher, finds a way to disrupt that reaction, he can win.” Kepner compares changeup throwers to artists and knuckleballers to Jedi knights. “A major-league pitcher is part boxer and part magician; if he’s not punching you in the face, he’s swiping a quarter from behind your ear. If you ever square him up, you’d better savor it.”
Kepner believes the best pitch in baseball is “a well-located fastball,” but he offers vivid descriptions, telling anecdotes and shrewd historical context for all the pitches he discusses. Throwing a changeup is like bringing “a feather duster” to a cage match. A slider’s action, according to one pitcher, is like “a car skidding on ice.” Knuckleballers, Kepner reports, are typically the nicest players, and brave enough “to bring Silly String to a battlefield.”
The chapter on the spitball — a pitch out of fashion, Jason Giambi tells Kepner, because TV cameras make it harder to cheat — is especially charming. Woebegone Rick Honeycutt saw a thumbtack on the way to the bullpen and decided to use it to mark up a ball. He immediately gave up two hits, was caught scuffing and earned a 10-game suspension — talk about a “cheaters never prosper” poster child.
Of his reputation for throwing at batters, Bob Gibson tells Kepner: “I wasn’t really throwing at them, but I didn’t care whether I hit them or not.” He adds that it drove him crazy when umpires accused him of trying to hit a batter: “I’m not throwing at him. If I threw at him, I would hit him.” Not every quote is that good. Some players ramble unedited; others offer banal reflections. Take King Félix on the changeup: “I tried to throw it because I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to be the best I can be.” Such boilerplate humble-brags veer a little too close to the “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club” clichés parodied in “Bull Durham.”
Kepner displays some hokeyness himself. The slider pitcher Chief Bender “was, you might say, the chief bender of pitches in his era.” In old age, Jim Bouton “can still grip a baseball, and baseball still grips him.” After quoting Al Leiter using a common epithet to describe how aggressive the bat-breaking cutter can be, Kepner says, sounding rather square, Leiter’s “enthusiasm for his craft is so endearing that you look right past the language.” I would say the same about Kepner. His love of baseball is so genuine and his work ethic so intense that I ignored the occasional ball in the dirt.
The book’s appeal to superfans is indisputable. The stats-heavier sections will prove as satisfying to those readers as flipping through a stack of baseball cards. But “K” may be an even bigger gift to more casual fans like me. Like Kepner, I was a tween baseball geek in the mid-80s — captivated by charismatic Mets like Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez. In ensuing decades of game-on-in-the-background, New York Post-headline-glancing and occasional spring-training attendance, I haven’t paid much attention to pitching styles. Sure, I picked up on the obvious — Mariano Rivera’s cutters, Fernando Valenzuela’s screwballs, Chad Bradford’s submarine delivery. But, lacking behind-the-plate seats at Shea and now Citi Field, and watching on a less-than-high-def TV at home, I registered little more of pitching technique beyond knowing that you have to do the bunny-ears thing with your index and middle fingers to throw a knuckleball.
Thanks to “K,” when the Mets game was on the other night I knew Edwin Díaz had given up a home run on a hanging slider even before I heard it from Keith Hernandez, now one of the Mets announcers. I have also picked up terms like “slurvy,” “pronating,” “Mr. Splitty” (Roger Clemens’s name for his split-finger fastball) and “whippy” (for the arm action the onetime Expo Steve Rogers says is necessary for successfully throwing a sinker). Kepner has enhanced my enjoyment of the game and made me realize how much I was missing before. It does seem like a big unforced error, though, that the book offers no handgrip graphics or ball-path diagrams for these pitches. I supplemented with YouTube videos and charts I tracked down online, as I suspect many readers will.
“K” is best read while holding a baseball. It’s useful for trying out the grips and as a reminder that the game’s century-plus of drama revolves around something that weighs only about five ounces. It’s so small and so simple, and yet so loaded with meaning and potential. As Kepner quotes Tug McGraw: “You know, if somebody called me at 4 in the morning and said, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play some catch,’ I’d do it. I love this little thing.”
Ada Calhoun is the author of “St. Marks Is Dead,” “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” and “Why We Can’t Sleep,” coming in January.