(Photo by Daiji Umemot)
The most exciting thing in a baseball game to me is not necessarily the outcome, but the process of watching a pitcher duel with a hitter.
There’s so much more going on at the plate that a casual fan may not be aware of. All of the three main players in an at bat – the pitcher, catcher, and batter – have all studied each other. This leads to an intricate mind game that enhances the pure physical battle of trying to make bat meet ball.
The pitcher and catcher know the batter’s tendencies in (1) what pitch counts he likes to swing, (2) where he favors the ball, (3) what types of pitches he tends to hit, and (4) his timing/swing/posture at the plate.
Likewise, the batter has studied them in the same ways, knowing (1) what pitches the pitcher has at his command, (2) when he likes to throw certain types of pitches, (3) where he likes to locate those pitches, and (4) his rhythm/motion/pace of pitching.
And – to add to the complexity – the guys know the other has studied them. So each has to be self-aware of their vulnerabilities and how they match up with the player they’re facing.
If the pitcher is a guy who likes to be a flame thrower and wants to get outs based on his fastball speed and location, but the hitter is superb at hitting fastballs, he needs to adjust. Conversely, if the hitter isn’t a guy who is likely to catch up to a good heater, he needs to know when and where this pitcher might throw a secondary pitch, a change up or type of breaking ball, to have a chance to hit it.
The batter’s base line strategy is to not make an out.
Depending on the game situation that can be modified in any number of ways, but the battle between pitcher and batter always remains. The pitcher is trying to maximize his strengths and pitch against the batter’s vulnerabilities, while the batter is trying to capitalize on his knowledge of the pitcher to wait for a pitch he believes he can be successful at hitting safely.
This leads to many batters going to the plate looking for “their pitch.” Like in the previous example, a batter who isn’t adept at hitting A+ fastballs against a power pitcher will go to the plate knowing that in certain pitch counts – let’s say with one strike – the pitcher likes to throw a low breaking ball. The batter will key in on that particular pitch and hope that its in a good spot for him as he’ll be ready to pounce on it. The batter also knows he’s weak at fastballs above the belt so he needs to either be ready to take his best swing at one during the at bat or be OK with letting it go and waiting for a different pitch. Of course with two strikes he’s got to be mentally ready for it either way and needs to adjust physically – choking up on the bat, shortening his swinging motion – to have a chance.
The battles between pitcher and hitter are different every time, and a lot of starting pitchers will save one of their pitches for the second or third time they are going through a line-up in a game so that they can keep the batters off-balance and not let them feel comfortable at the plate. The batters, knowing their own tendencies, will at times change their approach at the plate – ie, a guy who never swings at the first pitch will pounce on the first throw hoping to surprise the pitcher who might be throwing a “get over” pitch early in the count. So, history between two players is as important to them and relevant as the current at-bat, each trying to build upon what they’ve learned from previous encounters to gain the advantage.
There are few things more intense in sports than watching a great hitter and a great pitcher square off in a high pressure moment in a game. There’s so much more going on that simply “I want to get a hit.”