Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Books: Kepner Tells The Story Of Baseball In Ten Pitches In "K"

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
By Tyler Kepner
Doubleday; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.95; available Tuesday, April 2

Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for the New York Times, gives an enchanting, enthralling history of the national pastime as told through the craft of pitching in his new book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.

The amazing thing about a baseball is that it can we can grip it and hold it so many different ways, and even the slightest calibration can turn an ordinary pitch into a weapon to thwart the greatest hitters in the world.

Each pitch has its own history, evolving through the decades as the masters pass it down to the next generation. From the earliest days of the game, when Candy Cummings dreamed up the curveball while flinging clamshells on a Brooklyn beach, pitchers have never stopped innovating.

Kepner traces the colorful stories and fascinating folklore behind the ten major pitches. Each chapter highlights a different pitch, from the blazing fastball to the fluttering knuckleball to the slippery spitball. 

Based on years of archival research and interviews with more than three hundred people from Hall of Famers to the stars of today, Kepner brings readers inside the minds of combatants sixty feet, six inches apart.

"I sought people who could help me tell the story of every pitch," writes Kepner. "How did the great ones learn? How did their pitches move? When and why did they use them? What made them work?
"I settled on 10: the slider, the fastball, the curveball, the knuckleball, the splitter, the screwball, the sinker, the changeup, the spitball,and the cutter. (Mike) Mussina, who taught me more about pitching than anyone else I covered in 12 years as a beat writer, isn't sure there are only 10.
"'There might be 10 defined, different things,' he says. 'But every guy that throws it is different. My sinker and Kevin Brown's sinker aren't the same. Not the same pitch. When it's going through the strike zone and the hitter's trying to hit it, my sinker and his sinker are not doing the same sinking. My curveball and somebody else's curveball? They're not the same. They may be technically the same, but when it's going through the hitting zone and somebody's trying to hit it - to the guy in the box, it's not the same. Mo's (Mariano Rivera) cutter and my cutter aren't the same thing. I call it that and he calls it that, but it doesn't do the same thing. So is there really a limit, a number, to how many pitches there are? Like I said, I was out there trying to invent stuff.'"
K is filled with priceless insights from many of the best pitchers in baseball history like the one above from Mussina, including twenty-two Hall of Famers, from Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan to Greg Maddux, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina and Clayton Kershaw.

This book has a very conversational feel, as seen in this part on the curveball, "John Smoltz, a power version of Mussina, loved the curveball. When Smoltz had his hard stuff going, as he usually did, the curve would give him a free strike. Hitters prepared for a fastball or slider, and when Smoltz tossed a curveball instead, they'd be so surprised at the different shape and speed that they'd lock up and watch it drop in the zone. Smoltz calls the curveball a forgotten art and is glad to see it coming back through stars like Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. There's really no excuse for a curveball - at least the kind to steal a strike - to be missing from a pitcher's tool belt.
"'When I was first coming up, you'd see the big 12-6 curveball, with Matt Morris and Darryl Kile for the Cardinals,' says David Ross, who caught in the majors for 15 seasons, through 2016. 'I think that's starting to come back. It's just evolution. When guys are throwing so hard now, you have to commit a little bit sooner as a hitter, and you're way out in front. It's one of those things where the fastball's so hard, so the 12-6 starts at your head and drops in for a strike, or it starts where the fastball does and it's more of a chase pitch.'
"Ross ended his career riding off the field in Cleveland on the shoulders of his Cubs teammates, after (Mike) Montgomery's final curveball won Game 7 of the World Series. That concluded a season in which major league pitchers threw 7,732 more curveballs than they had in 2015, according to Statcast data from MLB.com. The average curveball was also spinning more, at 2,462 rpm, up from 2,302. In 2017, pitchers threw curveballs with 10.6 percent of all pitches, a 15-season high.
"There are get-me-over curveballs to dump in the zone for called strikes, and curveballs in the dirt to bait a free swinger. But more and more, Montgomery is convinced, pitchers are throwing true curveballs: pitches in the zone, meant to induce swinging strikes. It is simple evolution, with the information flowing from the front office to the field. The data tells decision makers what to seek, so now they seek curveballs with high spin rates.
"Mussina rolls his eyes at all this. He practically spits out the term: 'Spin rate. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.' What he means is that spin rate for a curveball matters only as much as the radar gun reading for a fastball. It doesn't mean the pitch is any good; not even close, actually. A great pitch that cannot be commanded is not, in fact, a great pitch. As hitters say about a bad curveball: 'You hang it, we bang it.'
"Yet as the curveball's essential raw ingredient, spin rate is important to know. Organizations use those figures to tell them, empirically, which of their prospects might have a major league pitch. A nondescript pitcher with a high spin rate now gets chances once reserved only for those with a mid-90s fastball: Hey, there just might be something here.
"Collin McHugh had made it through high school, college, and four years of pro ball without ever hearing of spin rate. A former eighteenth-round draft choice, he was 24 years old and pitching in the Arizona Fall League in 2011 when a coach circulated a thick packet of detailed statistics. McHugh found his name near the top of the list for rpm on his curveball.
"'It was right up there with (Justin) Verlander and Kerhaw and Felix (Hernandez), some of these guys with really good curveballs,' McHugh says. 'To see myself in that echelon with any one thing that I did, it gave me confidence. It gave me at least some kind of reference to say, 'I'm not just some other Double-A guy somewhere. There's something that I do exceptionally well, and I want to try to capitalize on it.'
"The next year, McHugh was in the majors. He bounced from the Mets to the Rockies, and while his statistics were bad, the fast-spinning curveball still made him a prospect. The Astros signed him off waivers, and in 2015 he went 19-7 to help them reach the playoffs.
"The Mets lost McHugh, but they held on to Seth Lugo, a thirty-fourth-round draft pick with a curve he had first honed, as a boy, with the tennis-ball-can drill. Lugo's first minor league manager, Frank Fultz, took one look at the pitch and told him it would someday lift him to the majors. Five years later, with injuries ravaging the Mets' rotation, Lugo earned a promotion and sparkled down the stretch. His curveball had the best spin rate in the league.
"That  August 30, in the sixth inning of a win over Miami, Lugo let loose a curve at 3,498 rpm, the highest recorded in the first two years of Statcast. Lugo was ahead in the count to Xavier Scruggs, 1-2, and wanted the pitch below the zone. Scruggs, who swung over the ball as it plunged hard and late, knew right away he had seen something extraordinary.
"'Guys will swing and miss all the time, but you know when it's a different swing and miss,' Scruggs says. 'That ball didn't go anywhere near where I thought it was going.'"

K will go down as one of the greatest books ever on baseball because of the unique way it looks at pitching, and is filled with the knowledge of the greats of the game.

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