Thursday, April 4, 2019

Part 1: Talking Pitching With Tyler Kepner Of The NY Times, Author Of "K"

Photo by Jason Schott.

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 (Doubleday; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.95).

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.

I talked with Tyler recently about his new book and his thoughts on the game of baseball. Here is the first part of our conversation:

Jason Schott: How did you come up with the concept of your book?

Tyler Kepner: I've always loved pitching and I've always been interested by the fact that the pitcher is the decider and all those factors that go into why you decide to throw a pitch, and then beyond that, like, where did you get it? Everybody has to learn these pitches from somewhere, and just love the idea of something that could bring in the element of players passing things down to each other because that gets you the history of it, and something that will take you all the way to the present day.

It was awesome because baseball history is just short enough to where it's manageable, digestible, and I could go back, go to the origins of these because the pitches are really like the DNA of the game to me. They're what make up every ballgame that we see, but they're not part of any stat line, it doesn't show you how this pitcher did what he did, so I wanted to get into that and the story behind it.
It's funny, in my writing, I sometimes find myself writing a lot more about pitchers than hitters. I almost have to stop myself and count sometimes, especially on those weekend columns, like, oh wait, I've written on pitchers eight of the last ten weeks, I've got to mix it up here a little bit.
I don't want to ignore the hitters, but I've always just been more of a pitching guy. I pitched through high school, was nowhere close to a prospect, but it did intrigue me. I love the position. I think it's the most interesting position in sports. You could say quarterback is based on a choice of which play to execute, but just for the pitcher, it's so singular to him and the catcher deciding what way to attack the guy at the plate.
It's the ultimate one-on-one aspect within a team game that I love. It's kind of contradictory, but that's what baseball comes down to  - a series of a couple of hundred one-one confrontations each pitch throughout the course of a game, and then the team aspect comes into play, but in that moment, when it's just the pitcher out on the mound trying to decide which pitch to throw and why, that's really as deep into the game as you can get I think.

JS: Do you think the evolution of pitching, where you can connect a Sandy Koufax to a Clayton Kershaw, while also seeing how pitches evolve, shows that the league should not put in rules to prevent things like the shift, that the players will determine when that's run its course?

TK: Exactly, the game always, always adjusts and counteradjusts, it goes back and forth. There are probably things that won't come back, right, like the stat lines that you'll see from Cy Young or even like Steve Carlton, 300 innings, I don't think we'll see again. The game adjusts and it always adjusts to something interesting and organic. I don't like the idea of sort of manipulating the rules to try to generate these changes which the players always figure out on their own.
These guys are such good athletes and they've played so much baseball that they're so intuitive about what they need to do to win, that they'll figure it out. I've done this long enough, and I'm 44, but I still feel like I've done it long enough to see some of these changes. I remember when the Cardinals were dominating, or not so much dominating, but just getting there year after year under (pitching coach) Dave Duncan, sinkers, putting the ball on the ground.
Now, nobody wants to throw sinkers anymore, it's all about high fastballs and, once hitters learn how to adjust to the fastball up and the curveball down, then something else will come around. It's a great spy-vs-spy kind of game that just you wouldn't want to try to legislate away - just enjoy the way these guys are figuring it out as they go.

JS: What pitcher impressed you most in researching this book, in terms of their knowledge, performance, and the ability to adapt through their careers?

TK: So many of them, really, but Mike Mussina is the first one that comes to mind when you ask that question. I got to cover the last seven years of his career as the Yankees beat writer (for the New York Times) from '02 to '09, and he retired in '08 with that 20-win season, and he taught me more about pitching than any pitcher I  ever have been around. He just has a great way of explaining it and he has so many weapons to choose from. He spent his career being a creator out there and trying to have as many plans that he could execute as possible. If something didn't go right, what am I going to do, what do I have to go to?
That's why a knuckleballer is so interesting because, generally, they just have the knuckleball and, if that pitch is not working, it's going to be a really tough day for them. Mussina was sort of like, he understood that pitching, a season of 33, 35 starts is like a bell curve where you've got five where you feel you could do anything you want and those are easy days, and five where you've got absolutely nothing, and then 23 in the middle where you've just got to figure it out somehow - figure out which of your pitches are working, which ones are not working, and which to put on the shelf.
He has a way of explaining that because he has some level of command, or at least curiosity, about pretty much every pitch. He even broke out a knuckleball a couple times to try to throw off Wade Boggs, who he'd seen a million times. I love that creative aspect of a pitcher and if you have the hand for it and the mind for it, it's just such a laboratory out there where you can try different things and see what works.

JS: What do you see as the future of the knuckleball? There is only one guy that throws it that comes to my mind, Steven Wright of the Red Sox, and who knows what his future will be as he serves an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs?

TK: I hear you on that, he is the only one right now, and we've never really been, as far as I could find in my research, I couldn't really find a time when we had no knuckleballers at all. There's always kind of been someone to keep it from going extinct, and so because of that, I would tend to trust history that, you know, the pitch will re-emerge because it always is out there as a last pitch effort. It's always out there as an opportunity for someone who has nowhere else to go, so I think it always will be a lifeline that these guys can latch onto rather than just call it quits - not everybody.
It's such an enticing career to be a major league player, and I just feel like enough people will, having nothing else to turn to, turn to the knuckleball, and just barely enough will be able to master it to keep going. You can be a really useful pitcher for a team if you can do that because you're not as susceptible to injury, you can really help, even in a worst-case scenario, eat up innings and help the rest of the team.
It takes a big support staff, you know, a patient manager, a pitching coach who almost surely didn't throw it himself but will try to understand, and a catcher who's willing to roll with it and figure out a way to handle it. I just think that because the big-league life is so desirable and because anybody can try it, I think it will always persist, or it will never be totally extinct, even if Steven Wright never comes back. I think in a couple of years, someone will emerge from somewhere, because that's how these knuckleballers are, right. They're former position players or they're guys who are just kicking around with not much of a hope, and they just figure it out and throw it, like, just grab onto the wings 
of a butterfly and just go with it. I think it'll never be prominent, but it'll always be around.

JS: Tim Wakefield is the epitome of what a knuckleballer could be, as he pitched for the Red Sox for years and, even though he gave up the home run to Aaron Boone to lose the 2003 American League Championship Series, he ate up innings in their 19-8 loss in Game 3 of their 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, helping them come back to win it. I remember a piece you wrote about Josh Bard, who is now the Yankees bench coach, having a very hard time trying to catch Wakefield, and it prompted them to bring Doug Mirabelli back.

TK: That was crazy, I remember I was there at Fenway Park that day (the Red Sox were playing the Yankees on May 1, 2006), and they made a whole big production of trading Bard to San Diego and flying Mirabelli across the country and the police escort to the ballpark and sort of killing time, without any rain delay, to try to push the start time back a few minutes so Mirabelli could get into uniform in the back of a police cruiser. I think he left his cup in the back of the cop car, or something.
It was interesting to hear Josh Bard saying, it was the only thing ever, that the more he tried, the worst he got. The more he wanted to master it, you know, it was just counterproductive. It just really eats up these catchers both physically and mentally, the ball's just bouncing all over the place and then, even if they catch it, it's coming in slower. If there's a guy on base, how are you going to throw him out?
John Flaherty had a chance to maybe catch on as Wakefield's catcher there in spring training in '06, and he just chose to retire. He's like, 'I can't, you know, my heart's not in this, I don't know if I'm going to be able to master it, and even if I do, can I really picture myself at Yankee Stadium trying to catch this crazy pitch for a living? It's just not worth it.' It can drive a good man to retirement.

JS: You work other voices into K, such as David Ross, who caught for 15 years and retired after winning the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs, who analyzed the pitches he saw throughout his career. How valuable is a catcher like him, or a Tim McCarver, who caught one of your favorites, Steve Carlton in Philadelphia, and Bob Gibson in St. Louis ?

TK: So much that has to go right for a pitcher is his relationship with their catcher and what he needs from him. Andy Pettitte would like the catcher to pretty much tell him what to throw, and he trusted him, just used that tunnel vision that way, whereas someone like a Mussina much more wanted to be in control of every decision. Roger Clemens came to see it as a real partnership between the pitcher and the catcher, like 'we're in this together and I'll listen to you and you listen to me, and we'll make our plan.'
Everybody needs something different from their catcher, yeah, you could definitely write a whole book on just catchers. Some of them were pretty helpful, just really smart guys back there. I talked to A.J. Ellis for a while, took him to lunch one day and just talked to him about facing these guys as a hitter and trying to catch them, and trying to bring out their best and what goes on. He's a real smart guy too, you've got to have a brain back there behind the plate, as well as the physical skills. Funny that those guys don't get paid as much because they've got the hardest job, probably them and the pitchers, maybe more so because they play just about every day.

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