K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
By Tyler Kepner
Vintage Books Trade Paperback, 336 pages; $15.00; available Tuesday, March 3
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 caught up with Tyler recently, and here is some of our conversation:
Jason Schott: What's been the reaction to the book from when it came out in hardcover. From what I've seen, it's been very well received.
Tyler Kepner: That's been really rewarding. I really wanted people to appreciate pitching the way I do. My goal for the book was really the same as when I was coaching little league, you know, for my son, and I wanted people to come away from the experience loving baseball a little bit more and having fun with it, and I think that's what happened. People told me they really enjoyed the way it was written, and they really learned a little more. If you learn about baseball, that means you're curious about it and wanting to get even more out of it, so that's what's been great to see, that people really relate to it the way I hoped.
JS: One of the reviews said that you could pull out a ball while reading K, and learn all the grips of these pitches.
TK: I wish we could have sold the book with a ball because I wrote it with a ball always handy. Most of the time when I was doing interviews, I often have a baseball that I can either show the person I'm interviewing and have him show me his grips or his release or if I was on the phone, I'd be listening to the guy and have the ball in my hand, trying to do what he did and just sort of understand the way he made that ball spin and everything. That was funny because that's exactly what it was like.
JS: How much do you think Max Scherzer, who has racked up plenty of Cy Young awards and other accolades in his career, sealed his legacy by leading the Nationals to a World Championship last season?
TK: Throughout the decade, we kind of thought (Clayton) Kershaw was the pitcher of the decade, and I almost think that Scherzer kind of caught him at the very end. Kershaw's still great, they both have three Cy Youngs, now Max has a ring, it's really splitting hairs, I guess, but to me he's still the best in the game. You could say (Jacob) deGrom because he's won the last two Cy Youngs, or you could say Gerrit Cole or (Justin) Verlander, they have good arguments. Scherzer missed a few starts last year, but still to me, he's got the nastiest stuff, he's already reached Hall of Fame status, to me, and he's just a bulldog. It would have been great to see him work longer in his starts in the World Series, but I mean, he got the win in Game 1, kept them in it in Game 7 coming off of that just crazy injury that kept him out of Game 5, kept us from a Cole-Scherzer matchup, but there were still some pretty good matchups in that series. We got Cole and Scherzer in Game 1, so it would have been a rematch. It was an interesting World Series for sure, and I think Scherzer is on his way to Cooperstown.
JS: Just how good is Gerrit Cole and is he the final piece for the Yankees?
TK: He very well could be. It's worrisome for them I'm sure to see all these injuries in spring training. To see (Luis) Severino, (James) Paxton and (Giancarlo) Stanton and (Aaron) Judge, it's almost like, and I'm not down with them (in Tampa) but it must be a sense of, oh my gosh, it's happening again. It was really, really hard what they did last year, winning a hundred games and withstand all those injuries and get so many contributions from so many unheralded guys. I don't know if you can do that every year. If they're healthy, it would seem he could put them over the top, but as we've seen many times, anything can happen in October. As I go around these camps, there's a lot of teams with reasons to be optimistic.
JS: One pitcher the Yankees could sign is Collin McHugh, who came up through the Mets system and has spent most of his career in Houston, and is featured in K.
TK: I would take a chance on him, I don't see why not. He couldn't hold up in the rotation last year, but if he's okay physically, I think he'd be worth a look.
JS: Do you think the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, which involved their hitters, has overshadowed the amazing performance of their pitchers the past few seasons?
TK: I think one of the things we do miss in all the vitriol about the Astros is all the legitimately good things about them and the ways they pushed the industry forward toward a really smarter and more precise way to do things with data and video - there are a lot of good applications for that. Certainly, their pitching, I've written about their pitching coach, Brent Strom, and they had a tremendous rotation last year, and they've done a great job. A lot of people are writing off the Astros as synthetic champs, but they did a lot of things right in those years under Jeff Luhnow.
JS: It's basically, like, just because their hitters got caught doesn't mean that Justin Verlander can't win 20 games this year.
TK: Right, and they have (Zack) Greinke. I worry about them a little bit in terms of, just because they're older. They have a lot of innings on them, so if one of those guys takes a step back, and we have to see how (Lance) McCullers does after surgery, so I think they do have some pitching questions down there.
JS: What do you think of Zack Wheeler leaving the Mets for the Phillies, and their chances this season?
TK: Wheeler makes the Phillies better. They needed starters, and he's a good one. They had to overpay to get him, but other teams wanted him at that rate, including the White Sox, and that's what he was worth on the open market, so good for him in that case. It's a risky bet because he doesn't have a very ling track record, but I think he makes them better. The funny thing is, I look at the Phillies offseason, I like (new Manager Joe) Girardi, I like (Didi) Gregorius, I like Wheeler, but it still feels like they're a little short on the pitching side, you know, relying again on guys who... it feels like they're setting themselves up for a letdown. They're hoping that (Vince) Velasquez, (Nick) Pivetta, (Zach) Eflin will break out, and that Jake Arrieta will rediscover the pitcher he was in Chicago, so I don't know if this will work out for them. It's a real tough division, and it's a big question.
JS: Do you think the Mets rotation gives them an edge on the Phillies?
TK: I don't know that they're the surest of sure things either. I mean, deGrom is great, (Noah) Syndergaard can be great, but it's not like he puts it together on a regular basis, and (Marcus) Stroman and (Steven) Matz, (Rick) Porcello. I think they could have a great rotation - I'm more comfortable with the Mets' rotation than the Phillies - I don't think it's a slam dunk that the Mets are a whole heck of a lot better.
JS: You mention early on in the book how Steve Carlton was your favorite pitcher growing up. Tell me about what made "Lefty" so compelling.
TK: It just was that he was the best pitcher on my favorite team. I was seven years old and he was the Cy Young winner. It was his last Cy Young award, and it was real lucky timing for me that I started watching baseball when my favorite team had the best pitcher in the league who had the most strikeouts, and he was very appealing. He had a really cool delivery, he was tall and left-handed, and he never said anything, so there was a lot of mystery to him, and his pitches just were nasty. He'd throw these high fastballs and these sliders that just slashed across the zone, and he was larger than life. He was released when I was 11, so it wasn't like I got to see him very long, but that early memory really got me interested in pitching and was a big reason why I got hooked on baseball.
Somehow, it's not that he gets forgotten, but maybe because he doesn't talk much and maybe because he was just associated with the Phillies, who kind of get left out of history and stuff like that. Nolan Ryan you hear all about, and other guys who are more out in the public, broadcasting or sort of the four-pack of aces of later era of Johnson, Pedro, Maddux, Clemens, but Carlton was the last to throw 300 innings, the first to win four Cy Youngs, fourth all-time in strikeouts. He's one of the handful of best pitchers ever; I was just very lucky to catch his last few great years.
I don't want people to forget how great he was. Carlton was a very special pitcher, and I was happy to make him a big part of the book so people remember.
JS: The New York teams have new pitching coaches - Matt Blake of the Yankees and Jeremy Hefner of the Mets - who have new ideas on pitching, and both are quite younger than their predecessors. What do you think of what that says about the evolution of that role?
TK: I think they really want guys who are fluent in all of the modern, not just the metrics, but how to get pitchers better, and the feedback they can get instantly from data and video, and being able to explain it in a way that the players relate to. They're very young and they don't have much of a playing resume, but they're really, really smart, but they're invested in making all their pitchers better in all the advanced ways possible. That's what today's generation of pitchers really craves is finding ways to improve in ways they trust with sound data behind that.
JS: You covered Kobe Bryant's final game in 2016. How did you get that assignment?
TK: I was just lucky because I was out in L.A. for the start of the season. It was Vin Scully's last year, I just thought it would be a good way to start the season to write about the Dodgers, and they were playing Arizona and Greinke was coming back. Normally, our NBA writer would have been there, but that was the same night that the Warriors were going for the record number of wins, and so he had to make a choice whether to be up in Oakland to see the Dubs or to be in L.A. for Kobe's last game. He went up to Oakland, and since I was in L.A. anyway, that was the day after Opening Day, I think, they just asked me to cover it. I do 99 percent baseball, but I picked up an NFL playoff game a couple of years ago, I picked up that Kobe game, and I did the '04 Olympics, and that's pretty much it for the non-baseball stuff I've done. It was just a question of timing and being a teammate, and I'm really glad I did because it was a magical event. It was too late to write for deadline, so I just wrote for the web the next morning, so I could take my time writing the story. There were all the dramatic elements there, and all I had to do was not mess it up, just do right by all the cool elements that we were seeing
I went back and read the story after he died, I somehow managed to do the job despite that night even though I'm not a basketball guy. I was very lucky to see that; it's the only time I've ever been to Staples Center. I probably only saw Kobe play a couple of times when I worked in LA, that's about it, so I was really lucky to see that game.
We went to high school in the same area. My grandmother used to teach there, Lower Merion High School, many, many years ago, and he played at my old high school. He was my brother's year, so it was a local Philly connection, too, just so awful what happened.
You knew it was going to be something memorable, and it really lived up to it. It was kind of like (Derek) Jeter's last game in New York in a way, it was pretty comparable to that, although he did play in Boston after that, but his hit in his New York finale, the retirement of a legend who won five championships, it was pretty analogous to that, to have that kind of special, not necessarily a postseason feel, but just like a big event feel, even though it was for a team out of the playoffs.
When he died in an accident, just like Roy Halladay had died in an accident, I was even more grateful that I got to interview Halladay for the book the same year he died, and then I got to see Kobe's final game just four years before he died, so it was nice to be able to have a personal memory with two people who are gone way too soon.
JS: Lastly, one change in baseball is that all the uniforms now have the Nike swoosh on the front of them, including the Yankees. Will we ever get used to that?
TK: That Yankees one is going to look weird, going to take a while to get used to, I don't think I'll ever like that. Some uniforms are not meant to be messed with. I just really hope they don't start putting advertisements on it because at least Nike is the manufacturer of the uniform, so you could argue that it's just the manufacturer's imprint. To put a completely unrelated Pepsi or GE, it would just look so tacky.