Does anyone know a good book about pitching? I took two swings at it recently and whiffed badly both times. I would still like to find a good analysis on the subject, but I'd rather not strike out in the process.
Admittedly, when I started reading Boomer Wells' autobiography Perfect I'm Not, I didn't expect to learn anything about pitching. I expected it to be what it is -- a goofy book about baseball hi-jinx. How easy it is to intimidate opposing Little League batters when all your fans down the sidelines are Hells Angels. The sordid nighttime exploits of young men stranded in western Canada playing for the Blue Jay's farm in Medicine Hat. The disgusting living conditions that come with playing winter ball in Venezuela.
But then Wells snuck up on me. He gets to the part of the story where he's made the Bigs with the Blue Jays and he has a realization. With Dave Stieb, Mike Flanagan and Jimmy Key around, he might learn something:
We talked about pitch selection, and strategy, but more often than not, those guys gave me free psychology lessons. ...With a combined 749 years in the bigs, Stieb and Flanagan knew from good and bad experience how most sluggers, and pull hitters, and contact guys, and free swingers ticked.... These guys could hack into a batter's head at any time, pull out that guy's probable plan of attack, and then make adjustments on the mound to ultimately confuse, frustrate and kill that guy's threat.(pp.110-111)
Wells worked through a couple at-bat examples on that theme and I found myself thinking this book could get interesting. Show me how that process played out against Cecil Fielder in the context of the 1996 playoffs and we'll have something. No luck. The rest of the book becomes a succession of "I was smoking, here's my line, we won, I partied" or "I sucked, here's my line, we got creamed, I got a cortisone shot."
In the end, Wells doesn't seem to think games are won my strategy. They are won by attitude. He ends the book with this:
Want to come in fourth place? Build yourself a team by the numbers. Want a ring? Build yourself a team of hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-fighting (and possibly hard-living) monsters. ... Gather enough of these anti-social mutants in your clubhouse, and I promise you'll be playing ball in October. (p.407)
He then lists his "Got-Balls-Star" team. Who's on it? Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr, Dave Winfield, Andy Pettite, etc.; Lords knows you wouldn't pick those guys by the numbers. Ugh.
But this nonsense gave me an appetite to think more about pitching. So the next book I grabbed was Roger Kahn's The Head Game: Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound. It promised to be exactly what I wanted. In the intro, Kahn talks with 50s Dodger pitcher Clem Labine who asks him if, after 40 years, he gets bored watching baseball:
Not at all. I study the pitcher. What's he going to throw? I study the hitter. What pitch is he looking for? I make myself become the pitcher and the hitter. Clem, they're playing chess at ninety miles an hour and that's not boring at all.(p.xix)
Kahn doesn't deliver chess at 90 mph. What follows are biographical sketches of great pitchers, from Candy Cummings through Young and Mathewson then Spahn and Koufax to contemporaries like Sutter and Glavine. Occasionally, there is a piece of pitching strategy thrown in, like this:
If he had not seen a batter before, the veteran Spahn read important signs. "A man who drops the front shoulder when he cocks the bat is a high-ball hitter. If he drops the back one, he's a low ball hitter. After he takes one swing you know whether he has quick wrists. All this is important, but pretty elementary.(p.177)
There are maybe four passages with that much insight in the whole of the book, plus brief treatments of the grips of basic pitches. It turns out there is more anatomy of the pitching duel in Baseball For Brain Surgeons. When you get out-analyzed by Tim McCarver, brother, that's sad. But there is one moment of prophecy. The last sketch is about coaching, featuring Leo Mazzone:
"You know," he said, "if you write that I know everything about pitching, you can make the two of us look foolish."
"Because," this unassuming scholar said, "when Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz graduate, I may get stupid very, very fast."(p.301)
Paging Daniel Cabrera.
Once I settled into this as a book of avuncular tales of the good old days, I did enjoy it for that. As a book entitled "Portraits of the Great Pitchers" it would succeed. Masquerading as The Head Game it's a rip-off.
Wanted: a real analysis about pitching.