How to make baseball interesting

The Royals are on tonight, here’s what to look for…

Not long ago I wrote that due to the influence of analytics, baseball had become a lot more boring and an uncomfortable number of you agreed with me.

Yeah, baseball can be boring – but it doesn’t have to be. Unfortunately, making baseball interesting does require you to pay attention.

So just in case you get kidnapped and your abductors want to torture you by forcing you to watch a Red Sox-Yankees doubleheader (two teams known for playing the game at a glacial pace) here’s what you should pay attention to.

Do me a favor and hang with me and see if I can make this interesting. Let’s start with one of the most fundamental questions in baseball.

Can the pitcher throw his off-speed pitches for strikes?

Here’s the deal: hitters like to hit fastballs because they’re relatively straight and fastballs are the easiest pitch to throw for a strike for the same reason.

So this is what everyone on both teams wants to know: when the pitcher has to throw a strike – think 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and 3-2 counts…also known as fastball counts – can he throw that strike with something other than a fastball?

If the pitcher can’t control his off-speed pitches the hitter can look for a fastball in those counts and if he gets one he’s got a very good chance of hitting it hard.

Once in awhile I like to show off (OK, make that twice in a while) and I’ll turn to the person next to me and say this hitter is about to hit the crap out of the ball and when it happens the person next to me thinks I’m a wizard from the future and wants to know how the hell I knew that.

Easy.

I paid attention to the count and the pitcher’s inability to throw anything but a fastball for a strike. If you want to show off – and who doesn’t? – you can do the same thing.

Identifying the pitch

If you’re asking yourself how you know when the pitcher throws a fastball, let’s pretend I’m glad you asked.

Here’s what to look for:

Watch the ball arrive at the plate. Fastballs stay straight and the hitter stays balanced; off-speed pitches start to drop as they reach the catcher and the hitter often ends up lunging forward with weight shifted out on his front foot.

But I can make it way simpler than that.

Just look at the scoreboard. Somewhere in the stadium there will be a radar gun reading and anything around 90 miles an hour or above is probably a fastball. Sliders will be a slower, curves and changeups even slower than sliders.

What happens when a pitcher throws fastballs in fastball counts?

Now is as good a time as any to point out there are always exceptions to every situation in baseball and for the sake of your sanity and mine we’re going to ignore those exceptions for the time being.

Instead, let’s look at an average team and how the count makes them better or worse.

In 2019 the Oakland A’s ranked smack dab in the middle of the American League when it came to team batting average. Clearly, they need to cheat more often.

As a team the A’s hit .249, but when they put the ball in play in a 2-0 count they hit .358 and in a 2-1 count it was .386. Whenever an A’s batter was ahead in the count (more balls than strikes) and put the ball in play, they hit .290.

The A’s hit better when the count was in their favor and the reason is simple.

If the opposing pitcher couldn’t throw an off-speed pitch for a strike, the A’s batters could eliminate those pitches and look exclusively for a fastball. Hitters need to be quick on fastballs and wait on off-speed and the A’s batters could forget all the other stuff the pitcher might throw and concentrate on being quick.

And when a big league hitter gets the pitch he expects, look out. Pitchers have a term for this and it’s “chuck and duck.”

This is what the Houston Astros were doing by cheating; because they were getting told when an off-speed pitch was coming they could set the timing of their swings to the pitch about to be delivered.

Knowing what pitch was about to be delivered allowed them to hit like they were in fastball counts all the time.

Why hitters can look bad

Okey-dokey…time to talk about one of those exceptions.

Let’s say there are runners on second and third, first base is open, the count is 2-0 and the pitcher can’t hit the broad side of a barn with his slider. In this situation the hitter might look for a fastball and try to hit it into the parking lot.

But if the pitcher – or maybe a smart catcher behind the plate – decides to throw a slider anyway because walking this hitter with first base open is a better option than giving him a fastball in a fastball count, the hitter can look like a dumbass when he waves at a slider with a swing timed to a fastball.

Fans in the stands might wonder how the heck a hitter could take a hack at a pitch that bounced a foot in front of home plate, but it’s because the hitter gambled that he was getting a fastball and lost that bet.

It actually might have been a pretty smart bet; it just didn’t pay off.

What happens when the pitcher is ahead in the count?

When a pitcher is ahead in the count (more strikes than balls) he can throw any pitch he likes and try to hit a corner because he doesn’t have to throw a strike.

Having to react to every pitch and velocity the pitcher might throw complicates a hitter’s job.

This is why the A’s team batting average dropped to .137 in 0-2 counts and .167 in 1-2 counts. When the opposing pitcher was ahead in the count the A’s hit .203 because they couldn’t eliminate pitches; they had to cover whatever piece of junk the pitcher threw at them, whether it was traveling 95 mph or 75 mph and hitting both ain’t easy.

Class dismissed

On more than one occasion I’ve had someone tell me they’d really like to watch a baseball game with me and hear me explain what was happening on the field.

Generally speaking, by the second or third inning I could tell the same person was wishing I would shut the hell up.

Dayton Moore, GM of the Kansas City Royals, once said lots of people think they love baseball until they have to play it every day. The same goes for fans; lots of people think they love baseball until you start explaining it in detail and then find out they don’t love it that much.

They just wanted to wear the cap, have a couple beers and boo the umpire; is that too much to ask? And if a fan wants to enjoy the game on that level (as Jerry Seinfeld would say) there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I was lucky because I found all this stuff fascinating and that’s a great advantage when you’re covering the sport.

Once I started hanging around big league ballplayers and coaches I wanted to know everything they knew and for the most part, they appreciated my interest. Ask a big league ballplayer about the details of his craft and most big league ballplayers like to talk about it. They want the rest of us to understand why they do what they do.

Big league manager Leo Durocher once said the following:

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.”

If the TV listings are right, the Royals are on tonight so check it out. If you already knew all this stuff, good for you; clearly you’ve been paying attention. If you didn’t know this stuff, now you know what to pay attention to.

And if that doesn’t help, you can always have a beer and boo the umpire.